Looking Back to Look Forward

Curatorial Associate Wendy Grossman reflects on the process of presenting the exhibition Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens—and the potential controversies surrounding it—at the Phillips in 2009.

The flurry of conversations and controversies in the museum world in the wake of our society’s efforts to reconcile a history of racial inequity in both institutional structure and programming has prompted recollections of my experience a decade ago in bringing to fruition the exhibition Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection. Looking back to look forward is important for our institutional identity. I believe that hosting this exhibition is something for which the institution can and should take pride.

Installation photographs of Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection

Installation photographs of Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection. RIGHT: Kuba drinking vessel (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Portrait of James Lesesne Wells by James Latimer Allen. Both on loan from Howard University, Washington DC

The product of years of research investigating the role African art and culture played in the construction of modernism and recognition of photography’s central place in this process, Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens took on thorny issues of race and representation within this framework. Although the Paris-based American artist Man Ray was the marque name and fulcrum around which the interdisciplinary project was constructed, the exhibition also featured far lesser known modernist photographs alongside the exact African sculptures that inspired them. Significantly, it brought to light a previously unrecognized relationship between the iconic Harlem Renaissance painting by Loïs Mailou Jones, Les Fétiches, and Walker Evans’s photographs of African sculptures from MoMA’s seminal 1936 exhibition African Negro Art. It also showcased African sculptures from an internationally renowned collection that had never before been seen outside of Denmark.

Admittedly, this was a complex project, calling on viewers to engage critically on multiple levels. A few of the images were problematic, trafficking as they did in exoticized notions of the Black female body prevalent in the period in which they were produced. But none of the issues the project raised should, in my mind, have been obstacles to the show’s success. Indeed, as an independent curator, I had anticipated and carefully worked through these concerns with a number of well-seasoned individuals in the art world, including prominent African American scholars and curators (David Driskell was on the committee for my dissertation that spawned this project). Nonetheless, despite the excitement the proposal elicited, one museum after another backed away from their initial enthusiastic responses, letting fear of controversy influence their final decision to pass on hosting the exhibition.

Installation photographs of Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection

Installation photographs of Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection: All sculptures from the Carl Kjersmeier Collection of African Art, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

In contrast, Dorothy Kosinski, the newly appointed director at the Phillips at the time, quickly embraced Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens, leading to its opening here in fall of 2009. To the museum’s credit, it took on the project with the usual all-hands-on deck enthusiasm characteristic of its efforts. Potential controversies were faced head on; one of the first steps was to organize an advisory board that engaged members of the community in conversations and public programming. Activities were coordinated with Howard University, the David Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, the Millennium Arts Salon, and the National Museum of African Art, expanding the audience for the show to communities beyond the museum’s traditional audience. These efforts paid off. Rather than provoking controversy, the show created dialogues. The involvement of local African American artists and scholars in the programming encouraged increased attendance and participation in related activities from the African American community.

This is not to say, however, that we should just pat ourselves on the back for this endeavor. We might want to investigate what happened to alliances that were forged during this exhibition. Were these initiatives followed up and further cemented? What might the museum have done to maintain relationships with members of the advisory board in a more meaningful way that could have contributed to retaining the expanded audience reach of that exhibition? What did we learn about engaging with complicated material and not backing away from doing difficult work for fear of controversy? And finally, how can we rethink what being a museum of modern art within a global framework means without abandoning our institutional strengths, indeed building on them, as this exhibition did?

As we continue to face the many challenges of an institution striving to live up to commitments to equity and inclusion, perhaps it could be fruitful to mine our history for other examples upon which we can build.

Riffs and Relations: Loïs Mailou Jones and Maurice Utrillo

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Place du Tertre, 1938, Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 22 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

During 1937–38, Loïs Mailou Jones (b. 1905, Boston, Massachusetts; d. 1998, Washington, DC), funded by a fellowship, took a sabbatical from teaching art at Howard University to study at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. There, she befriended Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard, who encouraged her work. As with Henry Ossawa Tanner and other African American artists before her, Jones exhibited at the Paris salons, specifically the Société des Artistes Français and the Société des Artistes Independants. Her training in Europe gave her a sense of freedom that was still unknown to her in Washington, DC, in the 1930s.

Jones painted in her studio and in the streets of Paris. Place du Tertre captures a popular square in the 18th arrondissement, only a few streets away from the hilltop church towers on Montmartre. She explained: “I would set up my [easel] on location. By 11 am I would have my scene, blocked in with a brush drawing. . . . Working as an impressionist I would sometimes have to return to the same spot several times. . . . I always had many spectators.” Museum Founder Duncan Phillips admired Jones’s modernist aesthetic. He acquired two paintings by the artist, which he exhibited at the museum and also lent to local institutions like the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first black-owned commercial art space in the US.

Maurice Utrillo, Place du Tertre, 1911, Oil on cardboard, 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1953

Growing up in the milieu of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Utrillo (b. 1883, Paris, France; d. 1955, Dax, France) took up painting to chronicle bohemian life and the urban landscape of Paris. In 1909–10, he began a series known as his White Period, which featured views of Gothic churches and street scenes derived from postcards. Over a sketch he used a palette knife and a brush to apply heavy layers of opaque paint on hard, thick cardboard.

By 1912, he had earned the admiration of avant-garde artists and had exhibited with Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1926, Duncan Phillips took interest in Utrillo’s White Period pictures. Fond of this site, he acquired Utrillo’s impression of Place du Tertre for his museum, almost 10 years after he purchased Loïs Mailou Jones’s interpretation, which shows the same square from a different vantage point.

Norman Lewis’s Abstract Works

Eliza Lafferty, an intern with the Major Gifts and Director’s Office, discusses the abstract works of Norman Lewis, an artist featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through January 3, 2021. This post is based on a seminar paper with Professor Elizabeth Prelinger at Georgetown University and was awarded the Misty Dailey Award in Art, Diversity, and Healing.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) is one of the few African American artists who sustained a career in abstraction. Riffs and Relations features Lewis and creates space to integrate the work of African American artists into the Western canon. Lewis’s abstract works—which are forms of Black activism—must be absorbed into public memory surrounding his greater contributions to the style.

Riffs and Relations curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs remarks how Lewis “was not absorbed into it [Abstract Expressionism] in terms of the history of the movement.” Riffs and Relations is in conversation with curator Dr. Ruth Fine’s Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015, which uniquely highlighted Lewis’s abstract works. Dr. Childs recognizes that the Lewis exhibit “was a way of beginning to rectify the absences in the record.”[1] Procession noted Lewis’s activism, particularly as the founding president of the Spiral group of African American artists during the Civil Rights movement. Lewis used abstraction to chronicle significant moments and people in the fight for Black empowerment.

Norman Lewis, Processional, 1964, Oil on canvas, private collection

Featured in Dr. Fine’s Procession and also in a Spiral collective show, where all the work had to be in black and white, is Lewis’s Processional from 1964. Its interlocking shapes echo the “improvisational brilliance in undulating cadences, despite the twisting effects of the fight for human rights.”[2] With a black background, the vertical and diagonal brush strokes relay a sense of dynamism and movement. Lewis forms what appears to be a crowd of people moving forward. Stepping closer and examining the corners of the composition, viewers may seek to connect forms: a circle as the illusion of a head, the line as a body form, the sharp rectangles as protest signs. The shape appears to be moving forward—although it is not achieved without struggle among the crowd. As evidenced by Processional, Lewis’s work leverages abstraction as a means to elevate the struggle for civil rights.

Riffs and Relations exhibits Lewis’s Landscape (Land Echoes) from 1955. Landscape, created prior to Spiral’s founding, captures another form of inspiration for abstraction. Lewis employs patriotic colors with gray-blues, hazy whites, and muted red tones—all framed with deep black strokes. One of the categorical organizers of Dr. Fine’s Procession is the “Rhythm of Nature,” that reveals Lewis’s interest in the organic, natural shapes of the world.[3] Landscape, with the potential allusion to the America’s national colors, moreover demonstrates Lewis’s tendency to document the world around him through abstract figuration.

Norman Lewis, Landscape (Land Echoes), 1955, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Lewis’s work reveals an intersection, although sometimes subtle, between identity and abstract art. The paintings’ titles, political context for creation, and Lewis’s artist statements often confirm his intention to intersect activism and abstraction. As viewers, learners, and scholars, we must continue to honor the intersection between art and activism, and recognize their co-informative nature. Lewis’s accounts of the American Civil Rights Movement should contribute to the greater, Western canon of art.


[1] Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection; New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2020), 156

[2] Ruth Fine, Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 177.

[3] “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, accessed September 26, 2019. https://www.pafa.org/museum/exhibitions/procession-art-norman-lewis.