From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas.

Austrian-born Franz Bader (1903-1994) fled Europe for the US in 1939 and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked at The Whyte Bookshop and Gallery located at 17th and H Streets. During the 1930s, the Whyte, The Phillips Collection, and the Howard University Gallery of Art, were among the few galleries in DC to acquire and exhibit the work of local living artists, including artists of color. Bader became director of Whyte Gallery in 1948, and then later opened Franz Bader Gallery in 1953. Duncan Phillips may have met Bader at Whyte Gallery. Archival correspondence indicates that he actively made purchases there, even acquiring examples by museum staff like Circus by John Gernand, who attended the Phillips Art School, worked with Alma Thomas’s teacher Robert Gates at American University, and served as the Phillips’s registrar and archivist.

Receipt for purchase of John Gernand, Circus, 1938, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1939

The Phillipses and Bader also crossed paths at the museum. Bader later recalled to Duncan’s son Laughlin Phillips: “The beauty and informality of the Phillips Gallery has always meant so very much to me. Visiting it the first week after my arrival in this country helped to form my idea of America.” Duncan Phillips and Bader shared an interest in promoting DC’s arts community. In the 1950s Bader requested Phillips’s assistance with a traveling exhibition that featured work by Washington artists, supported by the United States Information Agency, and planned for Vienna, Bader’s hometown.

Through acquisitions and exhibitions, Phillips and Bader gave many Washington-based artists their first opportunities. Following the success of Alma Thomas’s first solo show at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1966, Bader became Thomas’s primary dealer. In 1968, he hosted an exhibition of Thomas’s paintings and watercolors, her first major one-person show at an established DC commercial art gallery.

In 1970, Bader presented paintings from Thomas’s Earth and Space series, two years before they went on view in the artist’s career defining retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In late 1971, while curating A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists for the Phillips, Marjorie Phillips negotiated with Bader the loan of Thomas’s acrylic Atmosphere. Thomas’s last show at Franz Bader Gallery occurred in 1974, and it included two works that were on view in the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful exhibition: Fiery Sunset, owned by Bader, and Horizon.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Alma Thomas, Fiery Sunset, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Alma Thomas, Horizon, 1974, Acrylic on paper, Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg

In 1976, two years before Thomas’s death, Bader donated to The Phillips Collection Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers. The archival letters below relate to the gift. Bader acknowledges to then director Laughlin Phillips that Thomas was pleased to have an example of her work at the museum and hoped “that this will enable people to enjoy the painting.” On Thomas’s carbon copy, in her papers at the Archives of American Art, Bader annotated the letter with “Congratulation Again.” Laughlin Phillips wrote to Bader that the Thomas painting is “a significant addition” and “we are extremely pleased to have it.”

Letter from Franz Bader to Laughlin Phillips

Letter from Laughlin Philips to Franz Bader

Writing to Thomas, Laughlin Phillips acknowledged the gift of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, donated by Bader. He mentioned that the painting “has been hanging steadily since its arrival and bringing pleasure to staff and visitors alike” and remarked on his interest in her new work on view at the Corcoran. Later that year, the Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers joined the American Art from The Phillips Collection exhibition and toured several venues in the US.

Letter from Laughlin Phillips to Alma Thomas

In the fall of 1977, the Phillips hosted an exhibition of photographs by Franz Bader. Thomas attended the exhibition and kept the brochure.

Brochure for Franz Bader exhibition at The Phillips Collection

My Dream One-on-One: Ben Hough / Willem De Kooning

Currently on view at the Phillips is One-on-One: Bridget Riley / Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a special installation in which Riley selected three of her works to be displayed alongside Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Visitor Services Associate and Marketing and Communications Detail Ben Hough shares which artwork from the Phillips’s collection he would select for his One-on-One installation.

“I’m not interested in abstracting or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.”—Willem de Kooning

Abstract expressionism is defined as a subjective emotional expression with particular emphasis on conveying diverse styles and techniques through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means. Willem de Kooning’s abstract representation allowed him to use his unique art-making process as a tool to express personal thoughts and ideas, providing a deeper understanding of his mind. As an artist myself, I also tend to focus on nonrepresentational subject matter like de Kooning. While there is the occasional literal subject within my work, I don’t pertain to a specific style when it comes to self-expression.

Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948, Oil and enamel paint on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1952

Since de Kooning’s techniques have led to new advances in the art world, artists like me now have the freedoms to experiment and play with what art making can provide to the audience. De Kooning’s Asheville shows his iconic nonrepresentational configuration that he used throughout his life to express his ideas of the emotional legacy of World War II and the array of influences available to him at the time of peak modernistic idioms. While I do not paint to reflect the legacy of war, understanding where the piece is coming from conceptually provides a new way of thinking when creating. At first glance of Asheville, I asked myself what his objective was—there had to have been a deeper intention behind this very conceptual composition and color story. Was every brushstroke deliberate? Was the addition of collage used to show his ideas of experimentation? Or was there some sort of further understanding of how these nontraditional materials would affect the tone of the piece? De Kooning’s rudimentary approach gives works like Asheville a definitive tone and allows the concept of modern art to be recognized deeper than what’s on the surface of the work.

This sense of experimentation is reflected in my own work. Using color, line, and ideas of emotions and conscious thoughts, like de Kooning, I express my intentions with confidence, rarely ever sketching the work beforehand in the traditional way and approaching the surface of the canvas with a perception of familiarity. This process, while intentionally allowing me the freedom to produce unique and meaningful works, also demonstrates new techniques and gives me the chance to explore new ways of art making. Fundamental to de Kooning’s art is also the meaning of reality. At the start of his lifetime the era of modern art was already well established—masters like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky had changed the way art was perceived at the time. De Kooning grew up with the influence of these recognized artists, which guided his own process to what it would become by the mid-1900s.

Ben Hough, Stupid Thoughts, 2021, Acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 12 x 36 in.

Within my own work and the use of acrylic and oil pastel, Stupid Thoughts derives from the ideas of sadness, pain, and confusion. Below the surface of the work are words and thoughts I intended to physically visualize before the start of the layering process. Approaching the canvas in this way sets the tone for a piece and with the use of various mediums gives me the same experimental application process de Kooning used for several of his works. With line I intended to show a clear distinction of boldness and precision contradictory to the idea of confusion and pain associated with the first layer of color and text. Central to de Kooning’s suggestion and influence of the modernistic idioms, my works are heavily influenced by my perspective of the world and the subjects that make me question my own impressions.

Since joining as a Visitor Services Associate last fall, having the freedom to walk the halls of The Phillips Collection and lay eyes on countless masterpieces has been one thing I know I won’t have the privilege of experiencing in such an intimate way anywhere else. Works like de Kooning’s continue to deepen the conversation of what expressionistic art has to offer artists and the world in general. Nontraditional creativity is a concept that must remain, without it we are stuck in the past and while we can certainly learn from past masters we live in a time where art is forever changing. Artists like de Kooning show that influence can create an entirely new field and method of art making.

From Digital to Analogue & Back Again: Luca Buvoli’s “Astrodoubt” Journey

Curatorial Intern Jason Rosenberg on Luca Buvoli’s Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles, which was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection.

“We’re all bored, we’re all so tired of everything…” Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift wrote these lyrics to New Romantics back in 2014! In retrospect, widespread feelings of burnout had been brewing for years; however, the recent surge in exhaustion and lethargy spurred by COVID-19 is a phenomenon unparalleled to any time before. Trapped in an endless cycle of flip-flopping restrictions and evolving viral mutations, life in the pandemic has felt like a catch-22 none of us will ever get out of. And yet, through it all, a beacon of hope has continued to shine on the other side: humor.

Philosophically, comedy has proven to be most valuable during these trying times. It offers a rare respite from the depressing reality we find ourselves in, constructing a shared spectacle to laugh at and rally behind. Fundamentally, it is a gateway to the unification of a community.

Back during the peak of reported COVID cases in summer 2020, multimedia artist Luca Buvoli tapped into this universal power through his Digital Intersections project, Picture-Present—part of his ongoing “Astrodoubt and The Quarantine Chronicles” series. Expanding on images from the Phillips’s permanent collection by a multitude of featured artists including Edouard Vuillard (Woman Sweeping) and Pierre Bonnard (Narrow Street in Paris), Buvoli integrated his satirical style through added texts and images to reflect on the emotional unrest experienced throughout the pandemic.

Select images from Picture: Present, an episode from Luca Buvoli’s Astrodoubt and The Quarantine Chronicles

His handwritten messages are witty and hopeful, often mirroring the subjects of the pictures they adorn; Vuillard’s woman with a broomstick, for instance, helps to sweep away the memories of hardship. Others, however, are intentionally ambiguous and open-ended, such as the last scene in which the main protagonist Astrodoubt finds himself awakened, wondering if the coronavirus is still around or whether it was all a dream.

As a whole, Buvoli’s digital 12-panel storyboard reads as a narrative of isolation, anxiety, and wishful delusion; feelings we’ve all collectively experienced within the span of the past few years. As the first commissioned Digital Intersections showcase, Picture: Present welcomed audiences to the same virtual world as Astrodoubt: a remote landscape where the museum’s past could be explored and take on a new life remotely.

Today, Buvoli’s project marks a unique time in our cultural history, connecting the past with the present by means of an intangible digital medium ubiquitous to everyday life. Recently on view at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York City, Astrodoubt’s journey has been inverse to many others in the art world: evolving from digital back to analogue. The Phillips’s recent acquisition of Buvoli’s physical Cosmos-In-The-Box book edition of “Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles” logs the first of many interdisciplinary, dynamic exhibitions. Picture: Present paves the way for a new era of accessibility in art, a facet central to the long-term survival of museums and artistic institutions in the years to come.

Luca Buvoli, Astrodoubt and the Quarantine Chronicles (Episode 12), 2021, 13 collaged drawings in metal box each: 7 x 7 in; The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2021