Phillips Flashback: A Note From Georgia O’Keeffe

Every so often, routine messages from the past can provide new insights into historic connections and relationships. While preparing Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s correspondence for an ambitious three-year digitization project of the Phillips archives (generously funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services), Processing Archivist Juli Folk found a handwritten note from Georgia O’Keeffe from 1936 on the back of a Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then) envelope:

“Dear Mr. Phillips, I came in this afternoon with my friend Anita Pollitzer and was very sorry not to see you. When I asked this morning if the gallery would be open it did not occur to me to ask if you would be here. I enjoyed the paintings very much. My greetings to Mrs. Phillips. Sincerely, Georgia O’Keeffe.”

A note from Georgia O’Keeffe from the Phillips Collection archives

After a visit to the museum one day, O’Keeffe used the envelope to leave a note telling Duncan Phillips that she and her companion, Anita Pollitzer, enjoyed the paintings and to express disappointment that she had not been able to see him that day. By this time, Phillips and O’Keeffe had an established correspondence and Phillips already owned her painting Ranchos Church, No. II, NM (1929). Pollitzer was O’Keeffe’s best friend, with whom she also carried on a prodigious correspondence and to whom O’Keeffe often showed her work. In fact, it was Pollitzer who sent some of O’Keeffe’s early abstract charcoal drawings, which O’Keeffe called the “Specials,” to Alfred Stieglitz, gallery dealer and photographer, launching a lifelong relationship. Stieglitz went on to become a champion of O’Keeffe’s work, giving her many exhibitions in his New York gallery, and the two were married in 1924.

It is tantalizing to speculate which works of art O’Keeffe saw at the gallery that day. According to the museum’s installation records, in 1936 she could have seen paintings such as Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window, Paul Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Arthur Dove’s Morning Sun, Vincent van Gogh’s The Public Gardens at Arles, Ernest Lawson’s Spring Morning, Edouard Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room, and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Moonlit Cove, as well as her own Ranchos Church, inspired by a trip to Taos, New Mexico.

Phillips Flashback: Conceptual Artist Yuri Schwebler

Processing Archivist Juli Folk shares her findings in the Phillips Archives about Conceptual Artist Yuri Schwebler.

Since I began working as a processing archivist in The Phillips Collection Library and Archives this summer, one of the resources I access to learn more about the museum is our rich collection of oral histories, a documentation effort that began in 2004 and continues today. These transcripts are the result of hours of conversations between professional oral historians and The Phillips Collection directors, curators, exhibition designers, artists, and other staff. While reading the oral history with Bill Koberg, The Phillips Collection’s chief of installations who started as a museum assistant in 1971, I was struck by his passing mention of a familiar outdoor sculpture around the corner from the museum.

“Now that you’ve scratched my memory, there was a Yuri Schwebler [show at The Phillips Collection in 1973], and those were works that were designed for the space that were made out of slate and, I think, in some cases, glass on rails with pendulums. There’s an example of that, now,  on Q Street, around the corner, in front of a… house.”

If you’ve ever walked to The Phillips Collection from the Dupont Circle Metro station via Q Street NW, then you’ve probably seen it, too. The work, by conceptual artist Yuri Schwebler, sits in front of a muted green house on the north side of the street.

Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler. Photo: Juli Folk

Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler. Photo: Juli Folk

Schwebler, a well-known participant in the 1970s DC arts scene, was born on November 21, 1942, in Nazi-occupied Feketic, Yugoslavia. He immigrated to Delaware as a child, taking art lessons in high school and eventually attending Western Maryland College before being encouraged to pursue his art career in Maryland and DC. He is best known for ambitious works designed for specific sites and is associated with the Max Protetch gallery. The piece on Q Street NW is exemplary of the concepts Schwebler was exploring at this time, including geometry, balance, light, shadow, and natural processes.

Schwebler’s 1973 exhibit at The Phillips Collection, 2 as 3 sculptures, is an early exploration of themes that would pervade his career.

Exhibition Postcard Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection Archives

Exhibition Postcard. Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection Archives

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The exhibition brochure shows that the five works emphasize pendulums, plumb bobs, materials, and spatial balance. As Koberg noted, the pieces were designed specifically for the courtyard space.

Henry Allen, writing for The Washington Post Arts in 1973, called the show “sculpture in the tradition of the pyramids, not the Pieta—of alchemy rather than esthetics.” Allen goes on to describe that, “The five new works comprise: 12 big sheets of 1⁄4-inch plate glass, 11 aluminum I-beams, each with a small hole drilled in the center to hold a carpenters’ spirit level, 11 plumb bobs that dangle from 11 golden strings, and 26 turnbuckles to tighten 13 silvery wires.”

The Washington Post Review

The Washington Post Review

A 1981 essay by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan for an exhibition organized by The Hudson River Museum, The Studio: Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler, describes Schwebler’s works as sometimes temporary and sometimes permanent, constructed both indoors and outdoors, and exploring “geometric precision and modules to magical transformations and theatrical engagement, from small wall-oriented objects to projects of monumental proportions”.

Spatial drawings of geometric figures based on numerical values (as in both mathematics and alchemy, according to Schwebler) were refined on increasingly larger scales between 1973 and 1978. In five sculptures made in 1973 specifically for the garden of The Phillips Collection, Schwebler arranged in each work two sheets of plate glass to suggest equilateral triangles (“2 as 3”) resting on or under aluminum I-beams. The measure of each piece for balance and precision was taken in effect by carpenter’s spirit levels and plumb bobs on golden threads, while taut silver wires both secured the constructions and extended the image of drawing between points and planes in space. Industrial hardware and pristine glass were combined to reveal both structure and process. Catching light and elements in the space around them, each transparent variation acquired a certain poetry in harmony with its environment—a foil to formal crispness.

Other popular local works included filling the atrium of the Corcoran School of Art with pyramids and a series of “Magnetic North” installations around the District. In the winter of 1974, after years of planning, Schwebler created a sundial using the Washington Monument as its gnomon shifting against the carefully calculated pattern shoveled into fresh snowfall. Walter Cronkite reported for the CBS Evening News that the project required $24, six feet of snow, and a permit and plow from the National Park Service. When asked about why he made it, Schwebler replied, “You can actually see the Earth move, or feel it move, by watching that shadow.”

Again, Hartigan quotes Schwebler’s take on his work around DC.:

“Relating [is] what I’ve done in those pieces over the years rather than sculptures… around this town [Washington, DC], looking at sculpture that exists—like a general here and a horse and general there—[it] is always imposing on the space but… dealing with the structure of the space, and somehow showing something that I saw in the place, rather than really imposing myself.”

Sadly, Schwebler died by suicide at his home in Marlborough, New York, on March 3, 1990, at age 47, and his obituary appeared in The Washington Post. He was survived by his partner, Enid Sanford, as well as his mother, Eva Schwebler, and two sisters. Because so much of his work was temporary by design, many installations are no longer in existence; the piece on Q St. NW is thus an even more poignant reminder of his artistic efforts and local legacy.

The Phillips Collection Archives was established in 2006 to organize, preserve, and make available the museum’s records of enduring value that document the history of the museum, including its origins, activities, and events. The Archives serves as the museum’s institutional memory, and is especially rich in documentation of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, the museum’s founders. The Archives also selectively acquires primary source material that relates to the history of the museum as well as collections that focus on artists whose work is in The Phillips Collection. The archives welcome staff as well as visiting researchers and scholars during public open hours as well as visits by appointment. Research conducted by staff and visiting scholars leads to exhibitions, exhibition catalogues, books, articles, theses, and doctoral dissertations.

 

Resources and Further Reading

Allen, Henry. “It Means Something But What?” The Washington Post, July 20, 1973.

Anderson, John. “The Missing Archive of Yuri Schwebler.” International Sculpture Center re:sculpt, January 25, 2017. https://blog.sculpture.org/2017/01/25/the-missing-archive-of-yuri-schwebler/.

Caldwell, John. “Art; Thought-provoking Work At The Hudson.” The New York Times, November 15, 1981. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/15/nyregion/art-thought-provoking-work-at-the-hudson.html

Frgey, Benjamin. “Phillips Collection: A Sculptural Side.” The Washington Star-News, July 20, 1973.

Hartigan, Linda. “The Studio: Sculpture.” Hudson River Museum Exhibition Catalog, 1981. https://books.google.com/books?id=7vbldwPxOfkC.

Meyer, Robinson. “On Google Maps, the Washington Monument Is a Sundial.” The Atlantic, May 23, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/on-google-maps-the-washington-monument-is-a-sun-dial/371555/.

Meredith. “DC Art History: Yuri Schwebler and the Largest Sundial.” Brightest Young Things,

March 9. 2010. https://brightestyoungthings.com/articles/dc-art-history-yuri-schwebler-and-the-largest-sundial.

Metcalfe, John. “Queen of Beverly Court.” Washington City Paper, July 2, 2004. https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/13029304/queen-of-beverly-court

Moorhaus, Donita. Transcript of an oral history in The Phillips Collection Oral History Program: Interview with Bill Koberg, The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, 2010. http://library.phillipscollection.org:8080/#section=resource&resourceid=257980

Pearson, Richard. “Yuri Schwebler, D.C. Artist in 1970s, Dies.” The Washington Post, March 5, 1990. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1990/03/05/yuri-schwebler-dc-artist-in-1970s-dies/f1626044-8a11-4d06-8de6-1da77b08bdad/.

Richard, Paul. “Phillips: A Look at the Locals.” The Washington Post, September 15, 1973.

Seadler, Dee. “ART: Schwebler Through the Looking Glass.” Memo: Washington’s Comprehensive Entertainment Magazine. August 19-September 1, 1973, p. 14.

Dear Dove, Dear Phillips, Dear Stieglitz: The Centerport Years

Through correspondence in the Phillips archives, photographs, and more, the Reading Room exhibition Dear Dove, Dear Phillips, Dear Stieglitz explores the relationship between artist, patron, and gallery dealer.

Read THE EARLY YEARS, 1912-1933

Read THE GENEVA YEARS, 1933-1938

THE CENTERPORT YEARS, 1938-1946

In Centerport, Long Island, Dove and his wife again lived close to nature in a one-room cottage (formerly a post office) on stilts that was set on the edge of a tidal pond. During this period, Dove struggled with health problems, including pneumonia, heart attacks, and Bright’s disease, a kidney condition that prevented him from working as much as he had before. Despite his deteriorating health, he painted with renewed intensity, moving in a more abstract direction he called “pure painting” and working with themes that had preoccupied him over the course of his lifetime, such as the sun, moon, land, water, and sky. When Stieglitz died in July 1946, Dove wrote to Phillips that it was “a blow from which it will take a long time to recover.” Dove died in Centerport four months later. Phillips wrote a tribute to the gallery dealer in the Stieglitz Memorial Portfolio: “I think he knew we were allies in the same Cause; that we also had an ‘experiment station’ as well as an intimate gallery where art can be at home.”

Alfred Stieglitz to Duncan Phillips, April 3, 1941

Alfred Stieglitz to Duncan Phillips, April 3, 1941

Stieglitz conveyed Dove’s happiness about Phillips’s continued sponsorship of his work at a critical moment in the artist’s career. Stieglitz wrote, “[Dove] is happy that you are satisfied with his development. And that your wife also feels the same way. I don’t think you can possibly realize what you have done for him—and so for me. He, able to work freely for another two years without economic anxiety.”

Image of Arthur Dove, Rain or Snow, 1943

Arthur Dove, Rain or Snow, 1943, Oil and wax emulsion on canvas, 35 x 25 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1943

Duncan Phillips acquired Rain or Snow in 1943, the same year it was painted. In his late work, Dove often used fewer, simpler shapes and a more limited range of colors. The diagonal brown strips may indicate branches and the thin lines likely represent streaks of rain, while the large rectangular shapes could be snowflakes. Two vertical stripes painted in silver on the edges of the painting suggest a window through which a winter storm is visible.

Duncan Phillips to Arthur Dove, April 7, 1942

Duncan Phillips to Arthur Dove, April 7, 1942

Phillips wrote Dove, “Rain or Snow seems to me one of the most enchanting paintings you have ever done. I love the way the light planes float and fly in space and the way the grays and whites and silvers sing together in contrast to the rich lines of brown. The space, the balance, and directions are all perfect and the aesthetic joy comes from a personal experience in nature I am sure, and stirs old memories in many beholders. I hear that it was by far the most popular picture in the exhibition.”

Arthur Dove to Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, 1946

Arthur Dove to Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, 1946

In this last letter Dove wrote to the Phillipses before his death, Dove expressed his appreciation for their support, telling them, “You have no idea what sending on those checks means to me at this time. After fighting for an idea all your life I realize that your backing has saved it for me and I want to thank you with all my heart and soul for what you have done.”

Visit the Phillips’s Reading Room (Sant Building, Lower Level 1) to see the full exhibition.