Raise Yourself into Space

Installation view of El Lissitzky Futurist Portfolios exhibition, 2006-07, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Some of you may remember the El Lissitzky exhibition we had at the Phillips in 2006-07, featuring two of the artist’s striking 1923 futurist print portfolios, Proun and Victory over the Sun. On that occasion, artist Hideyo Okamura presented the prints in a dynamic installation inspired by Lissitzky’s art and the three-dimensional abstract rooms he created in the 1920s. In the accordion-like space of number 6 from the Proun portfolio, Lissitzky provides a glimpse of the first Proun Room he had created for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1923. Here Lissitzky’s bold compositions meld seamlessly with painted designs and reliefs on the walls to create a continuous sensation of movement.

In their current presentation at the Phillips, these two Kestner Society portfolios from the collection of Fenner Milton are making another appearance. Seen this time without the intervention of a contemporary artist, the lithographs animate an L-shaped gallery, inviting the viewer to move in, through, and around their orbiting planar forms. For Lissitzky, the role of the spectator was key to activating his work. “While we turn,” he once said, “we raise ourselves into space.”

Lissitzky’s synthesis of painting and architecture into fluid, three-dimensional immersive environments was incredibly radical for the time. It is interesting to contemplate the legacy of his invention and its contemporary reverberations in the creation of artist rooms today.

Elsa Smithgall, Curator

Current installation of El Lissitzky's futurist print portfolios. Photo: Kate Boone

Current installation of El Lissitzky’s futurist print portfolios. Photo: Kate Boone

Photo: Joshua Navarro

Photo: Joshua Navarro

Photo: Kate Boone

Follow the Crosshatch

Images of works by William Harper and Jasper Johns

Palms and crosshatching, found in William Harper’s necklace at left, are common themes in Jasper Johns’s work. (left) Nine Tantric Amulets for Jasper Johns by William Harper. Photo: Amy Wike (top right) Jasper Johns, Fragment of a Letter, 2010. Two Intaglios, 44 7/8 x 30 1/2 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. Courtesy ULAE © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (bottom right) Jasper Johns, Usuyuki, 1981. Silkscreen, 29 x 46 3/4 in. Jasper Johns and Simca Print Artists, Inc. John and Maxine Belger Foundation

On a recent trip to the Renwick Gallery, I stumbled upon a piece from its permanent collection titled Nine Tantric Amulets for Jasper Johns by William Harper. The gallery presented no further explanation for the work, and I found myself wondering what the connection to Jasper Johns was for Harper.

The hand, a clear tantric reference, could also be a reference to Johns’s repeated use of palms in his prints. According to the Renwick’s website, the crosshatch pattern at the center of the necklace is a direct reference to Johns. Examples of his affinity for the pattern can be seen in Usuyuki, The Dutch Wives, and the background of Savarin, among other works currently on view in the Phillips exhibition.

Installation shot of Jasper Johns's After Holbein, Holbein the Younger Nobleman Holding a Lemur

(Left) Installation view of Johns’s variations on After Holbein, (right) the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger on which Johns’s work at left is based.

Harper’s allusion to Jasper Johns perpetuates a common theme among artists of taking cues from art history, as Johns himself makes numerous art historical references in his work—take as one example his variations of After Holbein, based on a tracing of Portrait of a Young Nobleman Holding a Lemur by Hans Holbein the Younger. Generations of artists pay homage to those that came before them, and tracing these tributes makes for a fun, inter-museum scavenger hunt when visiting any city.

Amy Wike, Publicity and Marketing Coordinator