Congenial Spirits: Katz, Diebenkorn, Renoir


Installation view of Alex Katz’s Brisk Day, Richard Diebenkorn’s Standing Nude, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Judgment of Paris

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite pieces at the Phillips are always on the move? One of my favorite parts about interning here has been witnessing the movement of pieces in the permanent collection around the galleries. Founder Duncan Phillips once said in regards to his curating tactics, “I avoid the usual period rooms—the chronological sequence . . . My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy. I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time.” This intention has been maintained by the curators at the Phillips who are continually exchanging pieces on display with ones in storage, reminding regular visitors and staff members of the breadth that makes up this unique collection of modern and contemporary art.

Walking around the other day, I noticed that the central gallery on the second floor had been completely transformed overnight. Non-representational paintings by Sam Francis, Jake Berthot, and Loren MacIver had been replaced by portraits and figure drawings from an array of artists. I was immediately drawn to a wall of three large and vibrant prints by Alex Katz, a triptych entitled Brisk Day, to the right of which were two monochromatic figure studies, much smaller in scale. The closest was a Richard Diebenkorn charcoal drawing, Standing Nude, neighbored by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s chalk drawing, The Judgment of Paris. I thought immediately of Phillips’s notion of “congenial spirits” and wondered what type of analogy was made in juxtaposing these three very different works.

The Katz and the Diebenkorn were created almost 25 years apart, while the Renoir drawing precedes the Katz by almost a century. Both Diebenkorn and Renoir chose to focus on the entire human body, whereas Katz zoomed in on a portrait. The more contemporary of the artists chose flat applications of color, while the least contemporary rendered his subjects more realistically and monochromatically. All of these differences are what make for such an interesting arrangement. Seeing them together initiates a discussion of the figure as subject matter, a subject that can be rendered through all different types of mediums and styles. Spanning three different time periods, these works remind us that certain motifs, like the human body, are timeless. Yet the evolution of their representation is a cornerstone of the study of art history, something that can be visualized by doing exactly what Phillips had in mind: juxtaposing the unexpected.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Burchfield’s Close Encounters Painting


(Left) Charles Burchfield, December Moonrise, 1959. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 36 in. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2009. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (Right) Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1928

One of the hazards pleasures of being a gallery educator at the Phillips is that so many of our visitors are distinguished by their sophistication and knowledge of modern art. I can’t count the number of people who are familiar with the nuances of the relationships between Renoir’s friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party.  On one tour of the permanent collection, a gentleman from Argentina told me the precise name of the dance being performed in Manet’s Spanish Ballet. And during Angels, Demons, and Savages, it seemed everyone had either seen the Jackson Pollock biopic with Ed Harris or knew the footage of Jackson himself working in his studio on a canvas on the floor.

Made in the USA is particularly interesting for me because my academic work has been on modernism—European and American. The era between the turn of the 20th century up to World War II is rich in history, experimentation, rule-breaking, and epic attempts to change the world, and all those qualities show in the willful energy of so many of the works in the exhibition.

A standout for me is Charles Burchfield—I have long loved his quivering, ecstatic (and sometimes playful) depictions of nature’s immanence. December Moonrise is an almost over-the-top example of his passionate exaltation of nature as a place of spiritual transcendence. I always stop there on my tours of the exhibition to talk about it. Sometimes I call it the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” painting. People seem to like it. Thinking about the painting as a place—or a moment—existing in Burchfield’s imagination, I was taken aback when I was told by a tall young man from Canada that far from being an imaginary land/skyscape, the constellations in the sky (which are casting shadows from the moonlight) are true to nature. He pointed out Orion, on the right side, and Corona Borealis, on the left. Apparently these two constellations, visible in northern skies, are only seen together in the month of December. So in fact the painting is a very specific description of nature at a specific time of year.

I can safely say that facts about astronomy are not in my area of expertise, but learning about Burchfield’s respect for the actual sky and stars shining on that December night makes me love his painting even more.

Dena Crosson, Gallery Educator

Staff Show 2013: Lydia O’Connor

In this series, Young Artists Exhibitions Program Coordinator Emily Bray profiles participants in the 2013 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show. Join us tonight for a reception, 5 to 8 pm!

Lydia O’Connor holds a Master of Philosophy in Film Theory from Trinity College Dublin.  While she considers herself a great appreciator of art and the artistic process, this is her first foray into the creative side of the art world.

Lydia O'Connor Image

Lydia O’Connor, Transitory, 2013, Photograph

What do you do at The Phillips Collection?  Are there any unique/interesting parts about your job that most people might not know about?
Finance Assistant.   I get to enjoy a birds-eye view of the entire museum’s operations from conservation to curatorial to education to facilities and maintenance through the daily financial aspects that cross my desk.

Who is/are your favorite artist/artists in the collection?
The Phillips Collection enjoys a star-studded list of artists including Van Gogh, Degas, RenoirPicassoCezanneKlee, Rothko and so many more… . It’s quite difficult to choose a favorite when you’re in the presence of such awe-inspiring masterworks.  I absolutely adore Wassily Kandinsky.  The Phillips Collection has several Kandinsky paintings and I am always excited when these are on display.

What is your favorite gallery/space within The Phillips Collection?
The Music Room for me is a very special place.  While much of our gallery space is typical white walls, the original home carries a spirit I think is thrilling to the museum experience.  The Music Room has a drama and a life that’s unique.  I really feel like I am in the home of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips and the many beautiful concerts and events we hold here at the Phillips seem to reverberate from floor to ceiling.

What would you like people to know about your artwork on view in the 2013 Staff Show (and/or your work in general)?
I took this photo one morning in early April.  I noticed as I walked up Q street from the Dupont Circle metro that the wonderful lavender petals from our tulip magnolia tree were shedding creating a blanket of color beneath the red brick of the original house; the play of the light sprinkling shadows across the building in the morning sunshine.  It was a moment of Phillips magic. A few hours later when I left the office for lunch, the tree was bare and many of the petals that had carpeted the ground had blown away.  I knew then I had been witness to a special and fleeting moment in the life of this tree.

The 2013 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show will be on view September 23, 2013 through October 20, 2013. The show features artwork from Phillips Collection staff.

 Emily Bray, Young Artists Exhibitions Program Coordinator