Headless Torsos & White Wine: Attending My First Exhibition Opening at the Phillips

Curatorial Intern Jason Rosenberg on his experience at the opening of Marta Pérez García: Restos Traces.

White walls and silence: across all the museums I’ve visited, these have been the unifying attributes. This familiar atmosphere of peace and introspection provides a powerful juxtaposition to the vibrancy of the works on view; by removing all distractions, a deeper level of understanding can presumably be more easily achieved. And yet, this set-up always felt characteristically out of place—somehow at odds with the lively scholarly debates endemic to the evolution of the art historical field. If the entire purpose of art is to spark dialogue and call attention to pressing societal issues, why are audiences being so quiet?

Joining The Phillips Collection this spring as a Curatorial Intern, I longed to be a part of an institution actively working to shatter this passive normative practice in the art world. Given the opportunity to professionally shadow the Director for Contemporary Art Initiatives Vesela Sretenović, I quickly recognized our shared connection and desire to make art accessible—envisioning a world in which exhibitions stay open far past 5 pm, feature texts understood by all skill-levels, and promote a bustling immersive communal experience within the confines of the gallery and beyond.

Having little to no prior experience to go off of, I attended my first exhibition opening this past March. Throughout the planning and installation process, I began to recognize the series of variables that need to align in order for an event like this to be successful. The Intersections project Restos-Traces by Marta Pérez García centers around a series of nearly 20 headless female torsos—many of which are in muted in color and altered to comment on the prevalence of domestic violence. I wondered: how would audiences react? Would the room be celebratory or somber? Would people show up on a Thursday night?

Marta Pérez García and Jason Rosenberg and scenes from the exhibition opening

Surrounded by cups of white wine and dozens of strangers in suits, I quickly realized there was no reason to worry. Making my way through the bustling crowds of lively and diverse groups of visitors in attendance, all pretenses began to dissipate. The once banal white walls were substituted with Pérez García’s work hanging from the ceiling; silence was replaced with staggering conversation; audiences interacted with rare cordiality. As my mentor and exhibition curator Vesela interviewed the artist, I began to see the profound impact one’s research and hard work can have on otherwise disjointed populations. Joining the crowd in awe, I caught a glimpse of what museums have the potential to be: a place of widespread connection and celebration.

As a first-time attendee, this opening celebration was of special personal significance from the get-go; after years of studying artistic theory through textbooks, it felt surreal to watch a living artist debut their work in-person. No longer did I need to flip through heaps of journal articles to answer a question; there was no need to track down secondary sources. Rather, I was living through the history—the artist was alive and present. Like many others that night, I felt part of something greater; despite being strangers, our shared collective passion for the arts was able to transcend through trivial boundaries and foster a rare environment of unity.

As the first fully in-person Intersections opening following the onset of COVID-19, this gathering signified a powerful spirit of resilience; like García’s encircling torsos, Restos-Traces embodies perseverance and endurance through one’s circumstances, acknowledging humility and a desire to smile along the way.

David Driskell: Yaddo and Strip Collage Painting

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is on view through January 9, 2022.

David Driskell’s 1980 summer residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, was particularly generative. Inspired by the setting, Driskell made wall hangings and small sculptures from saplings, grapevines, and other materials, as well as paintings that exploded with color and new forms. He expanded his collage practice to include cheese cloth, torn paper, and long strips of stained cloth. Driskell drew upon his familiarity with American quilting and African strip-weaving traditions. While the aesthetic developments of his residency are most evident in his work from 1980, such as Upward Bound, Yaddo Circle, and Peak and Plane, the creative impulse to quilt with collage endured well beyond Yaddo.

David Driskell, Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988, Encaustic and collage on paper, 31 3⁄8 × 22 5⁄8 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. Museum Purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund, 1990.2 © Estate of David C. Driskell

A wax-based medium, encaustic is challenging to use. It provided Driskell with an excellent binder for such textured collage materials as torn strips of painted paper while also creating the effect of transparency. When burnished, the melted wax provides a surface that is brilliant and luminous, creating depth wherein the collage elements seem to dance or oscillate. Shaker Chair and Quilt recalls his mother’s quilting and refers to his deep admiration for Shaker artisans and their furnishings. Driskell frequently visited Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, not far from his Falmouth home.

David Driskell, Bahian Lace, 1988, Oil and collage on canvas, 43 × 38 in., Collection of the Estate of David C. Driskell, Maryland © Estate of David C. Driskell

Bahia is the heart of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian culture, and its dominant African cultural influence is Yoruba. With Bahian Lace, Driskell summons the decorative splendor and spirit of carnival season in Salvador, Bahia, and the elaborate costumes of layered cloth used for the Egungun masquerade. The painting’s title alludes to the elaborate lace ornamentation of the traditional dress women wore to honor the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. The Yoruba-inspired culture and aesthetics of Bahia resonated deeply with Driskell, who made three trips to Brazil between 1983 and 1987.

David Driskell: Christian Themes

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is on view through January 9, 2022.

David Driskell often stated that “art is a priestly calling,” and his artistry has deep roots in his Christian spiritual practice. Son of a Baptist minister, Driskell was informed by his father’s sermons as well as his own experiences in the Congregational church for more than 40 years. Biblical themes have been a consistent source of inspiration from the 1950s forward. Inspired by his father’s sketches of angels, they become a frequent theme in works such as Gabriel (1965) and Let the Church Roll On (1995–96). Driskell’s abiding interest in Byzantine art is reflected in the flatness and frontal posture of figures that recall sacred Christian icons.

David Driskell, Let the Church Roll On, 1995–96, Encaustic, gouache, and crayon on paper, 24 1⁄16 × 19 1⁄16 in., Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund, 1998.23 © Estate of David C. Driskell

In 1994, Driskell began a series of works that featured a small chapel with a protective, hovering angel. Titled after the popular spiritual “Let the Church Roll On,” this work conjures memories of the church from Driskell’s past, from his father’s interest in drawing angels, to Hunt’s Chapel where Driskell was baptized, and more broadly to the deep-rooted and enduring ministry of the Black church. Driskell surrounds the wood-framed chapel with verdant greenery, suggesting perhaps that nature, like the church, will continue to roll on.

David Driskell, Black Crucifixion, 1964, Oil on cotton canvas, 57 × 30 1⁄4 in., Collection of Larry D. and Brenda T. Thompson, Atlanta © Estate of David C. Driskell. Photograph by Gregory R. Staley

Completed the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Black Crucifixion signifies the persecution and suffering of Black people in America. Its critique is social. The figure looks out directly, if probingly, as an eternal witness to prevailing systems of racial violence, segregation, and discrimination. Driskell’s depiction of the body seems forensic, like an X-ray, and recalls his 1956 homage to Emmett Till, Behold Thy Son (1956). The application of planes of color, like stained glass, draws upon Driskell’s study of Analytical Cubism and his admiration for the art of Georges Rouault.

Join us on December 14 for a conversation with collectors Larry and Brenda Thompson, who were close friends with David Driskell and collected his work.