The Warmth of Other Suns: Telling the American Story of Displacement

As any visitor to The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement will see, the experience of displacement is a global one, rooted throughout history and continuing to present day. As American citizens, it is woven into our shared experience that we, a nation of immigrants, represent all races, ethnicities, and countries. However, we often overlook the internal displacement of peoples within our borders, both forced and willing, throughout our difficult history.

Through the epic Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA; d. 2000, Seattle, Washington, USA), the Phillips has been telling the story of the Great Migration since the 1940s. Rhythmic, heartfelt, and important—Lawrence’s work illustrates the movement of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th century, seeking better opportunities and living conditions for themselves and their families. A cornerstone of the Phillips’s permanent collection, this series offers a gateway to other works on display in the same gallery.

Installation view of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. On the walls left to right: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41), Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015), and Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (2005). In the center: Beverly Buchanan sculptures

Another important movement of African Americans northward—the Underground Railroad—finds representation in Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015) by Nari Ward (b. 1963, St. Andrew, Jamaica; lives in New York City, USA). Ward was inspired by the Congolese “cosmograms” inscribed in the floorboards of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The “cosmograms,” ancient prayer symbols that represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, not only informed the church’s enslaved parishioners that this was a gateway to freedom but also provided them an airway as they hid beneath the floorboards during the day until they could safely flee under cover of night. Ward’s copper-paneled piece is all about movement and transformation: the movement of slaves from south to north, the exhalation of breath from below floorboards to above, the rebirth of a slave as a free person at the end of their journey northward, and the transformative performance of the artist, who applied darkening patina to the bottoms of his shoes and stepped on the copper, leaving behind a trace, a memory of the movement.

Nari Ward Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015 Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Nari Ward, Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015, Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina, 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Detail of Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel: Oriented Right

The center of the gallery is populated by five small, ramshackle structures by Beverly Buchanan (b. 1940, Fuquay, North Carolina, US; d. 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA). Buchanan was inspired by the vernacular architecture of the rural south, where she lived most of her life. The sculptures echo the homes depicted in Lawrence’s Migration Series that were left behind when migrants moved north, acting as memorials and remembrances that still stubbornly stand in resistance to time and change. Buchanan tells a story through these structures, often titling works after real people and imbuing them with stories about imaginary and real-life inhabitants. Like Ward, Buchanan documents the movement of peoples by the traces they leave behind—symbols and memories of displacement, injustice, racism, and the hope of progress.

Works by Beverly Buchanan left to right: Room Added, 2011, Wood, 20 x 17 3/4 x 17 1/4 in., Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; Two Chairs, n.d.; Wood, 12 x 20 x 10 in., Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg; No Door, No Window, 1988, Wood and acrylic, 14 1/2 x 9 x 7 1/2 in., Private collection, Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Benny Andrews (b. 1930, Plainview, Georgia, USA; d. 2006, New York City, USA), who, like Buchanan, also grew up in the south, utilized his own background as a son of sharecropping parents to approach themes of mass displacement in US history. Completed during the time Andrews was traveling to New Orleans and the gulf coast to study the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Andrews’s Trail of Tears illustrates the long history of marginalization and displacement of minorities that continues to this day. His process is long and painstaking, building his scenes from layer upon layer of painted canvas and fabric, and includes, like Ward, a sort of performance. Andrews would roam his studio seeking out whatever fabric or shape called out to him and would often cut figures or images out of past canvases. This method created a remarkable blend of textures, colors, and shared experience between his work.

Benny Andrews Trail of Tears, 2005 Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears, 2005, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Detail of Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view at The Phillips Collection through September 22.


-Liza Strelka, Manager of Exhibitions

Seeing Red: Color, Form, and Sensory Experiences in the Music Room

Music Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Duncan Phillips believed fervently in the intimate relationship between music and the visual arts. The Music Room has always been a unique gallery where this juxtaposition literally plays out during our Sunday Concerts series: melodies reverberating off the wood-paneled walls, the room packed with chairs, light filtering in through the windows, and an audience witness to this beautiful intersection of music and art. Frequently, artists well known in the museum’s collection, such as Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, John Marin, and Augustus Vincent Tack graced the walls.

With this inaugural installation after the re-opening of the original house galleries, the curatorial team saw an opportunity to change things up and feature some more recent acquisitions alongside old(er) favorites. The color red emerged as a guiding theme, allowing us to create some interesting conversations about color, form, and narrative between modern and contemporary art.

Joseph Marioni’s Crimson Painting, with its highly-saturated, monochromatic, luminous surface, conveys sensation over information and is narrative-free, focusing solely on the exploration and advancement of color and light, or as he says, “the liquid light.” Viewing the painting is a sensory experience. The color red, at its most intense and pure, appears to almost drip off the canvas onto the walls. Much like the live music played in the room during concerts, Marioni’s “liquid light” evokes a deeply personal, emotional response.

Contrast this painting with Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. 9 with Yellow and Red, to the right of the fireplace across the room from the Marioni, with its carefully orchestrated yet lively rhythm punctuated by primary colors. Its musicality derives from the intense contemplation of composition in relation to color and line. Whereas Marioni’s work echoes the emotional experience music provides, Mondrian’s pays homage to the rhythm and melody carefully composed in each music piece performed in the music room.

On the west wall, you’ll find Alex Katz’s Brisk Day I-III, 1990, with its repeated subject looking over her shoulder not only at the viewer, but also across the room at selections from Georg Baselitz’s La sedia di Paolo, 1988. Again, the visitor will likely pick up on the vibrant reds in both groupings, but there’s more to their inclusion. In the Katz lithographs, like the Mondrian and Marioni paintings, the subject matter is secondary to the formal properties (color, light) of the series, although the woman glancing over her shoulder could also be interpreted as a playful reference to the spectatorship during the concerts and of the visitors to the museum galleries on any given day.

The Baselitz works are a wink to the chairs that fill the music room during our Sunday concerts, but they also are similar to the other works in their formal focus of the physical and pictorial properties of their medium, and to the Katz in their repetition of forms.

Recently acquired sculptures below the Katz lithographs punctuate the installation, mimicking the focus on form and color. Fun fact: It is the first time we’ve installed sculptures in this space. We hope our visitors will enjoy the reenergized Music Room.

Those Brushstrokes, Though: Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, House at Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 24 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1952

Re-opening the original Phillips house galleries this June allowed the curatorial team to create new dialogues between artists. One of the more surprising, on the surface, is the side-by-side installation of Vincent van Gogh’s House at Auvers, 1890, and Francis Bacon’s Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Painted more than 60 years apart, these paintings would never be hung together in a traditional, chronological museum installation. Luckily for everyone, the Phillips was founded with the belief that works be hung in conversations with one another regardless of art movement, time period, etc.

Francis Bacon, Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Oil on canvas, 78 x 54 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1955 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015

Bacon and van Gogh shared similar mental struggles that manifested themselves in their work. Their respective feelings of anxiety and alienation find parallels not only in subject matter but style. In fact, Bacon admired van Gogh, and it’s safe to assume van Gogh’s brushwork influenced this work in particular.

The high horizon lines that draw your eye back into the pictures along with the staccato brushstrokes of the fields create an almost foreboding sense of dread. In van Gogh’s painting, it seems as though we will never reach the home across the turbulent field. The hope for safety (and, perhaps, sanity) lies in the walled-off home that is almost being pushed out of the painting’s frame, out of view.

In Bacon’s, however, we are being pushed to confrontation with a crouching figure who appears to have just materialized like a hallucination. The open brushwork and the exposed, unprimed canvas leave us nowhere to hide. We are face to face with an embodiment of the artist’s anxiety and psychosis. Is the subject a predator, or someone seeking solitude?

Both paintings seem to be paused in time, a snapshot of each artist’s travails, with no beginning and no end.