Riffs and Relations: Reframing Impressionism

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.

When the Impressionist artists first exhibited their work in Paris in 1874, their loose brushwork and focus on modern life was considered radical by the art establishment. But by the 20th century, the visual language of Impressionism had gained practitioners and collectors and had become a beloved style that was essential to the development of modernism.

Henry Ossawa Tanner and Titus Kaphar are two African American artists with different relationships to this important and influential movement. Tanner was an expatriate artist who worked in an Impressionist style in the early 20th century. On the other hand, in the 21st century, Kaphar disrupts the romantic notion of the Impressionist landscape to urge us to see what lies beneath its beautiful surfaces.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Haystacks, 1930, Oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of Irwin M. Sparr

Henry Ossawa Tanner (b. 1859, Pittsburgh, PA; d. 1937, Paris, France) traveled to Europe in 1891 in hopes of studying art with a freedom not readily available to African Americans in the United States. He forged a successful career and spent the remainder of his life in France. He became a respected and decorated French artist and an inspiration to African Americans in search of a modern and liberated artistic community. Known for his atmospheric paintings of religious subject matter, Tanner was influenced by French Impressionist techniques, in particular the style of the revered Claude Monet. It is likely that Tanner’s canvas pays homage to Monet, whose haystack paintings were exhibited in Paris in 1891, the year Tanner arrived.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Claude Monet (b. 1840, Paris, France; d. 1926, Giverny, France) painted Woman with a Parasol in a single session over several hours outdoors. With a vivid palette and a loaded brush, he freely rendered in paint the gentle intimacy shared between a mother and son on a glorious, bright and windy day. Its spontaneity was praised when the picture appeared in the Second Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1876. Monet’s attention to recording the leisure pursuits of modern Parisians, his open brushwork, and his illusionistic approach to light and atmosphere were seen as revolutionary art practices during the 19th century. But they also created a veil of beauty that contemporary artist Titus Kaphar seeks to challenge.

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar, Pushing Back the Light, 2012, Oil and tar on canvas, Courtesy of MARUANI MERCIER Gallery

Titus Kaphar (b. 1976, Kalamazoo, MI) often taps into art history in order to call attention to its absences and blind spots. In Pushing Back the Light, Kaphar samples Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol–Madame Monet and Her Son (1875), a typical subject of modern life executed with the lush color and bright light for which Impressionism is celebrated. Kaphar disturbs Monet’s luminous landscape with black tar that erupts from behind the figures, literally pushing the canvas to the border of the painting and exposing what he sees as the underbelly of Impressionist art—a movement which flourished during a critical moment in history when black lives were impacted by European colonialism in Africa and racial oppression in America after the Civil War.

The artist explains: “We look at these Impressionist paintings as beautiful pictures of the world, and to a degree they are. But what I am struck by is how much revolution is happening on the planet at the same time that we are looking at these beautiful pictures of people picnicking on the grass. . . . While we are talking and thinking about color in this different kind of way, there are people on the other side of the world who are suffering because of their color.”

Moira Dryer’s Playful and Poetic Art

Moira Dryer: Back in Business is the first comprehensive survey of this innovative and dynamic artist in almost 20 years. Among the first artists to combine both figuration and abstraction, sculpture and painting, Dryer (b. 1957, Toronto, Canada; d. 1992, New York, New York) embodies the independence of spirit and experimentation that museum founder Duncan Phillips championed. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1980, Dryer was a prominent figure in the city’s art scene, showing in galleries, clubs, and art spaces. Her playful and poetic approach to painting, a synthesis of art historical and contemporaneous styles, defies easy categorization. Dryer infused her works with a level of pathos that brought her paintings to life, creating abstract images with biographical elements that responded to her life in New York.

Installation view of Moira Dryer: Back in Business. Photo: Lee Stalsworth. (Left) Untitled, 1988, Casein on wood, 48 x 59 in., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Lannan Foundation, 1988 (Right) Captain Courageous, 1990, Casein on wood, 78 x 86 in., Courtesy Van Doren Waxter, New York

“When I observe my own work, both while making it and afterwards, it is teeming with imagery. I cannot find ‘unrecognizable’ imagery in these paintings. The various styles in painting have been digested into the language and have become familiar. The minute the brush hits there is a fertile association to be made with other paintings elsewhere. It is the reassimilation and reorganizing of how we perceive the imagery that is the new frontier; where the excitement lies.”—Moira Dryer in Tema Celeste, October 1991

Image of Moira Dryer's painting Picture This from 1985

Moira Dryer, Picture This, 1989, Casein on wood, 46 x 48 in., High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from Iris and Bruce Feinberg

“I used to work in the theater, on props and sets, and I was always very transfixed by the play before the actors came on or after they left the stage. That was my job and that was what I focused on. The lighting would be there, the tension and the audience would be there, but not the actors. Those props had an incredibly provocative effect. . . . So the pieces are the performers themselves, and that’s what I mean about them being animated. I see them as alive. I see them as walking away from the wall. . . . I feel as if they have a figurative scale, a figurative quality. In some cases, it’s less obvious, but there’s a fake quality to it, and that’s also why I used the word ‘prop.’”—Moira Dryer in conversation with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art, Spring/Summer 1989

Moira Dryer, NBC Nightly News, 1987, Casein on metal, rubber, and wood, 85 x 43 x 22 1/2 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Jeanne C. Thayer Fund, 1995. Photo: Ann Lipscombe

“I recognize [the signature boxes] now more as props to the painting and how they make the whole piece a prop. They give it a quality, not of artificiality but of a theatrical situation. . . . A painting that is just on the wall has one relationship to someone who looks at it. A painting that becomes more sculptural enters into its own physical arena. It establishes an arena. It draws the viewer into a more intimate relationship. . . . The box underneath, the signature or title box, evolved from looking at a lot of art in museums, where there’s an explanation of the piece underneath or next to it.”—Moira Dryer in conversation with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art, Spring/Summer 1989

Moira Dryer, D.D. (Dangerous Days), 1990, Casein, wood, and steel, 48 x 61 x 3 1/4 in. and 8 1/2 x 45 x 9 in., Collection of Michael and Ilene Salcman

Riffs and Relations: Mequitta Ahuja

Artist Mequitta Ahuja discusses her work Xpect, which premiered in Riffs in Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through May 24.

Two images: Left: Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn, colored pencil sketch; Right: Le Damn, 2018, Oil on canvas, 80 x 84 in.

Left: Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn, colored pencil sketch; Right: Le Damn, 2018, Oil on canvas, 80 x 84 in.

Because of the historical context they provide, museums like The Phillips Collection give artworks a feeling of permanence. The things you encounter came before you and will be there for future generations.

Or not.

In 2017, Adrienne Childs, guest curator of Riffs and Relations wrote me in an e-mail, “At this point I am at the proposal stage, and I have no clue if this will fly.” Because I had offered to make a new painting for the show, when Adrienne’s proposal was accepted, my participation was still in question. Adrienne wrote: “Because [the painting] does not exist at this point, the Phillips can’t really put it on the final checklist.” In an attempt to tip the scale in my favor, I made two paintings. Everyone likes a choice.

Image of Mequitta Ahuja's painting Le Damn Revisited

Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn Revisited, 2018, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in., Courtesy of the artist

Image of Mequitta Ahuja's painting Xpect

Mequitta Ahuja, Xpect, 2018, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in., Courtesy of the artist

That sense of inevitability that one feels in museums and other sites of history is a fiction. Having a painting of mine hang on the walls of The Phillips Collection was as unlikely and tenuous as was the birth of my son, whom I regularly describe as a miracle.

In both paintings Le Damn Revisited and Xpect, I chronicle my journey to motherhood. The gray-scale painting within the painting is my rebuttal to Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso’s painting is about the threat and allure of sex. Picasso presents woman—her body and her seduction—as an embodiment of that tension. I, too, address the threatening aspect of sex, but from a woman’s point of view. In my rebuttal to the Picasso, I depict my range of feelings from determination to despair throughout my process of trying to conceive. In Xpect and Les Damn Revisited I conclude that story with a declaration and celebration of my pregnancy.

Far from inevitable, holding my baby in front of my painting Xpect at The Phillips Collection feels magical and improbable. None of this was supposed to happen. We did it.

Photograph of Mequitta Ahuja holding her son in front of her painting Xpect

Mequitta Ahuja and her son at The Phillips Collection, February 2020. Photo: Rhiannon Newman