The [Fine] Art of Fugue

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Nicolas de Staël, Fugue, c.1951 and 1952. Oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 1/2 in. (80.645 x 100.33 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 1952.

Since beginning my internship at the Phillips in May, one of the works in the collection that has made a big impression on me is Nicolas de Staël’s Fugue (along with his other eight pieces in the permanent collection). The cool colors and vibrant texture attracted me when I walked by and I instantly recognized something different about this piece. There is a simultaneity, yet complex unity to this painting.

While I am by no stretch of the imagination a music buff, I do appreciate classical music. When I researched de Staël’s Fugue, I found out that Duncan Phillips described de Staël’s work as having the “structure of rhythmical repetitions with underlying counter rhythms” present in a musical composition.

After looking into what a fugue was, I discovered that Johann Sebastian Bach is known for his compositions of masterful Baroque fugues and cannons. According to Oxford Music Online, the term fugue means, “flight” or “escape.” In music the word denotes a composition in which three or more voices (very rarely two) enter imitatively one after the other, each “giving chase” to the preceding voice.

In the same way that Bach’s Fugues produce simultaneous resounds, de Staël’s Fugue echoes the same sentiment, in this case with a brushstroke instantly mimicking its preceding mark. Even the musical animations for Bach’s Fugues visually resemble the composition of de Staël’s Fugue in the way that the different colored blocks are layered, aligning with the fugue pattern of Bach’s work.

Looking at de Staël’s piece, we see that he uses more than three colors (gold in the first layer, blue green in another, along with accents of black, white, and gray) in his Fugue, which correspond to the minimum of three voices in Bach’s works. These color palettes within the painting are structured into a flow of blocks which seem to imitate each other, similar to Bach’s melodic lines.

In view of Duncan Phillips classifying de Staël as a “poet-painter and a protégé of Braque,” the current location of his nine pieces conveys Phillips’s careful consideration of the conversation between neighboring works and how they interact with one another as they are perfectly situated just outside the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life 1928-1945 exhibition.

Are there any interesting relationships you’ve noticed in the Phillips’s galleries that make you want to investigate?

 

Carson Shelton, K12 Education 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” »

The Artist Sees Differently: Roberto Alcaraz

Roberto Alcaraz, Museum Assistant and Sunday Concerts Assistant

Roberto Alcaraz on a break with his guitar. Photo: Joshua Navarro

How did you learn about the Phillips?

A cousin of mine, who was living here at the time, first mentioned it to me soon after my arrival in D.C. However, it did not take long for me to realize its importance in the cultural life of the city.

Do you feel you are inspired by the Phillips art?

Yes. There is a wealth of great works that are really inspiring. Any collection that includes works by van Gogh, Klee, Morandi, Rothko, plus all the major impressionists, is bound to have works worth looking up to.

What do you listen to when you work on your photography?

Curiously, having a music background, I prefer not listening to music when I am in a darkroom doing prints. I try to focus on my task in hand with no distractions, if possible. Continue reading “The Artist Sees Differently: Roberto Alcaraz” »