The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 2: Photographic Abstraction

This is a multi-part blog post; read Part 1 here.

Though we usually associate abstraction with the medium of painting, Aaron Siskind’s photograph Chicago 30 is decidedly abstract.

siskind_rothko_side by side

(left) Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 in x 7 1/2 in, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004 (2) Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Acrylic on paper mounted on hardboard, 23 13/16 x 18 11/16 in. Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985 © 2005 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Can a photograph be painterly? If it fools the eye enough, can it have the same visual appeal of a painting? Of course there are key differences between the mediums of painting and photography, but for centuries the aim of painting was to trick the viewer; to create something so real and present that the viewer forgot that it was simply paint on canvas. The advent of photography and the emergence of modernism and then abstract expressionism helped shift the art world away from exact reproduction of the physical world. Compared with Mark Rothko’s untitled 1968 abstract expressionist painting (above right), the flourish of black in Siskind’s work appears almost like a brush stroke while Rothko’s appears devoid of the artist’s hand.

siskind_Mexican 32

Aaron Siskind, Mexican 32, 1982. Gelatin silver print, 20 in x 16 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Marie M. Martin, 2005

Siskind’s Mexican 32 is also an abstract work, but it contains a hint of context. The identifiable shadow creates a sense of space in the work; the fraying fabric provides texture, as well as a three dimensionality and depth to the photograph (although this depth is lessened by the stark black background).

Siskind explored abstraction through his camera. These works are an important contribution to the abstract expressionist movement, in which Siskind was socially and professionally involved, but these works are also an intimate window into how Aaron Siskind understood and viewed the world around him.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

Romance in the Rothko Room

Catherine and Brian engagement 2_Photo Mark Armstrong

Brian popped the question to Catherine in the Phillips’s Rothko Room…and she said “Yes!”

Congratulations to Brian and Catherine, who got engaged in the Phillips’s Rothko Room earlier this month! We asked the couple to share their story and why the Rothko Room holds special meaning for them:

“When I started thinking about proposing to Catherine, I knew that I wanted to incorporate art into the proposal. Catherine moved to DC to study art history and to have the opportunity to intern in the district’s numerous art collections and museums. While in graduate school and while we were dating, one of these internships was with The Phillips Collection. During this time, it became apparent how much the collection meant to her, specifically the Rothko Room. She had prints of the four pieces that hang in the Rothko Room on the walls of her apartment and, as a result, they were witness to a large portion of our relationship. With this in mind, I thought it would be special to share our big moment in front of the real paintings, in a collection that she loves.

The passion that Catherine puts into her everyday life is one of the many things that first attracted me to her. One of her avenues to express this passion is through her love for and pursuit of art history. With this in mind, the Rothko Room at the Phillips seemed like the perfect place to solidify the passion in our relationship and begin our life together.” —Brian Rasmussen

Catherine and Brian engagement 3_Photo Mark Armstrong

Brian invited family to celebrate the new engagement

“I was completely shocked when I walked into the Rothko Room and saw Brian standing in the corner. This room has always been my favorite spot in DC and I can’t think of a more perfect place to share such a special moment. After a lot of tears and pictures, the surprises continued down in the café where our families and friends from out of town were waiting with champagne and donuts (my favorite!). Brian truly planned the perfect proposal and I can’t wait to visit the Rothko Room for the years to come with my soon to be husband!” —Catherine West

Do you have a Phillips love story? Send it to us at

Catherine and Brian engagement 1_Photo Mark Armstrong

Congratulations to these lovebirds!

ArtGrams: The Rothko Room

Welcome to the first of our newest monthly blog series, ArtGrams, where we feature our favorite Instagrammed pictures taken around or inspired by the museum. We love seeing you create your own works of art using unique perspectives, strategic crops, and the funkiest filters.

Each month, we’ll feature a different theme based on trends we’ve seen in visitor photos; first up, The Rothko Room. The room’s bold colors and shapes have inspired these great shots. Be sure to hashtag your images with #PhillipsCollection or tag your location for a chance to be featured.

Rothko Room_1_allwegrow

Via Instagrammer @allwegrow: “We spent our 3 year anniversary visiting the Rothko Room”

Rothko Room_2_jamellita

via Instagrammer @jamellita: “American Living: ‘Luna and me in Rothko’s room'”

Rothko Room_3_mrscis

Via Instagrammer @mrscis: “Admiring the beauties of the centuries”

Rothko Room_4_pennykim

Via Instagrammer @pennykim

Rothko Room_5_pootie_ting

Via Instagrammer @pootie_ting: “Feeling Red. Rothko Red.”