Exploring LGBTQ art in The Phillips Collection

Want to learn more about LGBTQ art history? @samesexinthecity shares some artists in the Phillips’s collection that provide a window into LGBTQ art and history. 

Marie Laurencin, Flowers, n.d., Lithograph, 14 5/8 x 10 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1985

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956)

Marie Laurencin is known for her distinctive paintings, featuring dreamy, fantastical scenes and pale, doll-like women. She socialized with other avant-garde artists and thinkers, including Pablo Picasso, poet Guillaume Apollinaire, writer Natalie Clifford Barney, and more. Laurencin’s practice was successful at the time, and she frequently accepted commissions for portraits, stage designs, and book illustrations. Her engagement with prominent gay and lesbian thinkers and philosophers at the time, as well as her distinctive sapphic imagery, is a good snapshot of early-20th-century Paris and the emergence of a public LGBTQ identity. Today, art historians are exploring more about her relationships with both men and women, and re-centering her as a prominent female avant-garde painter.

Keith Vaugan (1912-1977)

In 1951, the Phillips hosted Keith Vaugan’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. Vaugan was a self-taught British painter who was a leader in the Neo-Romantic art scene. His later works became more abstract, moving away from moonlit houses and landscapes toward the male nude. He is one of many artists whose private writings express anxieties as a closeted gay man, and whose works display self-censorship at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and considered obsene.

Alfonso Ossorio, Five Brothers, 1950, Wax resist and brush and black ink on illustration board, 18 3/8 x 30 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1951

Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990)

Alfonso Ossorio was an artist and collector whose friendship with Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet was explored in a 2013 exhibition at the Phillips. Ossorio’s artworks span from Abstract Expressionism to his later experiments with assemblage, exploring his Catholic upbringing and its conflict with his own homosexuality.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

Robert Mapplethorpe courted controversy throughout his career. Known for his black-and-white photographs, his artworks explored S&M, sexuality, and fetishization. Exhibitions of his work came under fire during the 1980s and ‘90s, sparking conversations about censorship, obscenity, and public art funding. Today, his artworks still spark conversation and controversy. Contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon have responded to Mapplethorpe’s nude photographs of Black men, challenging the notions of objectification and fetishization. Mapplethorpe’s huge body of work shows an artist exploring queer identity and sexuality, imbuing commercial work and portraits with distinctly queer principles, and, toward the end of his life, an artist contending with the HIV epidemic and his own health.

Lyle Ashton-Harris, Blow-Up II (Armory), Detail (from “America Now + Here: Photography Portfolio 2009”), 2005, Chromogenic print, 24 x 20 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Carolyn Alper, 2010

Lyle Ashton Harris (b. 1965)

Harris is an important contemporary artist exploring queerness, race, and cultural assumptions about identity through a variety of mediums, including collage, photography, video, installation, and performance. His artworks question historical images of Black identity, playing with both familiar figures (such as Cleopatra and Billie Holliday), as well as uplifting people in his life and orbit. In his photographs, performances, and videos, as well as his extensive archive of photos and videos taken over the span of his life, he revels in a world that is bold, unabashedly queer, and triumphantly Black.

A Window Opens on Peter Lister

Phillips Museum Educator Carla Freyvogel spoke with artist Peter Lister, whose work Music Room is in the Phillips’s collection. In 2022, the artist gifted the related print Approaching Music to the Phillips.

In January 2022, the Phillips’s virtual Guided Meditation sessions were inspired by artworks in the collection related to music. On January 5 we highlighted artist Peter Lister and his monoprint Music Room. Lister himself joined our meditation session that day and I interviewed him a few days later.

For those of us lucky enough to work at the Phillips, the title of Lister’s work has a lovely connotation, evoking our magical Music Room in the original Phillips House, a space that reverberates with beauty even when silent.

Music Room by Peter Lister is a dark piece, or appears to be at first glance. Then the eye settles on an almost luminous reddish rectangle and travels diagonally to an almost blue rectangle of a similar size. Competing for our attention is a white shape occupying the upper left corner that is scored (scored!) with black lines. Diagonally across, the right corner of the image is anchored by a less bold whiteish shape.

Peter Lister, Music Room, 1976, Color monoprint, 11 x 9 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

We discussed the artwork during the meditation session. Some of the participants perceived the presence of a person, perhaps someone who had fingers resting on a string instrument, getting ready to strum or do a bit of pizzicato? Others identified a blurred musical score in the upper left while some interpreted this area as a window with a scrim or a curtain in red and yellow stripes.

Music Room was created in 1976, when Lister was 43 years old. It was purchased by The Phillips Collection’s then chief curator, James McLaughlin, from Philadelphia dealer Robert Carlen. Carlen is known for promoting the work of Horace Pippin. I had a chance to chat with Lister about his Music Room, how it came to be in our collection, and how his practice has evolved over the years.

Peter Lister is a native to the Philadelphia area. A 1958 graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), he was the recipient of two fellowships that allowed extensive study abroad. While now he works in watercolor and watercolor pencil, most of his early career was defined by oil and acrylic painting and printmaking. He also taught studio art at Rosemont College.

The travel fellowships exposed a world of beauty and artistic inspiration to Lister. Greece captured his heart. Here is an example from c. 1980. Inspired by a famed church in Mykonos, Lister started to create several casual works he called “fantasias.” He described trepidation in beginning this series: “When I got there I was absolutely frozen with fear that I would not know what to do or how to do anything. So I started at the edge of the paper…with a kind of strip of the color, and trying things out and then made my way boldly into the paper.”

Peter Lister, Fantasia (Mykonos), c. 1980, Acrylic on paper, 9 x 12 in., Collection of the artist

Ultimately, this church proved to be one of his most successful subjects. He sold most of the 60 or 70 pieces he produced in this series. He reflected on the church and surrounding scene and remarked: “I had fun with the steps…I looked at this and I said ‘You were cleverer than you knew, Peter.’ I love the rhythm between the four steps, three steps. That’s music too”.

Lister’s oil painting from 1959, Firemen, was included in an exhibition at PAFA in 2017 called The Loaded Brush: The Oil Sketch and the Philadelphia School of Painting. The exhibition explored the legacy of Thomas Eakins. Eakins’s firmly believed that by sketching in oil, an artist would be able to authentically capture the fleeting experience of light and gesture.

Peter Lister, Firemen (Gladiators), 1959, Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in., Collection of Bill Scott, Philadelphia

When comparing Firemen from 1959 to the Fantasia painting of the church in Greece from 1980, we can see that spontaneity continued to be important to Lister throughout his career. He uses thick impasto for the church walls, with some forms appearing to float and the blending of white becoming almost gray.

I was curious about his recurring references to music, both in Music Room and in his perception of the rhythm of the steps in Fantasia.

Lister became infatuated with music at a young age. He said, “I think part of my fascination with music was the printed note. That it made the music happen in the sense that I was looking at a visual image, a script, writing, and I was able to interpret it into sound….and the fact that the notes on the page could be transformed into sound. It became just fascinating to me.”

Lister kindly shared with me an image related to Music Room. Titled Approaching Music, it is the first pull from the plate that produced the monoprint Music Room, and Lister recently gifted the work to the Phillips. The plate was zinc and once had a life as an etching plate. Why Approaching Music? I asked. “It wasn’t quite music yet because the tension between the triangles is murky at best…”

Peter Lister, Approaching Music, 1976, Color monoprint, 14 1/8 x 9 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist 2022

In both images, the whiteish rectangle in the upper left corner pulls our eye. In our meditation group, some participants saw a page of music, others saw a window. Lister said, “So many painters have that inside-outside use of a rectangle. Certainly Matisse—it is just everywhere in his work. Picasso, those major French painters. Think of the American Impressionists; they always seem to put their wife or daughter in front of a window and paint her there.”

“We live inside and we look out. I don’t set out to put a window—a window opens. When I am in a landscape, there isn’t a window, I am looking out because I am in.” He explained that as he works on a piece, an abstract image often becomes more realistic. A large pale area might evolve from being a compositional device to being an actual window.

Through our conversation, Peter Lister opened a window onto his world and his work. I want to extend a huge thank you and much warm gratitude to a talented artist who took the time to talk with me and to share his process and art with our meditation community.

From Digital to Analogue & Back Again: Luca Buvoli’s “Astrodoubt” Journey

Curatorial Intern Jason Rosenberg on Luca Buvoli’s Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles, which was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection.

“We’re all bored, we’re all so tired of everything…” Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift wrote these lyrics to New Romantics back in 2014! In retrospect, widespread feelings of burnout had been brewing for years; however, the recent surge in exhaustion and lethargy spurred by COVID-19 is a phenomenon unparalleled to any time before. Trapped in an endless cycle of flip-flopping restrictions and evolving viral mutations, life in the pandemic has felt like a catch-22 none of us will ever get out of. And yet, through it all, a beacon of hope has continued to shine on the other side: humor.

Philosophically, comedy has proven to be most valuable during these trying times. It offers a rare respite from the depressing reality we find ourselves in, constructing a shared spectacle to laugh at and rally behind. Fundamentally, it is a gateway to the unification of a community.

Back during the peak of reported COVID cases in summer 2020, multimedia artist Luca Buvoli tapped into this universal power through his Digital Intersections project, Picture-Present—part of his ongoing “Astrodoubt and The Quarantine Chronicles” series. Expanding on images from the Phillips’s permanent collection by a multitude of featured artists including Edouard Vuillard (Woman Sweeping) and Pierre Bonnard (Narrow Street in Paris), Buvoli integrated his satirical style through added texts and images to reflect on the emotional unrest experienced throughout the pandemic.

Select images from Picture: Present, an episode from Luca Buvoli’s Astrodoubt and The Quarantine Chronicles

His handwritten messages are witty and hopeful, often mirroring the subjects of the pictures they adorn; Vuillard’s woman with a broomstick, for instance, helps to sweep away the memories of hardship. Others, however, are intentionally ambiguous and open-ended, such as the last scene in which the main protagonist Astrodoubt finds himself awakened, wondering if the coronavirus is still around or whether it was all a dream.

As a whole, Buvoli’s digital 12-panel storyboard reads as a narrative of isolation, anxiety, and wishful delusion; feelings we’ve all collectively experienced within the span of the past few years. As the first commissioned Digital Intersections showcase, Picture: Present welcomed audiences to the same virtual world as Astrodoubt: a remote landscape where the museum’s past could be explored and take on a new life remotely.

Today, Buvoli’s project marks a unique time in our cultural history, connecting the past with the present by means of an intangible digital medium ubiquitous to everyday life. Recently on view at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York City, Astrodoubt’s journey has been inverse to many others in the art world: evolving from digital back to analogue. The Phillips’s recent acquisition of Buvoli’s physical Cosmos-In-The-Box book edition of “Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles” logs the first of many interdisciplinary, dynamic exhibitions. Picture: Present paves the way for a new era of accessibility in art, a facet central to the long-term survival of museums and artistic institutions in the years to come.

Luca Buvoli, Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles (Episode 12), 2021, 13 collaged drawings in metal box each: 7 x 7 in; The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2021