The Phillips Collects: Mose Tolliver and Joe Light

The Phillips Collection recently acquired paintings by Mose Tolliver and Joe Light. These two gifts from Gail B. Greenblatt were part of the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the work of Black artists from the American South and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment and racial and social justice.

Mose Tolliver (b. 1925, Pike Road, AL; d. 2006, Montgomery, AL),  Snake, no date, Acrylic on plywood, 24 x 23 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift from Gail B. Greenblatt

Mose Tolliver is one of the earliest Black folk artists to receive popular acclaim, following his first solo show in 1980 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. The son of tenant farmers, Tolliver first explored his creative talents as a landscape gardener. In the 1960s, when an accident left him unable to walk, Tolliver began to paint voraciously. His brightly colored works include images of animals, women, plants, and religious subjects. Snake is built up from wet-on-wet layers of lively rhythmic brushstrokes.

Joe Light ( b. 1934, Dyersburg, TN; d. 2005, Memphis, TN), Bird and Dog, no date, Acrylic on plywood, 23 x 11 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift from Gail B. Greenblatt

Joe Louis Light took up art after his discharge from the US Army in the 1950s and later release from prison for armed robbery. Finding salvation in religion, Light turned his attention to making signs, driftwood sculptures, and paintings that evoke his deeply personal spiritual and political views. In Bird and Dog, Light composed the scene in three horizontal bands that symbolically suggest a type of ascension from the material to the spiritual world.

“These two paintings will be the first by Joe Light and Mose Tolliver to enter the collection, and further the Phillips’s commitment to broadening the art historical canon. They provide compelling juxtapositions with a range of historical and contemporary artists in the collection, including Morris Graves, Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, as well as the five Gee’s Bend quilts acquired in 2019.” Elsa Smithgall, Chief Curator

Infusing the Phillips with Contemporary Art

The Phillips Collection’s Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives and Academic Affairs Dr. Vesela Sretenovic is departing the museum after nearly 15 years of distinguished service and curatorial accomplishments to pursue independent curating, writing, and teaching. Sretenović began her tenure at the Phillips in January 2009 as Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the first curatorial position of its kind at the museum. During her tenure, she bolstered the museum’s engagement with contemporary art through innovative and vibrant exhibitions, programs, acquisitions, partnerships, and more. Notably, Sretenović created Intersections, a series of contemporary art projects in which artists—national, international, emerging, and established—were invited to engage with the museum’s permanent collection and historic architecture and create new work(s).

Here we look back at some of the dynamic and bold exhibitions and initiatives that Vesela organized for the Phillips.

Vesela Sretenović and Zilia Sánchez in San Juan preparing for Sánchez’s retrospective Soy Isla (2018)

Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009 (2013), curated by Vesela Sretenović. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The unveiling of Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi’s Something discernible in the hollow space of its absence (2022), acquired through the Contemporaries Acquisition Fund, led by Vesela Sretenović.

Los Carpinteros with part of their Intersections installation Cuba Va! (2019). Photo: Carl Nard

Vesela Sretenovic with Intersections artists at the opening of Intersections@5 (2015), celebrating 5 years of Intersections

Vesela Sretenović with Intersections artists at the opening of Intersections@5 (2015), celebrating 5 years of Intersections.

Vesela Sretenović with Bettina Pousttchi’s Intersections installation Double Monuments (2016). Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Vesela Sretenović with Alyson Shotz’s Intersections installation Ecliptic (2011). Photos: Sue Ahn

Bernardi Roig’s The Man of the Light (2005) from his Intersections installation NO/Escape (2014)

Daniel Canogar’s Digital Intersections project Amalgama Phillips (2021) in the Goh Annex Stairwell

Performance at the conclusion of Sanford Biggers’s Intersections installation Mosaic (2021)

Opening for Linling Lu’s Intersections installation Soundwaves (2023), with a conversation between the artist and Vesela Sretenović. Photo: AK Blythe

Through exhibitions, lectures, panels, performances, partnerships, tours, publications, and so much more, Vesela certainly infused the Phillips with contemporary art and spirit. We will miss you, Vesela!

The Phillips Collects: The Charles Rumph Collection and Photography Fund

The Phillips Collection has received a major gift from the Shirley Z. Johnson Trust that includes nearly 200 photographs and related archival materials by the donor’s late husband Charles Rumph (b. Amarillo, TX, 1932–d. Washington, DC, 2019), along with $1M to care for the Rumph photographic archive and the Phillips’s growing photography collection.

Charles Rumph

Shirley Johnson, a noted DC lawyer, was a scholarly collector of Chinese textiles and Japanese metal work. She served on the boards of The Textile Museum (now the George Washington University Textile Museum) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art; she was a major benefactor to both institutions and to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. She chose The Phillips Collection for this major gift because the Phillips played a pivotal role in her husband’s photography career in 1980 by giving him his first museum exhibition, Chambers, which featured 73 abstract black-and-white photographs.

Charles Rumph: Chambers, exh. cat. 1980, The Phillips Collection, cover image: Nautilus, Mexico City, 1978

Charles Rumph’s interest in photography began in 1970 in San Francisco when he studied with LIFE magazine photographer Peter Stackpole. After moving to Washington, DC, in 1974 to work at the Internal Revenue Service (ret. 1985), he soon established himself as a photographer specializing in architecture and art. He spent many years teaching photography in Maryland at Glen Echo Photoworks and as a visiting lecturer at the Corcoran School of Art.

Charles Rumph, Japan, 1983, Palladium print, 7 1/2 x 5 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection

In his non-commercial photographs, which comprise the gift to the Phillips, Rumph pursued an abstract vision inspired by nature and architecture. He worked primarily in black-and-white, doing his own printing, until experimenting with color late in his career. Rumph’s photographs are in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum and the National Sporting Library & Museum in Virginia.

The gift from Shirley Johnson includes support for conservation, a research fellow, and a future exhibition with an accompanying catalogue of Rumph’s photographs. Rumph’s early connection to the Phillips and his deep roots in the local photography community make him a wonderful addition to the museum’s growing photography collection.

Charles Rumph, Church [Sagrada Corazón de Jesus] at Nambé [New Mexico] No. 1, 1980, Gelatin silver print, 13 7/8 x 11 in., The Phillips Collection