(Left) Joyce Tsai, Photo: Joshua Navarro. (Right) László Moholy-Nagy, B-10 Space Modulator, 1942. Oil on incised and molded Plexiglas, mounted with chromium clamps on painted plywood, Plexiglas: 17 3/4 × 12 inches (45.1 × 30.5 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 47.1063 © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Joyce Tsai will be giving a talk, “Modulating Modernism“, tonight at 6:30 at our Center for the Study of Modern Art.
László Moholy-Nagy’s Space Modulators (a great example at the Guggenheim, right), executed late in his career, are beautiful, but slightly odd painting/sculpture hybrids made in clear plastic. I came across them while I was researching his oeuvre for my book, Painting after Photography, and was drawn to them because they look so radically different from the photography and rigorous, geometrical abstract painting he made at the Bauhaus. These late works on plastic are biomorphic, replete with undulating curves and are difficult to categorize for all sorts of reason. They’re materially fragile, prone to damage, and age unpredictably. The more I worked on these objects, the more I began to see how important they were to the artist, how much they sought to synthesize his life’s work.
Joyce Tsai, 2013-2014 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Modern Art and the George Washington University
(Left to right) Valerie Hellstein gives a tour ; Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948. Oil and enamel on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952; Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1955.
In Valerie Hellstein’s spotlight talk yesterday, about her installation of abstract expressionist works, she moved us past familiar thoughts about the actions of the artist (think Jackson Pollock dancing over his canvases) toward a focus on the actions of the viewer. Action painting requires action on the part of the viewer to really experience the work, she explained. We attend to the colors. We think about the depth of the paint and the forms on the canvas. Active looking is required to do more than just pass by the work with a glancing notice. And through our active looking, we become aware of our moment and our place in that moment, standing before the painting.
Valerie Hellstein in Gallery F. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender
One of the things that excited me about coming to the Phillips for the year was the opportunity to be in a museum setting again, to have art objects near by and all around. Knowing that my fellowship was a research and teaching opportunity, however, I did not expect to get first-hand experience working with the collection. I tentatively suggested the possibility of installing a few abstract expressionist works in a gallery, and the curators and staff were more than enthusiastic and supportive. Fortuitously, the small hang coincides with the newly opened exhibition Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet and shows how other artists in Pollock’s and Ossorio’s circle explored process and materiality as well as engaged themes of nature, landscape, and even spirituality.
What I found challenging and exciting about this small project is that many of the works I had hoped to choose were unavailable, but my disappointment was quickly mitigated by how well the group of paintings selected in the end works together. Seeing the affinities between Tomlin and Ippolito, Kline and Stamos, Siskind and de Kooning, is very exciting. Duncan Phillips felt that paintings could talk to each other and different pairings could teach us something new and unexpected. While it makes sense from a historical and social perspective to have these paintings in the same room, seeing the various combinations and affinities has made me look at the works in a new light. My scholarship tends toward intellectual and cultural history, and it is refreshing and important to be brought back to the physical works of art as I dive into writing my book manuscript.
Valerie Hellstein, Postdoctoral Fellow
Installation photos: Joshua Navarro