Controlled Chaos

An interview between Meg Clark, program coordinator at the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, and Klaus Ottmann, director of the Center and Phillips curator at large, on his installation in the Main Gallery of works from the permanent collection

Main gallery, detailed installation view. Photo: Kate Boone

Main gallery, detailed installation view. Photo: Kate Boone

Meg Clark: Was this your first time curating an entire gallery space from the permanent collection for the museum? What made you choose the Main Gallery?

Klaus Ottmann: An entire gallery space, yes. I think this is a kind of departure for the museum, in an effort to create more diversity and curatorial voices as far as permanent collection installations are concerned. The reason it is in the Main Gallery is because it was the first space available; it needed to be reinstalled after the Snapshot show, and I was asked to do it. I also think the Main Gallery is a beautiful space, because it really is a very traditional art gallery space. It has no windows, beautiful light, and is elevated to a certain extent–the viewpoint upon entering the gallery from the house is so interesting.

Some of the works here have elements of chaos, and collapse – which is something I think art is very much about.

MC: Tell us about your curatorial process, generally speaking and for this particular installation. Do you ever approach a project with a theme in mind, and, if so, what did you have in mind for this space?

KO: I have what you might call a non-traditional curatorial practice. It is less art historical and more influenced or informed by my philosophical background. I consider my practice to be one of structuralism, which is a form of formalism–one that considers form as content. I tend to have an a-historical approach, something that is very suitable to this museum since we do not have separate departments for different time periods, different media, etc. Years ago in other museums it was almost impossible to mix things between media and between different periods in the way it is done here. More and more museums are doing that now, but the Phillips was doing this from the very beginning, never having restrictions. There is a great freedom in that.

I never come to an installation or an exhibition with a preconceived idea or theme. I let it evolve from the works themselves. I look at a number of works and see what appeals to me. I do know that for this space I wanted to have a mixture of painting, sculpture, and photography. I especially wanted to show works we have rarely exhibited. As I was browsing through our databases and seeing what we have, certain things came to mind. For instance I like the idea of chaos and works that evoke a sense of uncontrollable circumstances or feeling. Some of the works here have elements of chaos and collapse, which is something I think art is very much about. Continue reading “Controlled Chaos” »

Rothko Packed Them to the Rafters!

Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Last night, Klaus Ottmann, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art and curator at large, gave his talk Rothko and Color: A Two-Part Meditation to a packed house of 275 attendees. The auditorium was filled to capacity, standing room filled. Even our overflow seating outside of the auditorium was brimming, with people sitting on the floor and lining the walls. With our permanently installed Rothko Room, the special hanging at the National Gallery of Art, and the impending opening of John Logan’s play Red at Arena Stage, D.C. is fully embracing Mark Rothko’s exploration of the experience of color.

In the Rothko Room, You Might Burst Into Tears

Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann is author of  The Essential Mark Rothko. He’ll share his insights on the artist in a lecture tomorrow evening. Rothko is getting the spotlight in D.C. this season with John Logan’s Tony® Award winning play Red at Arena Stage. In anticipation, Klaus recently sat down with Phillips Communications Director Ann Greer to talk all things Rothko. The interview will be published in Arena Stage’s program book. Read a preview here.

Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo (c) Robert Lautman

Ann:  Why do you think Mark Rothko looms so large in the ranks of 20th century artists?

Klaus:  He was a unique artist in the way he dealt with color. He was very deeply involved in philosophy, religion, and he had an unusual ability to make his paintings communicate with the public. It was a well-known fact that people used to burst out in tears in front of his paintings, many times. I think he had a very emotional and very deep effect on the viewer – one very few artists have been able to have.

Ann:  How do you think that sort of “alchemy”–if I can use that word–how does that happen?

Klaus:  Well, of course, it didn’t happen overnight, he developed slowly into it. But, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was deeply religious, he was very philosophical. It had to do with the fact that he very strongly believed that his paintings should communicate–that there was a dialogue going on. It has also to do with his background in theater, he always wanted to become an actor, and he believed his works to be plays, he believed his works were created to be emotional conversations with the viewer–similar to what a play can do . . .

. . . he kept thinking about the three dimensional space. That’s something I think is very important. It’s very clear to me when I sit in the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection.

Ann:  Of course, Klaus is talking about the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, which was actually the first public space devoted exclusively to work by Rothko. Rothko was very involved with Duncan Phillips in planning the dimensions, the light levels, the bench.

Klaus:  There you are very close to the paintings, there are four paintings, one on each wall of the room, you are surrounded by them. You sit on the bench that Rothko put in the room, and you can feel the presence of the paintings. It’s not just an optical, visual presence, but an emotional presence. This is what he always wanted. He wanted the paint to come out and almost hover in the space in front of you and to touch you. So, he was always thinking of this three dimensional space like a stage. In a way, the Rothko Room is almost like a stage with four sides–you are in it and a part of it, and you are interacting with the other actors; you become part of that emotional play that he created. So, he never gave up that idea; the theater was always there, and it was always the framework that he used to conceptualize and make his art. To me, that’s very, very important.