Answering the Question: What is Art?

Odilon Redon, Mystery, c. 1910. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 21 3/8 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired by 1925.

What I love about What is Art?, one of the classes offered this semester by the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, is the opportunity it provides to form a real connection with the artwork I see every day, yet so often find myself contemplating only in passing. During our second gathering, Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art Klaus Ottmann took our class of about 20 to one of these works – Odilon Redon’s Mystery. While I’ve always found this painting intriguing (and perhaps a little haunting), I was amazed at the fresh eyes with which I observed it after taking in my classmates’ perspectives.

The class syllabus warned that we would leave with more questions than we came in with, and it wasn’t an exaggeration. In the full hour that we spent in front of Mystery, questions were raised from the broadest to most minute topics. Is this person a male or a female? Portrait or self-portrait? What is that bright green spot in the top right corner? Is there something hidden in those flowers? One classmate saw a self-portrait of the artist holding not flowers, but his painter’s palette in his left hand. Another read the contrast in hand and face color as an indication that this is a portrait of a man holding a mask to his face.

While some saw the brightness and pop of the colorful flowers in deep contrast to the muted palette of the rest of the piece, others  saw echoes of the drabness in the background manifested in the drooping and dying flowers of the foreground.

My own thoughts fixated around the stark contrast in styles between the foreground and background; it looks almost as if one artist created a somewhat dreary portrait and a completely separate artist came along and added the flowers later.

The hour of observation went quickly, and I left vowing to return. What are some of your own impressions?

Amy Wike, Publicity and Marketing Coordinator

Who owns the rights to documentations of performance art?

As a curator specializing in contemporary art from the 1960s to the present, with a particular interest in performative works by such artists as James Lee Byars and Yves Klein, I was alarmed by a recent court ruling on the issue of who owns the copyright to the photographic documentation of artistic performances. A German court ruled in favor of Eva Beuys, the widow of the artist Joseph Beuys, who claims that she controls the rights to photographs taken during Beuys’s 1964 performance Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp ist überbewertet (The silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated). The photographs were taken by the late Manfred Tischer who was granted permission to document the performance by Beuys at the time, but apparently was not authorized explicitly to publish or exhibit them. When the German museum Schloss Moyland, which houses an extensive collection and archive of Beuys’s works, decided to exhibit 19 of Tischer’s photographs, the artist’s widow sued the museum of copyright infringement with the help of the German copyright society, VG Bild-Kunst. Continue reading

Doig’s Ravens, Meet Braque’s Bird

Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (2011) hangs in conversation with Georges Braque’s Bird (1956), a work in the permanent collection (Photo by Claire Norman)

It was imperative to our founder, Duncan Phillips, to engage with living artists. He felt that “artists speak not only for themselves but for those of us who are intensely interested in other ways of seeing than our own.” Maintaining our connections to living artists has become an intrinsic part of the museum’s philosophy and mission.

It’s in this vein that we asked the artist Peter Doig to, in addition to delivering the spring 2011 Duncan Phillips Lecture, create a painting or a series that responds to a work in the permanent collection.

Georges Braque. Bird, 1956. Oil on canvas; 18 x 19 1/2 in.

Peter chose a work by the French painter Georges Braque, Bird (1956) – a painting whose image of a dove has become an iconic symbol for this institution – as his inspiration for the Corbeaux series.

It was particularly satisfying to watch Peter’s reaction to the Braque painting for the first time in person. While working with our staff in the gallery on his installation he kept returning to the Braque work, fixated on the figure of the dove suspended in air. It was evident Peter hoped to capture this feeling of stilled movement in his raven series, and the experience of the works in conversation is certainly kinetic: you feel as if Doig’s ravens take flight with Braque’s dove, transcending the gallery walls to transport you to a place in nature.

Visitors observing two works in Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (Photo by James Brantley)

After his lecture, Peter enjoyed the opportunity to speak with students and young artists (Photo by James Brantley)

To learn more about Peter Doig’s work, visit the Michael Werner Gallery and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. For behind-the-scenes photos of his installation in progress at the Phillips, check out this Flickr set.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives