Honoring the Black Artists of Howard University

The Phillips Collection Fellow and Howard University student Arianna Adade reflects on the 34th James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora (you can view the livestream of the proceedings at The Phillips Collection on April 5 on YouTube) and the installation of Where We Meet: Selections from the Howard University Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection (on view through August 15, 2024).

From left to right: Elizabeth Catlett, Black Girl, 2004, Lithograph, Howard University Gallery of Art, and Alma W. Thomas, Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Gift of Franz Bader, 1976

When people think of Howard University, art may not be the initial thought that comes to mind. However, Howard is home to some of the most revolutionary Black artists. From Sylvia Snowden and Lois Mailou Jones to David Driskell and Elizabeth Catlett, Howard is home to trailblazing Black artists that are often under-appreciated in today’s art world.

David Driskell, Figures, 1954, Oil on canvas, Howard University Gallery of Art.

I had an amazing experience viewing Where We Meet: Selections from the Howard University Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection. Seeing the legendary Alma Thomas and Elizabeth Catlett’s works side by side was beautiful to witness—Catlett’s black-and-white lithograph adjacent to Thomas’s multicolored acrylic canvas highlighted the remarkable contribution Black women have given to the art world. The unique works of art on view gave me an even deeper appreciation for Howard as a grounding source for Black artistic talent throughout the centuries.

Afro-Cuban art shined brightly within the exhibit, capturing the essence of cultural and ancestral fusions and legacies in Howard’s art collection. Wifredo Lam, known for his contribution to Afro-Cuban artistic expression particularly stood out to me. Howard has always been known as the heart of Black diasporic identities, and it is no different pertaining to art.

Wifredo Lam, Exodus, 1948, Oil on burlap, Howard University Gallery of Art, Gift of Arthur B. Spingarn, New York, 1951

The Phillips’s connection to Howard began with the establishment of the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1928 under the leadership of James A. Porter. The Phillips Collection was seen as an intimate space for the art talent at Howard, as many students would come to the museum when they were excluded from other museums during segregation. Howard professor James Lesesne Wells is just one of many artists whom the Phillips family valued and his work was acquired by Duncan Phillips, making Wells one of the first Black artists to be acquired by a major Washington museum. Wells was an influential figure in Black art, as he was a mentor to some of the most well-known icons of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence and Charles Alston.

Top to bottom: James Lesene Wells, Journey to Egypt, 1931, Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1931. James Lesene Wells, Adoration of the Magi, 1950, Oil on canvas, Howard University Gallery of Art

Attending Howard University’s 34th James A. Porter Colloquium on Friday, April 5, was enlightening, to say the least. As a Black woman, it was inspiring to be in the presence of so many Black women (many of whom are Howard alumni) who serve in impactful positions in major museums around the country. From curators to directors and educators alike, these women continue to break down barriers and reshape the narrative of representation in the art world.

Left to right: Camille Brown, Assistant Curator, The Phillips Collection; Jessica Bell Brown, Curator and Department Head of Contemporary Art, Baltimore Museum of Art; Dr. Adrienne Childs, Senior Consulting Curator, The Phillips Collection; Dr. Elyse Nelson, Assistant Curator of European Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Dr. Denise Murrell. Associate Curator, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Even though Black women are the most underrepresented in museums as employees and artists, there was no underrepresentation of intelligence, resilience, and talent present at the Colloquium. I am so grateful to witness the wisdom and knowledge of individuals with whom I share similar backgrounds have such an impact on the contemporary art world. Their presence and contributions not only reshape their art institutions but also pave the way for future generations of Black women, such as myself, to finally see themselves reflected in these once-exclusive spaces.

Left to right: Jada Brooks, Art Major in Photography, Howard University; Taylor Aldridge, Visual Arts Curator and Program Manager,  California African American Museum (CAAM), Los Angeles; Dr. Rhea Combs,  Director of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dr. Gwendolyn Everett, Associate Dean, Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, Howard University; and Sacha Reid, Interdisciplinary Humanities Major and Painting Minor, Howard University

Marcos Balter on Composing Therapy

On Sunday, April 14, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and the Shanghai String Quartet perform the world premiere of Therapy by composer Marcos Balter. Senior Director of Phillips Music Jeremy Ney sits down with Balter to explore the origins, inspirations, and compositional processes behind Therapy, co-commissioned by The Phillips Collection and Chamber Music America.

Following the effects of the global pandemic, Marcos Balter focused his new work—titled Therapy—on concepts of catharsis and the healing potential of creativity, with fragmented text drawn from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Balter chose Alfonso Ossorio’s Recovery Drawings from the Phillips’s permanent collection as inspiration. Ossorio sketched the 42 Recovery Drawings while in the hospital recovering from heart failure in the final years of his life. The wildly evocative set of drawings proves that physical restrictions need not constrain imagination, and that limitations can be both generative and transformative.

Marcos Balter

Q: Tell us about the origins of Therapy as a piece and your process in writing it. It was composed in 2021 but is only now receiving its world premiere in 2024. There seems to be a long arc in the journey of realizing this piece. How did it start and where did it take you?

A: The title says it all. I had a really hard time feeling inspired by anything during a global pandemic and amidst total sociopolitical chaos. That moment felt too complex and painful to be captured in real time. Trying to translate it to music felt opportunistic and reductive. I felt personally and artistically depleted. But then, after many false starts, it dawned on me that the only genuinely thing I had to share at that time was exactly that: my own attempt to remain well, to find my own path towards healing.

Q: As a composer you are frequently writing pieces for specific players in mind, players who often know your music intimately. In this case, what were the qualities in Anthony and the Shanghai Quartet’s musicianship and musicality that fed into your thinking and the compositional process for the piece?

A: The short answer is: everything. Knowing my collaborators both artistically and personally allows me to mentally hear them rather than their instruments. I’ve known Anthony for many years, and the members of the quartet and I taught at the same institution for six years. Anthony is as brilliant an actor as he is a singer. You never feel like he’s delivering a performance; he speaks to you. And you listen, but not as one listens to music: you listen as if you are having a private conversation with him. And the Shanghai Quartet folks know each other so well that even the most contrapuntal discourse feels like mere facets of a single voice that, while contracting and expanding, remains beautifully unified.

Q: Tell us about the interplay of the two forces here – countertenor and string quartet. Within the score, they seem to operate as distinct units, the string quartet has a texture governed by often very quiet dynamics and subtle timbral effects, and the countertenor seems to have an oratory or poetic role, with a greater freedom of melodic contour.  How are these two forces interacting and contending with each other?

A: There’s a beautiful juxtaposition of stasis and kinesis in both Ossorio’s drawings and Stein’s text that transforms objects into subjects, patterns into feelings. The sheer materiality of things becomes their soul. I tried to capture that. That is to say I don’t hear it as voice accompanied by string quartet or two separate forces, but rather as spaces and objects that become animated by added meaning.

Q: In your wider music there’s been an interesting throughline of visual input or visual stimulus. Sometimes that’s specific paintings, such as the Cy Twombly work that inspired your piece for Claire Chase in 2012, Descent from Parnassus. In other cases, you’ve explored ideas from graphic design and typology (Kerning), visually dramatic projects like Pan, and more recent pieces exploring color (Livro das Cores – Book of Colors) and ideas drawn from the parallel acts of looking and listening (Vision Mantra). In this piece the visual input is Alfonso Ossorio’s Recovery Drawings from the Phillips’s permanent collection. Tell us about your choice of Ossorio’s work and how the Recovery Drawings inform Therapy.

A: Ossorio’s Recovery Drawings were his therapeutic diary while convalescing in a hospital during his last two years. Crafted solely with felt-tip watercolor markers and crayons on sketchbook paper (evident from the spiral coil holes along the edges in some pieces), they are as exuberant as they are vulnerable. There’s a sort of molecular quality to them, where the sum of many shapes and colors coalesce into supernatural beings. Yet, this fusion feels more tethered than symbiotic, like a deliberately botched and painful birth. They are violent yet fragile, precarious. Through them, I finally found a way to animate my own fear of isolation and mortality, a path to give my inner monsters a face. The immediacy of visual stimuli is something I always strive to capture in my music, and one of the reasons for my love for the visual arts.

Alfonso Ossorio, Recovery Drawings #2, Book 1, 1989, Felt tip pen on paper, The Phillips Collection,  Gift of the Ossorio Foundation, 2008

Q: People often discuss the concept of hybridity in your work, which in one sense captures a certain stylistic predisposition towards synthesis, of framing (musically) different ideas drawn from the mythological, visual, or literary topos. This is essentially the conceptual domain. However, when you are composing, with the tools and means of music and its systems of notation, melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics, how do you continue to think about visual ideas? The two forms are complimentary in many ways but not necessarily translatable. How do you bridge the divide between the two domains?

A: It’s a battle. The conventional view of music as a disembodied phenomenon doesn’t appeal to me. The emphasis on Cartesian dualism, separating mind and body, permeates most compositional tools, from notation systems to structural approaches to harmony. Yet, as a composer, I do value intentionality, which is often more easily achieved through systematic methods. And then there’s the almost fetishization of sound, or, as Cage once said, letting “sounds be sounds,” which seems absurd to me. No sound is just a sound unless we choose to erase its source, which is quite a problematic posture in my view. Bringing techniques and perspectives from other art forms allows me to escape this facelessness of music-making. It connects me to materials, bodies, words, and images in ways that are more substantial and structural rather than merely programmatic.

Q: Tell us about your engagement with the Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Where did this inspiration come from for the text within Therapy?

A: This is my second foray into “Tender Buttons.” Over a decade ago, I composed a piece for the bassoonist Rebekah Heller titled “…and also a fountain,” which are the final words of Stein’s book. I focused the entirety of that piece on the book’s last paragraph, which left me yearning for another opportunity to explore other sections. Once I discovered Ossorio’s drawings, my mind immediately turned back to the book.

Q: The text is quite fragmentary and spliced together almost as a compositional tool itself that is ‘extra-musical’ in a sense. How does this collage-like approach to textual abstraction help create a sense of arc (be it narrative, musical, or both) in the piece?

A: Stein’s “linear non-linearity” is rather similar to the way I think of my own music. I find myself particularly drawn to writers who approach their craft in a similar manner, such as Clarice Lispector, for instance. While there are recurring themes in their work, they are rarely presented in a hierarchical fashion. Instead, there’s a sense of unity that pervades the text at any given point. This provides me with the freedom to extract phrases, or even fragments of phrases, and weave them into new shapes that align with my musical instincts. There’s an implicit invitation to manipulate it that is quite generous and seductive.

Funding for this commission was generously provided by the Sachiko Kuno Philanthropic Fund.

Funding for the performance was generously provided by an anonymous donation.

Join us for the livestream of Therapy on April 14 at 4 pm.

The Art of the Eclipse

Marketing and Communications Detail Summer Roshni Bhullar takes a look at Honoré Daumier’s lithograph about the eclipse in 1847.

Ancient cultures across time have often believed eclipses are a sign of destruction. They have been interpreted as negative, with the disappearance of the sun symbolizing the sun being swallowed up by darkness. But are they negative or is it fear which leads to this interpretation?

Honoré Daumier, Tout ce qu’on voudra: Vois-tu, c’est l’eclipse qui commence…, 1847, Lithograph, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Jean Goriany, 1940

Honoré Daumier, born in France, was one of the most rebellious and revolutionary artists of the 18th century. He is well known for his realistic lithographic caricatures among other artistic mediums, created in his groundbreaking graphic style. He worked for a French humor magazine called Le Charivari for over 40 years, making almost 3,900 lithographs and wood engravings for them. He unabashedly expressed his views against society, which he perceived as corrupt and pretentious. He was like a visual reporter, and his art was an outcry for humanity. We can see that if we try to catch the soul of his intention and his satirical and rebellious ways.

The eclipse was the subject of one of his famous lithographic caricatures, Tout Ce Qu’on voudra: Vois-tu, c’est l’eclipse qui commence…’ The satirical image was made during the solar eclipse that occurred over Paris on October 9, 1847. In his signature defiant style, he weaves in current events—in this case the eclipse, which can also be interpreted as something being eclipsed or disappearing.

Daumier constantly rebelled against the government as well as the legal profession. Because he was forced to work in a law office, he strongly disliked anyone working for the law office which included the notary public. In the eclipse lithograph, he seems to be mocking the attention—especially from the media—being given to the eclipse and ties it to the legal profession, linking the disappearance of the notary and the sensationalism created in the minds of the public by the media about the eclipse. Daumier was fearless—which led him to spend some time in jail for speaking against society and the law—and is visually speaking against the herd mentality of the public, and the authorities telling them what to see and not to see.

We live in a world where fear plays a key role. The media, news, government, and society propagate it. Even with eclipses—along with excitement and interest, there is an element of fear which has always played a part. Since the oldest recorded eclipse in human history, which may have been on November 30, 3340 B.C., eclipses as celestial events have been big occurrences. Every culture has an interpretation of them. Some celebrate them, some fear them, some worship them.

What eclipses are—apart from being celestial and astrological events—are reset points. The moon symbolizes our emotions and feelings, and the sun symbolizes life, renewal, and growth. Eclipses happen every six months and energetically they are a time of deep change. Two of the celestial bodies which impact us so deeply, when their light is ‘turned off’ for a few brief moments—means it is time to realign, reset, and let go of the old and usher in the new. They generally happen in a pair—a lunar and a solar eclipse. It is like an emotional culmination and energetic renewal.

Daumier continuously rebelled against aspects of human psychology which led to more fear and lack of freedom. His art and rebellion were an attempt on his part to help the public see the truth through his art.