Abstraction in Action: Highlights from the Collection

Marketing and Communications Detail and Museum Assistant Caroline Polich on abstract works in the collection.

Abstract art is a genre of art that doesn’t seek to accurately represent reality, instead using a visual language of shapes, colors, marks, and forms. From Color Field to Cubism, and from Suprematism to De Stijl, this genre encompasses many techniques, approaches, and movements. Abstraction has a long and nuanced history across many cultures, but it received new interest and experienced many new developments starting in the early 20th century in Europe. It has played a pivotal role in art and art history ever since. As a museum of modern and contemporary art, The Phillips Collection has a wide variety of abstract works. Learn more below about several artistic approaches to abstraction, exemplified by three paintings in our permanent collection.

Many artists use abstraction to depict a place in a more profound and multidimensional way. Wassily Kandinsky’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) (1913) uses color, shape, and line to convey the feeling or “emotional sounds” of Moscow. Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first Europeans to adopt abstract art, was born in Russia but spent much of his life abroad. In this work, he creates a sense of place through motifs strongly connected to his home country. The three parallel lines in the top left of the composition convey the movement of a troika, a three-horse sled. The undulating brown, black, and white lines on the right, which intersect with a bold white line, represent the legendary figure of St. George on horseback with a lance. Through abstraction, Kandinsky captures the essence of a place, its culture, and his connection to it.

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913, Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 30 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift from the estate of Katherine S. Dreier, 1953

For some artists, abstraction is a way to explore new processes and reinterpret traditional mediums. Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) was known for his draped paintings on unstretched canvas, and his improvisational approach to painting, inspired by jazz. Red Petals (1967) is an early example of Gilliam’s unique process, in which he poured paint over unprimed and unstretched canvas, then folded, rolled, and splattered it to create his vibrant and fluid compositions. The work is a balance between control and chance, the artist’s actions and the properties of the mediums (both the paint, the canvas, and how they interact). Red Petals, unlike many of Gilliam’s later works, was re-stretched so it could be hung on a wall like a traditional painting. However, this work still demonstrates how the artist saw canvas as a medium to engage and create with, not just a two-dimensional surface to paint on. Working abstractly allowed Gilliam to reimagine traditional approaches and processes in painting.

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

Other artists use abstraction to visualize intangible or philosophical ideas. Anil Revri (b. 1956) is an Indian artist born in New Delhi, who lives and works in Washington, DC. Revri’s abstract paintings on handmade paper—two of which are recent acquisitions at the Phillips—draw from a wide range of influences, from the Washington Color School to Eastern philosophy. Geometric Abstraction 3 (2020) uses geometry and repetition to explore ideas of meditation, truth, order, and journeys. Symmetry creates a sense of calm and order within the complex composition of shapes, lines, and marks. The contrasts in value and color—scarlet, white, and gold against a dark background—affect how the eye moves around the composition, a sort of visual and perhaps philosophical journey across the surface of the work.

Anil Revri, Geometric Abstraction 3, Mixed media on handmade paper, 18 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Nuzhat Sultan, 2021

These works by Kandinsky, Gilliam, and Revri are just three examples of how artists can approach abstraction. This genre has opened up new ways of making and thinking about art that are still being explored today. Next time you see an abstract work, think about how it uses elements like color, shape, and line, what traditions it might be reimagining, and what feelings it elicits.

Read More

Wassily Kandinsky | The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

Sam Gilliam | Pace Gallery

Anil Revri | Artist’s Website

EDI (Education Integration) Global Forum

Deputy Director for Education and Responsive Learning Spaces Anne Taylor Brittingham shares her experience at the Education Integration (EDI) Global Forum in Naples, Italy

From October 12-14, Donna Jonte, Head of Experiential Learning, and I were able to attend the inaugural convening of the EDI (Education Integration) Global Forum. The EDI Global Forum seeks to inspire change, promote sustainability, connect communities, spark innovation, and rethink education. The three-day conference in Naples, Italy, brought together 200 museum professionals representing 180 institutions actively working with education through the lens of art and culture. After years of isolation, it was amazing to be at a conference with people from 5 continents, 80 international institutions, and 100 Italian organizations. Through a series of keynote lectures, participatory workshops, and collaborative working groups, the convening focused on five themes: Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion, Sustainability, Art and Well-Being, and Institutional Structure.

EDI Global Forum participants at National Archaeological Museum

I moderated a session with the Pinacoteca in São Paolo, Brazil, and the MANN (National Archaeological Museum) in Naples. The session brought together perspectives from Naples and San Paolo to address how to engage communities that museums are not always prepared to welcome, including sex workers, the homeless, and youth without access to cultural institutions. As a part of the workshop, we performed a “SWOT” analysis of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats to engaging a group at risk of social exclusion. Museum professionals from London, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Italy, and the United States discussed how we can not only reach these traditionally excluded audiences, but also how to prepare staff to welcome all guests to the museum.

Anne Taylor Brittingham, The Phillips Collection; Gabriela Aidar, Pinacoteca Sao Paolo; Angela Vocciante and Elisa Napolitano, MANN Naples

I was also able to be a part of another working group that considered issues of sustainability—in particular focusing on how to address the waste generated by exhibition and education programs. How can we create institutional policies that address and solve the waste problem? What is our responsibility to be leaders in confronting this waste problem head on?

Throughout the three days, Donna and I connected with museum professionals from around the world and heard about work that’s taking place in their museums around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.

Reflections: Art + Music: More Than a Feeling 

Education Assistant Davinna Barkers-Woode shares her experience helping facilitate a school partnership with Washington School for Girls which culminated in an exhibition. 

Lloyd McNeill and Lou Stovall, Roberta Flack, 1967, Silkscreen poster, 17 x 11 in., Courtesy of Stovall Family

Working with the Washington School for Girls this past June allowed the Phillips Education Department to expand on the ideas presented in our recent Lou Stovall exhibition. The exhibition centered on themes of community, collaboration, accessibility within the arts, experimentation, and calls for social change. When we merge these concepts with a real-life application we can uncover what these concepts mean in our reality. With Art + Music: More Than a Feeling, we focused on Stovall’s love of community: he stayed connected to his community through creating music festival posters that would hang in the streets of D.C. Musicians, artists, and activists for Black liberation often worked with each other to host these festivals and donate a portion of the proceeds back into the community—emphasizing the cyclical nature that goes into sustaining a community.  

Looking at these music festival posters featured in Stovall’s exhibition, color, shape, rhythm, and repetition are emphasized. We encouraged the students to listen to their favorite songs and explore how these musicians use rhythm, repetition, tone, and mood. They also looked closely at their song lyrics and underlined any repeating words or phrases that stood out to them. With these elements in mind, the students began to sketch their ideas for their print. Many of them were clever enough to translate the sonic aspects of their songs into different shapes to create a visual language.  

The students transferred their sketches onto cardstock and cut out their forms.

The cutout shapes allowed them to explore many possibilities with the composition. Many took advantage of layering their cutouts, creating more dynamism within their print. Next, they brushed their cutouts with a thin layer of glue and let them dry completely before arranging them one last time on their inking plates.  

Experimentation had a chance to shine when it came to choosing the colors they wanted to incorporate.

Watching the students cover their inking plates and shapes with all these crazy colors would be a nightmare for some. Still, I found it fascinating to see how confident they were in their decision-making and their ability to capture their song’s mood visually through color. With the help of teaching artist Gail-Shaw Clemons, students sent their inking plates through the printing press and were able to carefully remove their prints and reveal their final results. Each student had the opportunity to write their own wall text that accompanied their finished print in the exhibition, which gave them a chance to reflect and articulate the reasoning for how they depicted their song.  

Showing the students the possibilities with printmaking made way for understanding that artmaking does not have to be reserved for traditional mediums like painting. If you have a message, find whatever means to communicate it best. Also, experimentation shouldn’t be scary or something we should try and avoid. You never know the possibilities that will come from thinking outside the box and trying something new. Lastly, we created an atmosphere invested in the students’ self-expression and honored them as individuals to make their own decisions. As educators, we came together with our various skill sets and bonded over this common goal—we created a community that desired to uphold the students’ visions.  

Critical engagement with artists and their work elevates their contributions and allows us to explore contemporary issues and new perspectives. Keeping this objective at the forefront of our school partnerships has made us cultivate youth activities that nurture their foundation with love, respect, and compassion, while providing them with the tools necessary to build on the work of influential artists in personally relevant ways.