Identity in Abstraction

In honor of Black History Month, Digital Archivist Amanda Acosta shares conflicting perspectives on Black American artists working in abstraction.

Abstract Expressionism arose at a point in American history when the cultural scene was ripe with socio-political movements. Instead of visualizing the American climate as it was in the 1950s and 60s, Abstract Expressionists turned inward for inspiration. Artists broke from representational forms in favor of expressive and experimental color application. The movement is primarily recognized through the achievements of white, male painters in New York City.

However, Black and women artists like Howardena Pindell, Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, and Alma Thomas radically chose abstraction when identity movements called for Social Realism. It has been assumed that Black artists working in abstraction did so “as a personal and professional step toward artistic integration: a step that symbolized their willingness to subordinate Blackness . . . and to place themselves and their work in a larger, wider, and ultimately, whiter art world” (Powell, p. 102). This assumption negates the self-exploratory nature of the period and reinforces the notion that “other” artists must suppress their identity in order to produce great art. Ultimately these abstract artists did just the opposite, embedding personal motifs, social commentary, and painterly practice into their works.

“Modern Painters at the Corcoran: Sam Gilliam” brochure, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1983. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Vertical Files.

Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas are among the hundreds of artists for which The Phillips Collection’s library and archives maintains extensive vertical files, with copies of correspondence, exhibition brochures, photographs, and more.

“Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” members’ reception invitation, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1998. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Vertical Files.

“Paintings by Sam Gilliam” pamphlet, The Phillips Collection, 1967. The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, Exhibition History Files.

Explore the library catalogue and digitized archival materials online. Make an appointment to access our collections by contacting

Powell, Richard J. Black Art: A Cultural History. Second ed., Thames & Hudson, 2002

Experience Art Through Empathy: Engagement Stations in the Giuseppe De Nittis Exhibition

Marketing and Communications Detail Amity Chan shares her experience at the engagement stations in An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis (on view through February 12).

In An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis, we see how De Nittis developed fruitful friendships with important impressionist painters like Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet through the uniqueness of his paintings and techniques. There is no doubt that art has the power to help us connect more deeply with ourselves and with others.

To replicate this experience, the Phillips team put together an engagement space in the exhibition for our visitors to connect deeper to De Nittis’s world of art as well as with other visitors. Through three interactive activities, we encourage visitors to look at, talk about, and write about the works of art in the exhibition. On the display walls, visitors could also learn from the perspectives of other people and reflect on how experiences often affect one’s worldview.

Station 1: Draw Together

Station 1: Draw Together

This activity requires two players. One as the describer and one as the drawer. The describer picks one of De Nittis’s paintings to describe to the drawer. Then, the drawer makes a drawing based on the visual description. After that, the two players look at the drawing and reflect on the activity together.

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Write a haiku from the perspective of a person or object in an artwork of your choice.

Station 3: Personal Choice

Station 3: Personal Choice

Be a Phillips curator! Pick and create a collection from the artworks in the exhibition.

I tried out all three of the engagement stations. I found “Draw Together” the most interesting because it gave me the opportunity to work with another person and hear their views of art directly. I played as a drawer with my fellow Museum Assistant Elizabeth Cumbo. As someone who works in the museum and spends more time in the exhibition than any visitors, I thought it would be somewhat easier for me. However, it felt very foreign to visualize a painting based on my partner’s description and not be able to see the image that I was drawing. While making the drawing, I would also need to consider the fashion elements in 1870s Paris. For example, when Elizabeth described to me that both figures are wearing hats, I immediately thought of sun hats. However, in De Nittis’s painting, the male figure is wearing a top hat and the female figure is wearing a white hat with flowers. This made me realize that I was not only looking through the other player’s lens but also the artist’s lens. The final drawing is an end product of three worlds merged together: my own experience and imagination, Elizabeth’s description, and De Nittis’s view of Paris.

My drawing vs De Nittis’s painting

After completing each activity, visitors are encouraged to share the drawings and poems on the display shelves. It was fascinating to see other visitors’ works, especially the Haiku poems in which we are asked to write from the perspective of a person or object in the paintings.

Here are some interesting finds on the display shelves:

Visitor haiku

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis is now on view through February 12. I highly encourage you to come and experience De Nittis’s 1870s Paris at The Phillips Collection.



But What Is It?

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel shares her experiences discussing art…and more…with a group of fifth grade students.

On a school tour with a theme of color, line, and shape, we enter into the gallery showcasing the many works related to the Jefferson Place Gallery. The plan was to look closely at Ben Summerford’s brilliant, tall, still life entitled The Blue Bottle, 1949-51. My lesson plan has us using a visual thinking strategy to look closely at The Blue Bottle, concentrating on the artistic choices made by Summerford.

That is not what my student wanted to discuss at all. Instead, her eyes are drawn to a small assemblage by William Christenberry that hangs on the wall perpendicular to The Blue Bottle.

William Christenberry, Akron Wall, 1987, Sheet metal, metal signs, wood, nails, and paint on wood panel, 9 x 12 3/8 x 1 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Julia J. Norrell in memory of Scotty McIntyre, 2009

“I want to talk about that work of art.” She points to the Christenberry. ‘What IS it?”

“What do you think it is?” I ask.

“It looks like a bunch of junk,” she says definitively. “But, I like it. It is interesting.”

We examine the wall text and learn it is called Akron Wall, was made in 1987, and is constructed of sheet metal, metal signs, wood, nails, and paint on wood panel. I explain that Akron is a city in Ohio. We muse about the title, the choice of objects, and its possible meanings.

“What about the rest of the work?” she asks me.

I looked at her, a bit confused. Akron Wall is very intriguing but it is small and contained. She points to a spot on the wall under Akron Wall. There is a tall, narrow rectangle, delineated by a rough edge, chipped and warped in places. A recessed rectangle marks one side along with a metal handle.

“That part of the art. It looks like it could be a door! I want to know about that. I wonder, what is behind the door?”

This door is not part of the artwork. There is a long discussion about what might be behind the door. A little man? A bottle of water? A bag of chips? What would be behind the door? Although the door has the same palette as Christenberry’s assemblage, incorporates metal, has similar repetitive shapes and has gray smudges of a well-worn, maybe found object, I can’t help but spill the beans.

“Well, it is not actually part of the artwork,” I explain. By this time all the students are invested in the door, and they are crestfallen, thinking that they are doing just what I have encouraged them to do: look closely and ask questions, ponder possibilities, and trust their insights since there are no wrong answers.

“It’s not part of the artwork? Well, it should be!” the student says defiantly. “If it is not part of the artwork, what IS it?”

I wanted to talk about the Summerford, not a door in the wall of the gallery. I should have asked the question back to them: “What do you think is behind the door?” But instead I try to guide the conversation back to the original topic I had planned for.

“I think there is a fire extinguisher inside. Now, let’s talk about the colors that Summerford used….”

“Oh man! A fire extinguisher!” someone exclaims. “Woah! Why would you need a fire extinguisher here?”

I could have used the moment to tell him about the fire the Phillips suffered in 2010, but instead I add, “Or a telephone.” Lots of discussion goes on among the students, and they request that I open it. I explain that I’m not allowed to touch the walls of the gallery and open the door.

Looking back on this, I think how intriguing it would be if this door had been conceived by Christenberry. The door introduces the unknown, and the idea of possibility. If there is a phone, who would call it? Could we hear it if it rang? If there is a fire extinguisher in there, would it have some lettering on it? Would the fire extinguisher be red and relate nicely to the worn lettering on the top left of the assemblage (a Coke bottle top)? Is the little space behind the door shallow, like the indented boxes within the Christenberry piece?

We have a brief conversation about the Summerford, the artwork I originally wanted to discuss. In fact, the students’ curiosity seems to have been piqued by the discussion of the possibilities introduced by the evocative door. It reminds me that adapting to students’ interests can ultimately enhance a lesson.

As we walk down to the bus, the student who started the discussion persists; she insists the door should be part of Christenberry’s assemblage: “Then it could be called Akron and Phillips Wall.”