Phillips Collection. (1600 21 St. NW, Washington, D.C.) Museum Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday “Artful Evenings” with music and gallery talks 5 – 8:30 p.m;, Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Call 202-387-2151, or visit phillipscollection.org.
The permanent collection has a few gems on display at the moment.
Just beyond the end of the Weston show, you’ll find a large-scale, abstract 1931 painting titled “Aspiration” by Augustus Vincent Tack. In the Marion Oates Chales Gallery you’ll find an excellent composition in the 1946 Edward Hopper canvas titled “Approaching a City.”
The playful 1888 painting titled “Hide and Seek” by William Merritt Chase will surely bring out the child in everyone who sees it. I also liked the 1991 ink and crayon drawing by Jake Berthot.
Have a look around and find your own favorites.
New Mexico Prints
Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico through September 7.
Of the three current shows on view at the Phillips Collection, the main attraction are Diebenkorn’s New Mexico works, focused on the 1950-52 period when Diebenkorn was studying for his masters degree at the University of New Mexico.
Widely known for his later Ocean Park series done in California, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park works are mostly pure abstractions, but drift back to realism and, at times, flirt with the edge between the two.
The much earlier New Mexico paintings are almost exclusively abstract. Possibly the most interesting aspect of this showing is the way we can see Diebenkorn struggling not with how to make art, but rather how to make his art. This notion is a key element of the MFA process in general.
Museum goers rarely get to see this sort of struggle in widely known artists.
Like reading the last chapter of a novel first, we know how this story ends, and as such it’s a tad odd and somewhat anti-climatic. These canvases were executed when Diebenkorn was 28 to 30 years old. He would go on to paint for almost 40 years afterwards.
We know Diebenkorn will wind up at a place where he defines straight-line, landscape-based, geometric forms with drawn lines and fairly solid blocks of color. In case you aren’t familiar with them, a sampling of the Ocean Park paintings hang at the museum entranceway to get you somewhat up to speed on the notion.
Knowing this while viewing the New Mexico works, we can see Diebenkorn struggling with how to best break up the picture field, and how definitively he should mix and apply colors.
It’s difficult to accept his messier canvases as anything more than artistic experimentation. Some artists destroy or paint over this sort of work to eliminate the weak links in their oeuvre, while others save it all.
At least one of these canvases reminds one of a kindergartner’s “mud pie” finger painting; it’s almost painfully off the mark for Diebenkorn, which is not to say that’s the rule here, but not all experimental exercises are successful … otherwise we’d call them solutions
In fact, the artistic growth process demands a certain degree of failure as one steps beyond one’s known area of accomplishments and tries new things. Like adolescence, we work our way through it and find our own style in adulthood.
It’s entertaining and refreshing to see this growth process in a notable artist. Understandably, museums want to show the best of the best. However, a steady diet of such can give one the unrealistic impression that famous artists pop out of the womb as great masters.
The truth of the matter is it’s normally an intellectually painful path wrought with intense soul searching and a seemingly perpetual process of polishing, expanding and modifying one’s skill set, all meted out in virtual obscurity.
My two favorite works here are a pair of uncharacteristically beige paintings, Albuquerque 22, and an untitled 1951 canvas. Each has the look of barren desert landscape as seen from the air. Black lines break up the space near the edges of the picture field. Albuquerque 22 has strong graphic marks that resemble cattle brands and a spur. It’s here that we possibly see the strongest link to Diebenkorn’s future use of space and line. Though that would be a rather moot point, as they’re all part of Diebenkorn’s journey from career point A to B.
Out of the Shadow
Brett Weston: “Out of the Shadow” through September 7.
“Out of the Shadows” refers not only to his printing style, but also to the shadow Weston’s famous father, Edward Weston, cast on his career. Like most second generation talent, dad’s (usually) shoes are often impossibly big to fill.
No one can fault the print quality here. Weston cut his photographic teeth working with his father and printing from his father’s negatives. He certainly knows how to find D-Max black, and use it with accomplished skill. Weston’s shadow areas tend to be featureless ink, black empty voids. To be sure, they are “punchy” prints.
Darkroom mastery, however, does not in and of itself make a great photographer. Most of the camera work here seems more illustrative than artistic. At times it seems irritatingly so, as if camera work were simply a means to get back into the darkroom and make some more great prints, which is not to say there isn’t good work here.
Weston’s 1926 photo of corrugated tin roofs in Mexico may be the best image of all, executed at the age of 15 no less. A confluence of different roof structures forms an arrow shaped abstract space in the shadow area between them. Similarly, a jagged black hole in the 1937 image titled “Broken Window” offers a taste of abstraction with his realism.
A later series of more inspired images challenges us to figure out what’s what in the shown image. These photos of broken glass, leaves in ice, cracked plastic paint and the calligraphic image of kelp in sand all offer a bit of intellectual stimulation, sorely lacking in most of the other works.
Looking at the earlier works here, one can’t help but think that had Weston been an “envelope pusher,” he could have easily been one of the greats. But success of that sort takes a certain type of personality, matched with an unrelenting drive to conquer all obstacles that impede that path.
It’s pure conjecture, but one is tempted to say that the easy head start that second generation talent often receive, denies them the grizzled fortitude that they need to propel them to greatness in the later stages of their career.
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series through October 26.
These illustrations depict the story of the African American exodus from the South towards the supposedly less discriminatory North.
It’s an informative series that will no doubt give you at least a few twists to this story that you hadn’t thought of before. It all seems so dismissively obvious and well trod territory at this point, until you start looking at Lawrence’s work and realize you hadn’t even considered all sorts of angles on this story.
Don’t miss the short film of Lawrence taken two weeks before his death. This 60-panel series was completed in 1941. After being published in Fortune magazine, the series went on tour for two years, and then split between the Phillips and the Museum of Modern Art. For this showing, the series once again whole.
u The Northern Virginia Art Beat is compiled by Kevin Mellema. See www.fcnp.com for photos and more. To e-mail submissions, send them to [email protected]