Everyone’s In on the Action

(Left to right) Valerie Hellstein gives a tour ; Willem de Kooning,  Asheville, 1948, Oil and enamel on cardboard; 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in.; 64.92875 x 80.9625 cm.. Acquired 1952 ; Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952, Oil and charcoal on canvas; 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in.; 167.3225 x 121.6025 cm.. Acquired 1955.

(Left to right) Valerie Hellstein gives a tour ; Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948. Oil and enamel on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952; Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1955.

In Valerie Hellstein’s spotlight talk yesterday, about her installation of abstract expressionist works, she moved us past familiar thoughts about the actions of the artist (think Jackson Pollock dancing over his canvases) toward a focus on the actions of the viewer. Action painting requires action on the part of the viewer to really experience the work, she explained. We attend to the colors. We think about the depth of the paint and the forms on the canvas. Active looking is required to do more than just pass by the work with a glancing notice. And through our active looking, we become aware of our moment and our place in that moment, standing before the painting.

Unexpected Opportunity: Ab Ex on View

Valerie Hellstein in Gallery F. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Valerie Hellstein in Gallery F. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

One of the things that excited me about coming to the Phillips for the year was the opportunity to be in a museum setting again, to have art objects near by and all around. Knowing that my fellowship was a research and teaching opportunity, however, I did not expect to get first-hand experience working with the collection. I tentatively suggested the possibility of installing a few abstract expressionist works in a gallery, and the curators and staff were more than enthusiastic and supportive. Fortuitously, the small hang coincides with the newly opened exhibition Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet and shows how other artists in Pollock’s and Ossorio’s circle explored process and materiality as well as engaged themes of nature, landscape, and even spirituality.

What I found challenging and exciting about this small project is that many of the works I had hoped to choose were unavailable, but my disappointment was quickly mitigated by how well the group of paintings selected in the end works together. Seeing the affinities between Tomlin and Ippolito, Kline and Stamos, Siskind and de Kooning, is very exciting. Duncan Phillips felt that paintings could talk to each other and different pairings could teach us something new and unexpected. While it makes sense from a historical and social perspective to have these paintings in the same room, seeing the various combinations and affinities has made me look at the works in a new light. My scholarship tends toward intellectual and cultural history, and it is refreshing and important to be brought back to the physical works of art as I dive into writing my book manuscript.

Valerie Hellstein, Postdoctoral Fellow

Installation photos: Joshua Navarro

Installation photos: Joshua Navarro

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock

Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would have been 113 years old yesterday. His visual and emotional manipulations on screen have inspired artists, designers, filmmakers, and directors for years. His ominous reserve is often replicated never duplicated–as in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho that paid cinematic tribute to Hitchcock’s manner of storytelling and Vanity Fair’s Hitchcock-inspired Hollywood Portfolio in 2008 which captured the filmmaker’s sinister panache.

In 1979 Hitchcock received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Trustees recognized the vanguard filmmaker as having an artist’s eye:

He early became known for his visual innovations, relying on his earlier training in draftsmanship. Perhaps more important was his innate sense of composition. Hitchcock has come to use the screen in a very painterly fashion. Film is a visual art, but Hitchcock is the most visual of directors.

John Ferren, Untitled, 1933, Watercolor on paper

John Ferren, Untitled, 1933. Watercolor on paper; 8 x 6 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1978.

Perhaps this is why Hitchcock got along well with artists like John Ferren, who served as artistic consultant for The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Vertigo (1958) for which he designed the unforgettable nightmare sequence. The Phillips has three watercolors by Ferren, completed by the artist in the early ’30s, just before he moved and settled in New York where he would later join and lead The Club, an informal group of artists who represented the social and intellectual center of abstract expressionism in the city.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives