Abstraction in Action: Highlights from the Collection

Marketing and Communications Detail and Museum Assistant Caroline Polich on abstract works in the collection.

Abstract art is a genre of art that doesn’t seek to accurately represent reality, instead using a visual language of shapes, colors, marks, and forms. From Color Field to Cubism, and from Suprematism to De Stijl, this genre encompasses many techniques, approaches, and movements. Abstraction has a long and nuanced history across many cultures, but it received new interest and experienced many new developments starting in the early 20th century in Europe. It has played a pivotal role in art and art history ever since. As a museum of modern and contemporary art, The Phillips Collection has a wide variety of abstract works. Learn more below about several artistic approaches to abstraction, exemplified by three paintings in our permanent collection.

Many artists use abstraction to depict a place in a more profound and multidimensional way. Wassily Kandinsky’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) (1913) uses color, shape, and line to convey the feeling or “emotional sounds” of Moscow. Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first Europeans to adopt abstract art, was born in Russia but spent much of his life abroad. In this work, he creates a sense of place through motifs strongly connected to his home country. The three parallel lines in the top left of the composition convey the movement of a troika, a three-horse sled. The undulating brown, black, and white lines on the right, which intersect with a bold white line, represent the legendary figure of St. George on horseback with a lance. Through abstraction, Kandinsky captures the essence of a place, its culture, and his connection to it.

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913, Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 30 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift from the estate of Katherine S. Dreier, 1953

For some artists, abstraction is a way to explore new processes and reinterpret traditional mediums. Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) was known for his draped paintings on unstretched canvas, and his improvisational approach to painting, inspired by jazz. Red Petals (1967) is an early example of Gilliam’s unique process, in which he poured paint over unprimed and unstretched canvas, then folded, rolled, and splattered it to create his vibrant and fluid compositions. The work is a balance between control and chance, the artist’s actions and the properties of the mediums (both the paint, the canvas, and how they interact). Red Petals, unlike many of Gilliam’s later works, was re-stretched so it could be hung on a wall like a traditional painting. However, this work still demonstrates how the artist saw canvas as a medium to engage and create with, not just a two-dimensional surface to paint on. Working abstractly allowed Gilliam to reimagine traditional approaches and processes in painting.

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

Other artists use abstraction to visualize intangible or philosophical ideas. Anil Revri (b. 1956) is an Indian artist born in New Delhi, who lives and works in Washington, DC. Revri’s abstract paintings on handmade paper—two of which are recent acquisitions at the Phillips—draw from a wide range of influences, from the Washington Color School to Eastern philosophy. Geometric Abstraction 3 (2020) uses geometry and repetition to explore ideas of meditation, truth, order, and journeys. Symmetry creates a sense of calm and order within the complex composition of shapes, lines, and marks. The contrasts in value and color—scarlet, white, and gold against a dark background—affect how the eye moves around the composition, a sort of visual and perhaps philosophical journey across the surface of the work.

Anil Revri, Geometric Abstraction 3, Mixed media on handmade paper, 18 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Nuzhat Sultan, 2021

These works by Kandinsky, Gilliam, and Revri are just three examples of how artists can approach abstraction. This genre has opened up new ways of making and thinking about art that are still being explored today. Next time you see an abstract work, think about how it uses elements like color, shape, and line, what traditions it might be reimagining, and what feelings it elicits.

Read More

Wassily Kandinsky | The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

Sam Gilliam | Pace Gallery

Anil Revri | Artist’s Website

The Phillips Returns to Italy

In partnership with the US Department of State, The Phillips Collection collaborated with museums across Italy in fostering diversity and inclusion for audience and program development. Anne Taylor Brittingham, Deputy Director for Education and Responsive Learning Spaces, and Donna Jonte, Head of Experiential Learning, discuss the workshops conducted on their travels to Italy, October 15-19, 2022.

After finishing up our time at the EDI Global Forum in Naples, Donna Jonte and I shifted to presenting workshops in collaboration with the U.S. State Department. The workshops were a continuation of the projects we conducted May 2-6, 2022, in Rome and Naples. However, this time we expanded our audiences and the region in which we worked.

Procida, Italy

On Saturday, October 15, we participated in a Cultural Hackathon on the island of Procida. Procida was awarded the Italian Capital of Culture 2022. The colorful destination is the first island to be given the title since the award was established. Recipients of the award become a focus for improved cultural heritage and tourist development, with numerous projects and initiatives to benefit the region. During the application process for the title, Procida presented a vision entitled “la cultura non isola” (culture doesn’t isolate). Procida planned 44 cultural projects with 330 days of programming, involving 240 artists and eight cultural spaces, including a 16th-century palace turned prison, now transformed into an arts-space with site-specific installations.

As an island, Procida is at an interesting moment—the award brought an influx of tourists. How will the island maintain the momentum generated by the rise in tourism, while not forgetting their local communities who are with them 12 months of the year? Hackathon workshop participants thought about ways of engaging new audiences (both local and tourists) and how to balance new media and technology with more low-tech opportunities for engagement. We focused on the role of empathy in identifying and growing audiences, starting with the user at the center of all the programs and resources we develop.

Left to right: Agostino Riitano, Director of Procida 2022; Michelle Lee, Public Affairs Officer US Consulate Naples; Anne Taylor Brittingham; Raimondo Ambrosino, Mayor of Procida; Donna Jonte; Martina Romanello, Program Assistant Procida 2022 at Palazzo d’Avalos

Procida Hackathon workshop participants

On Monday, October 17, we led a workshop for university students at the Fine Arts Academy, Naples. In the morning, the students gave us a tour of their collection, using different strategies to engage people in looking at art. In the afternoon, we thought about connection—what connects art together, what connects art to us, and what connects art to today. First the students picked the image from The Phillips Plays Art Cards that they felt connected to. Then working as a group, they picked five connected artworks and identified emerging themes such as “You see what you want to see,” “Absence and Presence,” and “Movement and Confusion.” They thought about why they were attracted to certain images, how their biases affected their choices, and how it was different to select images as a group versus as an individual.

University students working in small groups

University students with Director of Fine Arts Academy Professor Renato Lori and US Consul General Naples, Tracy Roberts-Pounds (center)

On our last day in Naples, October 18, we presented a workshop for teen immigrants at the Dedalus Cooperative’s art studio in the Officine Gomitoli’s Intercultural Centre, located in the Formiello neighborhood in a restored building that has had a past life as a convent and a woolen mill. Dedalus has been working with immigrants in Naples for more than 30 years, offering social services especially to unaccompanied minors, trafficking victims, and vulnerable women. We met Dedalus’s artistic coordinator, Alessia Montefusco, on our previous trip to Naples in May, when she brought teen immigrants to the Museo Madre for our workshop.

Alessia and a new group of teens welcomed us to the Dedalus art studio. First, we introduced ourselves by choosing one image from the Phillips Art Cards game that reflected a part of our identity. Then, to begin our exploration of the power of landscape, past and present, interior and exterior, we discussed Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Self-Portrait as a Tree, a photograph from our collection. Next, with watercolor pencils and paintbrushes, we sketched details from real or imagined landscapes. Finally, we put all three images together in a narrative sequence that depicted our different landscapes—past, present, and future.

Teens engaging with Phillips Art Cards in the Dedalus art studio

After wrapping up in Naples, we went to Rome for one last day of programming on October 19. In the morning, we met with museum employees from Civic Museums across Rome. After our presentation in May 2022 on the development of games to engage visitors, the network of museums developed a single game designed to connect multiple museums in multiple locations across the city. They presented their prototype to us for feedback. We discussed challenges and opportunities for engaging audiences, in particular local Roman audiences that may not regularly visit the civic museums.

Presentation by Civic Museums of Rome

Then in the afternoon, we were able to meet with the director of the Pantheon, Gabriella Musto, about ideas for how we could collaborate with them in a similar way to what we did with the Civic Museums of Rome. While they get millions of visitors a year, they are interested in ways they can more deeply engage with their local communities.

We are grateful to have had the chance to build global relationships, sharing our audience-engagement strategies with museum educators from around the world and continuing our work with colleagues in Naples and Rome.

EDI (Education Integration) Global Forum

Deputy Director for Education and Responsive Learning Spaces Anne Taylor Brittingham shares her experience at the Education Integration (EDI) Global Forum in Naples, Italy

From October 12-14, Donna Jonte, Head of Experiential Learning, and I were able to attend the inaugural convening of the EDI (Education Integration) Global Forum. The EDI Global Forum seeks to inspire change, promote sustainability, connect communities, spark innovation, and rethink education. The three-day conference in Naples, Italy, brought together 200 museum professionals representing 180 institutions actively working with education through the lens of art and culture. After years of isolation, it was amazing to be at a conference with people from 5 continents, 80 international institutions, and 100 Italian organizations. Through a series of keynote lectures, participatory workshops, and collaborative working groups, the convening focused on five themes: Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion, Sustainability, Art and Well-Being, and Institutional Structure.

EDI Global Forum participants at National Archaeological Museum

I moderated a session with the Pinacoteca in São Paolo, Brazil, and the MANN (National Archaeological Museum) in Naples. The session brought together perspectives from Naples and San Paolo to address how to engage communities that museums are not always prepared to welcome, including sex workers, the homeless, and youth without access to cultural institutions. As a part of the workshop, we performed a “SWOT” analysis of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats to engaging a group at risk of social exclusion. Museum professionals from London, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Italy, and the United States discussed how we can not only reach these traditionally excluded audiences, but also how to prepare staff to welcome all guests to the museum.

Anne Taylor Brittingham, The Phillips Collection; Gabriela Aidar, Pinacoteca Sao Paolo; Angela Vocciante and Elisa Napolitano, MANN Naples

I was also able to be a part of another working group that considered issues of sustainability—in particular focusing on how to address the waste generated by exhibition and education programs. How can we create institutional policies that address and solve the waste problem? What is our responsibility to be leaders in confronting this waste problem head on?

Throughout the three days, Donna and I connected with museum professionals from around the world and heard about work that’s taking place in their museums around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.