Seeing Differently: Henri Matisse and Berenice Abbott

The Phillips Collection engages with local voices by asking community members to write labels in response to works in the collection. Read some here on the blog and also in the galleries of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. How do these perspectives help you see differently? What would you write about these artworks?

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948, Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1950

“Would not it be best to leave room to mystery?” I think of this quote by Henri Matisse when I stand in front of one of his artworks about “room” or “space.” Whenever I look at this artwork, I cannot help but wonder: Who does this room belong to? Who is the woman? What is she thinking lying on the couch? What is in the space not shown in the painting? Matisse is right—it is good to leave some room for mystery.

Matisse said: “A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure.” Notice Matisse’s use of color. Imagine standing in this studio. What do you feel as you look at this artwork?

—Xiran Liu, Visitor Experience Intern, The Phillips Collection


Berenice Abbott, Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936, Gelatin silver print, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2001, The Phillips Collection

Imagine being a worm (or creature close to the ground) and looking up in the city. What do you see? In New York City, with all the tall buildings, we each have a worms-eye view of the city as we constantly look up at the towering skyscrapers.

When I think of New York City, I think of the crowds of people and the inability to stop time. And yet this artist so beautifully captures the stillness and power of the buildings of New York and the conversation among them. The scene is at Exchange Place downtown. What exchange might these three buildings be having with each other?

Place yourself in the scene of the photograph. On the street, looking up. What does this photograph tell you about the city?

—Joanne Selig, Director of Education and Theatre for Change, Imagination Stage

Arlene Dávila on the Complexities of Latinx Art

Join us on June 10 for a Duncan Phillips Lecture featuring Arlene Dávila, who will discuss her book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics (2020), as well as The Latinx Project at New York University, an interdisciplinary center that promotes Latinx culture.

Arlene Dávila is Professor of Anthropology and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and Founding Director of The Latinx Project at NYU

In her book Latinx Art, Arlene Dávila poses this question: “What is Latinx art? How does it relate to American art? Why don’t we know more about Latinx artists, and why should we care?” Particularly important questions given that “these artists have been central to the artistic vitality of the United States thought they remain largely eclipsed from its history. They are the largest majority missing from most museum collections and commercial gallery circuits, a self-perpetuating omission that affects the evaluation of Latinx artists into the future.”

The term Latinx refers to artists from a Latin American background in the US, whether they are first generation or have a longer history of living and working in the country. The term also points to an openness to gender, sexual, and racial inclusivity. “I define Latinx art as a project, not a fixed identity,” writes Dávila, “a project of culture making.” Furthermore, “Latinx points to the urgent need to raise questions and to call attention to the silencing of Latinx artists and communities.” Dávila considers herself part of this movement and calls for greater Latinx visibility. Dávila explores how Latinx artists are overlooked and marginalized because of their lack of “national privilege”—they do not have citizenship to a Latin American country, but instead are living as diasporic artists within the United States. These artists are often confused with Latin American artists and because of that often experience erasure. Dávila explains:

“Latinx,” “Latin American,” and even “American” art are not fixed, homogenous, or universally accepted terms. These categories are specially contested in the art world, where any hyphenated art has long been regarded as less genuine, less creative, and of generally lower quality and value, than “unmarked” art. Art and aesthetic are ruled by their own set of blinders. Essential here is the idea that matters of identity and history are irrelevant even when they are intrinsically involved in the creation of value. Hence, we seldom recognize race in categories such as “American art” and “Contemporary art” that index whiteness, while “Latinx art” or “Black art” cannot be read apart from signifiers of race. All the while, “contemporary art” and “American art” remain uncontested, made-up, and homogeneous categories that hide more than they reveal. The sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s five-hundred-year-old painting Salvator Mundi at Christie’s 2017 postwar and contemporary art sales, on account of its “contemporary significance,” is a perfect example of the market-driven malleability of the category of “contemporary art.” Still, the dominant art world regularly accepts these made-up determinations and categories. By contrast, “ethnic” categories such as Latinx art are always bemoaned, supposedly for “erasing complexity,” especially when used to identify and gain recognition for artists of color. The racial politics of the art world become normalized through these unequal assessments and through the racialization of selected categories while “the mainstream” continues to signal “white” as the norm. This explains why many curators and artists of Latinx, African American, Caribbean, and Latin American art bemoan these categories as “necessary evils.” Everyone recognizes that these categories ghettoize artists into sectors apart from the white-dominant center, yet at the same time they have opened up spaces that would have otherwise remained even more exclusive and inaccessible.

Seeing Differently: Bruce Davidson and Horace Pippin

The Phillips Collection engages with local voices by asking community members to write labels in response to works in the collection. Read some here on the blog and also in the galleries of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. How do these perspectives help you see differently? What would you write about these artworks?

Bruce Davidson, Large Family in Kitchen (East 100th Street series), between 1966 and 1968, Gelatin silver print, 11 in x 14 in., Gift from the Collection of Michael and Joyce Axelrod, Mill Valley, California, 2013

Not knowing anything about this piece when I initially viewed it, I was immediately struck by a sense of place and connection among a family who appears to be striving for formality in front of the camera. I was first struck by the objects. In the small kitchen, everything seems to have its place. Even the ceiling seems to gleam. Only then did I start to be drawn to the faces—placing each one in what I think is their role and age. Though the photo transports you to a different time, it is ageless, from the teenager at the back who is removed and somewhat sullen, longing for independence, to the apparent Daddy’s girl, refusing to leave his side.

Later, I read a bit more about the artist, Bruce Davidson, and the critique of how his work reflected Harlem—some feeling too negatively, others feeling too positively. What I appreciate is how Davidson places himself in the work. Though you can’t see him, everyone else is looking at his lens. They are aware of his presence and impact on their existence for that moment. It brings an authenticity that doesn’t center the artist but doesn’t ignore him. He is not a fly on the wall, but rather a disruptor, truthfully acknowledging his role in creating the moment.

—Anika Kwinana, Manager, National Partnerships at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Centennial Community Advisory Group Member

Horace Pippin "Domino Players" 1943, Oil on composition board, 12 3/4 x 22 in.; Acquired 1943

Horace Pippin, Domino Players, 1943, Oil on composition board, 12 3/4 x 22 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1943

Dominoes is synonymous with macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, and candied yams. Guaranteed to find its way at most traditional gatherings, alongside trash-talking, and a good game of spades. If you were smart, you sat next to grandma and watched her play, over time, memorizing her moves. She had mastered the game. Nothing written down, the oral traditional is strong. Some call it an old folks games. I call it a rite of passage.

—Sunny Sumter, Executive Director, DC Jazz Festival