The Phillips Collection may have hit the grand old age of 100, but its spectacular celebratory exhibition isn’t stuck in the past.
Even as the show reflects on the museum’s own history, “Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century” is grappling with the future. In it, 100 years feels both epic and intimate, spanning continents and human experiences while the curators look to tie the show both to the Phillips’ longtime mission and the next century of acquisitions.
On view through Sept. 12, the exhibition has taken over the entire museum and showcases 200 pieces ranging from paintings and photographs to quilts and video installations. It’s separated into rooms defined by four themes — identity, history, place and the senses — each thoughtfully curated.
“It’s an exciting moment for us to share the collection,” curator Elsa Smithgall told The Washington Diplomat of the museum’s centennial. “But also through the way that we approached this exhibition, there’s a particular emphasis on our recent acquisitions to signal toward this future direction where we’re making a concerted effort and where we have made very sort of baby steps, but very intentional baby steps forward, toward trying to ensure that we’re diversifying the collection and we’re telling inclusive narratives.
“So this moment, in a way, also initiates our next chapter,” she said. “We want to not just dwell on the past, but also use this moment in a way that we can build excitement around the future directions we want to continue to grow in as a museum in the service of the public.”
Religion, migration, racism, war, revolution, civil unrest, pandemics — the museum is trying to engage with it all in this show, all while keeping true to founder Duncan Phillips’ founding motto of seeking to help others to “see beautifully.” (Also timely: The museum’s opening harkens back to another pandemic, with Phillips opening its doors as a memorial to his father, Duncan Clinch Phillips, and brother, James, who died of influenza in October 1918.)
The exploration of the senses offers fabric, light, paint and even sound from the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) of Leo Villareal’s meditative “Scramble.” Quilts highlight that Black women are the “primary purveyors of this art form” in America, as Camille Brown, the museum’s curatorial assistant, writes in the caption for Lucy T. Pettway’s “Housetop.” Arriving on the museum’s next floor, you come face to face with Bernardi Roig’s “Father-Petit,” a blinding sculpture of the artist’s father, with his pants unbuttoned and face grimacing as he pulls at the material that makes up his face. The neon light is blinding. If it doesn’t evoke the early days of lockdown, you’re lucky.
In A. Balasubramaniam’s “Hold Nothing,” the cast from the artist’s body — his arm — stretches and elongates, curves and twists across the wall like a path to nothing. Or maybe something. As the artist writes, “The inside (of hands) becomes the outside (the work)…. I am attempting to show that even nothing is something.”
There’s an array of somethings on display here — woodcuts, silkscreens, aquatints, paintings, quilts, LEDs, sculptures, casts of arms, photos, photos of performance art. And the captions are well worth the time to read, with the museum inviting everyone from students to theologians to architects to provide commentary on some of the works.
Wilmer Wilson IV’s “Self-Portrait as Henry Box Brown” is a striking interplay of performance art and visual art, history and injustice. The body is the canvas for a whole host of questions and memories. That’s also apparent in a spectacular, and much older, Oskar Kokoschka work, “Portrait of Lotte Franzos,” which features light radiating from the sitter’s starkly posed fingers. An aura of blue and yellow surrounds her, as a rich plum emerges from the crown of her head. As the artist wrote to Franzos: “Your portrait shocked you; I saw that. Do you think that the human being stops at the neck in the effect it has on me? Hair, hands, dress, movements are all at least equally important…. I do not paint anatomical preparations.”
On a personal note, Janet Taylor Pickett’s “And She Was Born” was the last piece of art I saw before lockdown that resonated with me. I loved the powerful stance of the figure, the mixed media of the printed paper collage, the conversation the piece was having with Henri Matisse. Seeing it in this year’s exhibition felt like reuniting with a friend after a long winter.
Onto the next floor, visitors are confronted directly with the theme of history. Rousing music drifts into a room with paintings reflecting on war, such as Jörg Immendorff’s “Like Victory” and Frank Stella’s “Pilica II,” an immense piece of mixed media on wood that was named after the Polish village whose synagogues were destroyed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. It’s industrial and massive in scale, dominating the room. A late Chaïm Soutine, “Return from School After the Storm,” adds a very human element to the space, which is largely bombastic, loud and looming in its expression of war. Blurred children scurry across a thickly painted landscape, their path obscured.
The music, meanwhile, comes from the next room, where Federico Solmi’s “The Great Farce,” a lurid portable theater that highlights both the romanticization and insanity of warfare, holds fort. Throughout the rest of the history section, the museum highlights paintings, found objects and often unseen narratives of war.
Familiar and iconic Phillips’ holdings are also on view throughout the show, like Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series.” These works might be recognizable for any return Phillips visitor, but the series always offers a new narrative. In this case, the curators have chosen to explore it in a new context by pairing the series with Jennifer Wen Ma’s “Brain Storm,” a single channel video that beautifully conveys the artistry of Chinese ink.
As always, it’s a delight to return to the wax room (home to Wolfgang Laib’s permanent installation, “Where have you gone – where are you going?”). The smell of beeswax does slightly emerge in the space, even under a mask. Or maybe it’s sense memory.
The exhibition then winds through the house, delving into the themes of travel, space and the collision of music and art. There are so many special pieces on display, from Albert Pinkham Ryder to Georgia O’Keefe to Olafur Eliasson and beyond. There’s a cascade of Phillips’ classics from here on out, with Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, Miró and, of course, Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” on view.
“It is just a momentous year for us,” Smithgall said. “Part of our celebration is to let people see the way the Phillips Collection has been a living, growing, breathing collection.”
“Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century” is on view until Sept. 12 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., NW. Timed tickets are required for entry. For more information, visit www.phillipscollection.org.
Mackenzie Weinger is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.