That Long Distance Call: Renée Stout and the Blues

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Renée Stout and the blues. Visit our InstagramFacebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“How can you capture a wail in an artwork, which is basically a silent thing?”[1] This was a question posed by artist Renée Stout in an interview from 1994 with art historian Marla C. Berns. The wail Stout refers to is the vocal and guitar sound of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was the inspiration for Stout’s 1995 installation project Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads. In the blues folklore, Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for becoming a virtuoso blues guitarist. Johnson’s short life (he died in 1938 at the age of 27) is full of such legends and metaphysical encounters, and his raw, soulful blues is captured on only a handful of recordings taken at the end of his life when he was a traveling musician performing in and around the Mississippi delta in the late 1930s, enduring—like so many others—the extreme trauma of segregation.

What is it about the sound of a musician like Robert Johnson that Renée Stout seeks to “capture” in “silent” art objects like paintings or sculptures? This kind of synthesis is not a question of semiotic transference between one material domain (the aural) to another (the visual), but is more about a sense of shared emotional territory, a question of affect, feeling, and mood. Music is often thought to possess the most direct and emotive effect on our senses; music is visceral, it can transform the way we feel. This is what Robert Johnson’s music does, it speaks of pain, suffering, and hardship, but also joy, hope, and creative spirit. Renée Stout describes how, “When I first listened to Robert Johnson’s music it really hit me because it was clear this man was in pain and needed to sing about it. I’ve heard other blues singers I like just as much, but his music hit me differently. It made me want to see what it was that he saw…I just have this need to ‘illustrate,’ as best I can, the music of a man that I’ve become so fascinated with.”[2]

Thinking through music—both in the way that it “hits” us and the historical associations that underline its social meaning—can help reveal rich conceptual depths in the work of an artist like Renée Stout. Stout’s visual explorations of the “blues aesthetic”[3] (a term coined by art historian Richard Powell), are inextricably linked to her parallel interest in African history and the diasporic traditions that have shaped the musical, social, and spiritual origins of the blues as the “first completely personalized form of African American music.”[4] Two works recently acquired by the Phillips exhibit Stout’s ability to recall elements of African culture, spirituality, and mysticism, and set them in dialogue with the African American experience, generating contemporary objects that are suffused with what theorist Paul Gilroy has called “diasporic intimacy.”[5]

The 2015 mixed media sculpture Elegba (Spirt of the Crossroads) invokes the complex trickster deity of West African Yoruba culture. Elegba (or Eshu or Èsú in other African cultures) is god of the crossroads, a spiritual location where an individual must confront difficult decisions in life. The crossroads metaphor simultaneously signals a site of danger or opportunity, and in West African culture Elegba was believed to hold the spiritual potential to effect change. Through ritual and divination, where music, dance, religion, and spirituality where united in an indivisible network of social practices, the Elegba deity could be drawn upon by humans to influence events in their lives and in the world. The Elegba deity features prominently in Stout’s explorations of the legend of Robert Johnson.

Renée Stout, Elegba (Spirit of the Crossroads), 2015–19 Mixed media, 39 x 17 x 13 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist and Hemphill Gallery, 2019

Renée Stout, Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), 2017, Acrylic and latex on wood panel, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2018

But the powerful Elegba symbol also appears elsewhere. In Stout’s 2017 painting Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), the shape of the Elegba sculpture seems to manifest itself with a bright orange light that appears to signal a path forward, perhaps indicating a choice to make at the crossroads. In the song Mannish Boy,” bluesman Muddy Waters sings, “I’m a hoochie-coochie man,” invoking a veiled double meaning: the sexually provocative 19th-century dance and the hoodoo spiritual traditions that connected enslaved Africans of the Mississippi Delta (the birthplace of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) to their ancestral homeland. The “diasporic intimacy” of these traditions, as scholar George Lipsitz has observed, allowed “displaced Africans in the American South to keep alive memories of the continent they came from through a wide range of covert practices.”[6] Stout’s deployment of the Elegba icon in Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters) is similarly covert and coded, and the image of the crossroads serves a blues-tinged metaphysics, an imagined transitional and transcultural site where African ancestry and African American experience meet. Renée Stout’s sculptures and paintings thus perform the cultural memory of the blues, conjuring a space in which an acoustic past resonates in the visual present. Far from being “silent” objects, they vibrate with sonic potential, calling out to us to look, listen, and respond.

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.


[1] Quoted in in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Richard Powell in “Introduction: The Hearing Eye,” in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

[4] Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 221.

[5] Paul Gilroy, Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 156.

[6] George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Intimacy in the Art of Renée Stout,” in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 10.

“Before painting, there was jazz”

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Sam Gilliam’s relationship to jazz. Visit our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“Before painting, there was jazz.”—Sam Gilliam, 2014

Sam Gilliam, April, 1971, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. The Phillips Collection, Bequest of Mercedes H. Eichholz, 2013

When we look at Sam Gilliam’s painting April (1971), what music might we imagine to accompany the image? In a 1985 local TV profile entitled “Sam Gilliam—Symphony of Color,” the segment producers chose an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String as the musical backdrop to Gilliam’s canvasses. Slow and meditative may have been the intended mood, but you are more likely to feel as if you are on hold with your insurance company than you are to be acoustically stirred by the work of this singular figure in American art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What changes about a painting like April when we think about the music that Gilliam himself loves: jazz? Gilliam has spoken frequently about the influence of jazz on his art. When he moved to Washington, DC, in the early 1960s, he promoted concerts, bringing the Modern Jazz Quartet and Marian Anderson to the city during the era of civil rights. Painting in his DC studio, Gilliam listened to the vanguards of bebop: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, radical improvisers who pioneered a liberated Black musical aesthetic rooted in African and African American cultural history. Gilliam has talked about his associations with John Coltrane’s music and the aural impression of his “sheets of sound”—a conscious visual metaphor for Coltrane’s innovations in jazz harmony and rhythm. “Coltrane worked at the whole sheet,” Gilliam has remarked, “He didn’t bother to stop at bars and notes and clefs and various things, he just played the whole sheet at once.”

Gilliam has also identified with the performance of jazz musicianship, saying, “jazz leads to the acrobatics of art,” revealing his affinity with the bodily, affective presence of a musician like Coltrane in the “acrobatic” moment of improvisation.

As is well documented, Gilliam remained wholly committed to abstraction in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the Black Arts Movement (BAM) sought to frame Black art through a “socially responsible aesthetic” that was rooted in figuration and realism. Gilliam’s abstraction allowed him to move more fluidly through questions of race and self-identity, and he chose to relate to them freely as one element among many, rather than as a matter of fate. His engagement with jazz was similar; it is not always explicit in his work, but it is central to the mosaic of his artistic identity. His statement that “before painting, there was jazz” is revealing in this context. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has observed about the painterly process, “It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface,” by which he means that the blank canvas is already filled with the ideas that the artist brings to the painting. He calls this “the painting before the painting.” Gilliam’s decisive “before painting, there was jazz” compels us to interpret the aural trace of jazz influence in his work.

The Phillips’s beveled-edge painting April reveals Gilliam’s intensely performative process, which—like jazz—requires a balance between structure and improvisation. At this time, he applied paint freely to canvases placed on the floor, folding the material while the paint was wet, a procedure that introduced improvisatory elements to the final composition. The title, April, signals a conceptual link to earlier paintings, April 4 (1969) and Red April (1970), both of which refer to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968), rooting the multiple April paintings in a shared, humanistic social consciousness. In 1971, Gilliam also produced Lady Day, an explicit homage to jazz singer Billie Holiday, which shares the same coloristic, sensuous lyricism as April. While the titles of the canvases flag their social, political, and cultural concerns, these are also rendered ambiguous through the process of abstraction. Within Gilliam’s process of defamiliarization through abstraction, he found a model in the experimental attitude of the practitioners of bebop, who recombined and transformed the elements of jazz through a process of hybridization and synthesis that created a new art form focused on individual freedom and agency. The radicalism of artists like John Coltrane formed the perfect analogue for Gilliam, who sought a similar individualistic style unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries.

So when Gilliam refers to himself as “more like a composer,” as he does at the beginning of the 1985 TV interview, we should think critically about how to interpret musical influence in his art. We might be cautious not to frame the metaphor of Gilliam the composer through the prism of Eurocentric Western art music, typified by a “universal” figure such as Bach, but engage with the musical culture and influences closest to the artists’ life and work. Such an engagement may reveal different layers of interpretive depth to a painting, sparking the questions: can music transform what we see, and could a work of art help us hear in new ways? To confront such an intersensory provocation, we would do well to heed the words of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who encouraged his audiences to “hear with your eyes and see with your ears.”

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.

I Miss Ben Shahn’s Still Music

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Director of Music Jeremy Ney on why he misses Ben Shahn’s Still Music (1948).

Ben Shahn, Still Music, 1948, Casein on fabric mounted on plywood panel, 48 x 83 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1949

Earlier this year, before we temporarily closed our doors, Ben Shahn’s 1948 painting Still Music was exhibited on the second floor of the Phillips House next to the Laib Wax Room. The juxtaposition was intriguing; sight, scent, and sound inhabiting the same proximity. However, one sense was noticeably absent from the equation; music appeared as a silent partner in this particular synesthetic exchange. Ben Shahn produced several works on this visual theme; along with the Phillips’s painting, there are later screenprints that share the same precisely controlled graphic elements of disordered chairs and strewn music stands, albeit with the modified title Silent Music. “Still” or “Silent” the effect seems to be the same; painting “music” has the curious visual consequence of robbing music of its material ability to sound, to be audible.

However, I like to think that the title is more of a playful provocation; looking at the bold horizontal and vertical lines (with their echoes of Paul Klee’s art, one of Shahn’s favorite artists), there is nothing still about the image—it is in fact highly animated. There is a dynamic interplay between the gradations of background color as one element, and the rhythmic, angular lines as another. The effect is similar to what we see in Klee’s work—polyphonic and conversational—and the relationship between the painting’s form and its content creates a particular sense of latent energy. This is what fascinates me about the painting, how it communicates a direct emotional impression that opens up many different layers of possible interpretation. Duncan Phillips saw in Still Music the “vibrations of music one senses during the intermission in a concert,” whereas Shahn was more tongue in cheek, suggesting that the absent musicians of the scene had gone on strike—“local 802 on strike!” The stark difference between the two interpretations only works to enhance the mystery of the image.

Taking up Shahn’s implicit invitation, my own interpretation is closer to Duncan Phillips’s, seeing in the idea of stillness an analogue to that particular moment in musical performance just after the last sound dissolves, where time feels temporarily suspended. As our Music Room falls silent for the foreseeable future, Still Music reminds me of the energy of that moment of live performance and makes me wonder how that same energy can live in paintings, too.