The Phillips Collects: Ruth Duckworth

Ruth Duckworth, Untitled, 1989

Ruth Duckworth, Untitled, 1989, Porcelain, 15 1/2 x 7 7/8 x 3 in. Gift of Jane and Arthur Mason, 2016

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Ruth Duckworth (b. Hamburg, Germany 1919-d. Chicago, 2009) is recognized as one of the most innovative and important modernist sculptors. Although she began her career in Liverpool and London by exploring stone and wood carving, as well as metal casting, she ultimately decided to focus on ceramics in the mid-1950s. Her facility with clay led her to stoneware and porcelain, creating vessels and sculptures that were radically freeform, organic, and liberated from function. Most importantly, she demonstrated that clay was a viable medium for sculpture.

The Duckworth sculpture recently gifted to The Phillips Collection is an unglazed porcelain tabletop work from 1989. It is the first work by this pioneering modernist sculptor to enter the museum. Duckworth has been called an “alchemist of abstraction” whose prolific body of work in ceramics, stoneware, and bronze is boundary-crossing in its material innovation and visually seductive in its austere refinement of form. Her smooth forms have been influenced by both the stylized modernisms of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, and Isamu Noguchi, as well as ancient Egyptian, Mexican, and Cycladic art.

In her studio Duckworth had what she called her “play table” where she would begin every day using the parts of abstracted forms already sanded to the desired translucency. The Duckworth sculpture gifted to the Phillips is a unique object composed of two “blades.” Mounted vertically on a base, one slightly in front of the other, there is a sense of poised interaction between the two similar, yet different slab-like forms, with the shadow between an active linear element. Approaching clay as a sculptor, rather than as a potter, Duckworth brought aesthetic rigor to her work that masterfully continues the aesthetics of modernism into the 21st century.

“But seriously…can you name 5 women artists?” Women In Front of and Behind the Lens

Jane Avril (1893)_Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893. Brush and spatter lithograph, printed in five colors. Key stone printed in olive green, color stones in yellow, orange, red, and black on wove paper, 48 13⁄16 × 36 in. Private collection

I posed the question to a friend over the phone, eager to hear his response. Here at The Phillips, we’ve had a lot of fun celebrating Women’s History Month. The National Museum of Women in the Arts surfaced #5WomenArtists last year, and people everywhere followed suit. This trend is meant to introduce the same question I asked my friend to lovers of art: Can you, even the most enthusiastic museum-goer, name five women artists? My friend certainly struggled to answer the question. Some of his answers required hints from me, others were names of works which he could recall, but not artists. He eventually got to five and even named a sixth, then insisting that he likely could not name five male artists either. I heard a pause over the phone. “Actually, I probably could.”

The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 51% of visual artists working today are women. But according to The Guardian, a mere 3 to 5% of artworks in permanent collections of major American museums are by female artists. Understanding the statistic requires an understanding of the culture which has always surrounded it. In part, we must look at how male artists interacted with their female counterparts throughout history. Recently at the Phillips, we have had much to celebrate with the opening of Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec’s fame resided largely in his depictions of French starlets like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. The subjects of his works were primarily women, and for a period of time Lautrec resided in a French brothel. A product of his time there was his album Elles; visual interpretations of the daily lives of prostitutes. The prints, four of which are presently on view at the Phillips, barely depict the presence of male figures, instead focusing non-judgmentally on the quiet, private moments of these women’s lives. A publisher of erotic magazines and prints, Gustave Pellet, published Elles in the spring of 1896, placing the sale price higher than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s previous work. To male buyers, however, the publication was an unsexy flop, as one critic wrote, “The meaning of the work is still unclear to us; the desired effect cannot be seen. He portrayed vice, but not because he was attracted to it, since he avoided the obscene details.”

The point here is clear; even work by an accomplished male artist attempting to humanize women was once seen as utterly undesirable. Along with museums all over the world, The Phillips Collection will challenge visitors this month to name five women artists, to learn about their accomplishments, and to celebrate their work! The topic of female celebrity, power, and the public gaze in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was the focal point of a recent Open Conversation we held in the galleries, led by Cristen Conger. Watch the video and let us know your thoughts!

Elizabeth Federici, Marketing & Communications Intern

American Acrostics: Marjorie Phillips

Marjorie Phillips_Night Baseball

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball, 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the artist, 1951 or 1952

To celebrate the last month of Made in the USA, we’ve asked Phillips staff to create acrostic poems for works in the exhibition. We’ll feature some of our favorite submissions over the next few weeks.

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball

Unveiling a game changer
Senators Baseball club
All-American pastime


Lydia O’Connor, Senior Finance Assistant