Spotlight: A Grave and Somber Eagle

Morris Graves, Eagle, c.1942. Gouache on paper, 21 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942.

Morris Graves, Eagle, c.1942. Gouache on paper, 21 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942.

As this week is the first of my internship at the Phillips, I felt that it would be in my best interest to familiarize myself with the galleries, the collection, and the many ways to come and go throughout the museum. While strolling through the museum, I quickly discovered how easy it is to become captivated by a particular work of art, artist, collection, or all of the above at once–there is something new and intriguing at every turn.

The museum goes one step further by offering brief discussions with gallery educators around a specific artist or artwork, encouraging visitors to discover a deeper, “behind-the-scenes” understanding of the objects on display. I stumbled upon one of these weekday noon Spotlight Talks led by Volunteer Coordinator Lisa Leinberger on the work of Morris Graves, an American expressionist painter whose work conveys nature from a different point of view. Leinberger explained that Graves intended to portray great emotion in his work, detailing nature’s struggles and triumphs through his manipulation of light and dark. Specifically, we looked at several of Graves’s paintings of birds, most of which appear to be sad or injured. In Eagle (c. 1942), a bird that holds much symbolism and majesty for Americans is painted dark and hunched over, hardly the national emblem we’ve grown to recognize. Graves’s paintings of birds might not be the happiest, but they certainly portray the artist’s understanding of these animals’ struggles, suggesting that he felt at one with nature as he created them.

Elizabeth Dowdle, Marketing Intern

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” »