Bouquet of Concaves, by David Smith

All my life, art museums have been refuges, places to peer into the faces of long dead men, women, and children, to inspect the clothing worn in the 16th century, to be pulled into the vortex of a Pollack paint storm, to feel the power of ancient African sculpture, so fresh and modern in its lines. And when I come away from a particularly inspiring show, blinking into the sunlight, the whole world looks different.

Fittingly, the Phillips Collection’s centennial show is titled “Seeing Differently: the Phillips Collects for a New Century.” In 1921, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips opened their Washington, DC home and their art collection to the public, thus establishing America’s first museum devoted to modern art. The gallery was to serve as a memorial to his father and, poignantly, to his brother, James, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

No 9, by Bradley Walker Tomlin

I’ve been to the show twice (it’s up through September 12, so you still have time to go). What struck me most each time were the vibrant new acquisitions by artists I knew little about. But as I started out in the  addition to the gracious old brownstone house, a couple of old favorites snagged me anew.

Perched in an alcove as you walk down the steps into the main first floor gallery is David Smith’s painted steel sculpture, “Bouquet of Concaves,” 1959. This small sculpture has always appealed to me, with its hieroglyphic-like shapes which can be read either right to left or left to right. Somehow all the shapes are perfectly aligned, as if they organized themselves in such a way as to find utmost comfort. So, it was no surprise to learn that this piece was the first Smith made without preliminary drawings, simply laying the pieces out on a sheet of white paper on the floor and coming back to them day after day, moving one here, one there, until the pieces “found the arrangement.” During his collecting lifetime, Duncan Phillips very much wanted to acquire a Smith sculpture, but never bought one due to the high prices they commanded in the ’sixties. In 2008, forty-two years after his uncle’s death, Phillips’ nephew, Gifford, and his wife Joann Phillips, gave this sculpture to the collection.

Kin XXXV (Glory in the Flower), by Whitfield Lovell

Another long-time favorite is Bradley Walker Tomlin’s 1952 painting, “No. 9,” also in the first-floor gallery. I love the pairing of the Smith sculpture and this painting. Both are so graphic and each has an Asian quality, speaking of balance and order, possibly achieved, in the Tomlin work, by a linear grid in which the pale brush strokes float to the foreground. So full of life and dancing spontaneity, this piece was painted only a year before Tomlin’s death. The work also hearkens back to his long friendship with Adolph Gottlieb who, thankfully, encouraged him to move away from Cubism to a looser, more gestural abstraction, perhaps allowing the shapes to find their perfect arrangement in much the way Smith did.

Entering the second-floor gallery, one of the newer acquisitions (2016) drew me in immediately: a striking conte crayon drawing, “Kin XXXV (Glory in the Flower),” by Whitfield Lovell, 2011. Every pore is visible in this skillfully rendered portrait, while the pairing of the man’s face and the clock radio causes a conversation to take place between them. The man’s hat appears to be from a bygone era, the radio certainly is. The passage of time is evident in the two faces: the man’s is black, with a sheen that seems to come from within. The clock’s face is white, featureless, blank, save for the stark black numbers. Time has taken its toll on the man – what he’s seen, what’s happened to him, the joys and the sorrows seem to have left him hollowed out. The radio, on the other hand, is plastic, pristine. We hear stories and music on the radio, canned, packaged and transmitted to us over the airwaves, but now, the radio is mounted with the man, and both are forever silent.

Maman Calcule, by Aime Mpane

What is Lovell saying about the communion between the man and the object? In search of answers, I found a Washington Post review of an earlier Phillips Collection show of Lovell’s “Kin” series. Over the years, this MacArthur grant winner accumulated a trove of old daguerreotypes, photos, and postcards from the early 1900s to the 1960s. From these long-gone faces he draws inspiration for his hyper-realistic, deeply sensitive portraits. One day, he says, he picked up an object, a “bust,” and held it next to one of his drawings. The object seemed to bring the drawing to life. Since then, he’s paired drawings with inanimate objects to create a back-and-forth dimension, all paying tribute to people who have never before been memorialized. Click her for the full review:

A final question: what about the title, “Glory in the Flower”? The line comes from the Wordsworth poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

“Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…”

On the Way to the Cemetery (Tixan), Ecuador, by Flor Garduno

Entering the next gallery, another arresting face will greet you: “Maman Calcule,” 2013, by the Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. This large mosaic-like work is created from more than 1,000 pieces of painted plywood, the backs of which are painted red, so the shadows on the wall behind it glow. In this portrait, I see a golden child with worldly eyes who appears to stand before a blackboard. Does “calculation” here imply the working of sums on a blackboard? Is mama figuring out how to get her child prepared for adult life? In a Phillips Talks video, the artist discusses his notion of restoration—of what was lost to colonial legacy—while honoring the Congolese women who somehow keep the country going. “How the women do it, I don’t know,” he says, pointing out that the black and white image in the background represents the “western world who came in to crush and destroy.” View the video here:

Similarly affecting is the small photograph by Mexican artist, Flor Garduño, “On the Way to the Cemetery (Tixan), Ecuador,” 1988. Three figures, one carrying a shovel, one with a tiny coffin on his back, walk over the chevron path toward a faint, fog-shrouded figure in the distance. This devastating image is infused with a timeless, dreamlike quality. In search of more information about Garduño, I found an excellent article on Artsy by Jacqui Palumbo. With many more images of the artist’s work, from beautiful nudes to “comic accidents,” all are infused with “tradition, myth, mysticism and the occult,” the article is worth a read:

Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, by Sam Gilliam

And finally, one more delight: Sam Gilliam’s exuberant 1987 work, “Purple Antelope Space Squeeze.” I always associate Gilliam with the Phillips, as this was one of his art refuges after he moved to Washington in 1962. Eventually, his work became known to Marjorie Phillips who, after Duncan’s death, offered Gilliam his first one-man show in 1966. For this piece, the artist worked with Tandem Press, sending sketches of the shaped paper he wanted for the final collage. The printing was done on carved woodblocks and the artist added embellishment using found objects and etched plates. Each impression is unique, as the artist placed and inked the various elements differently each for each printing.

Wow, is all I can say. I love the mischief of the two opposing triangle cut-outs, the off-kilter frame, and the horizontal slash of negative space between the two parts. It feels like a dance, the way all the elements play together. Up close, its depth is dizzyingly three-dimensional.

After lingering with “Purple Antelope” for a time, I continued further into the old house to savor those Bonnards, and Braques, and Doves, and all the other gems that have inspired Sam Gilliam and me, and countless others, over the decades.












"Hide and Seek," 1888

“Hide and Seek,” 1888

For years I’ve loved a painting in the permanent collection of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. “Hide and Seek,” 1888, by William Merritt Chase, never fails to bewitch me: the play of dark and light, the sense of a photo having been snapped in mid-action, the feeling that you’ve entered a world that propels you back to your own childhood. You feel the excitement of the game; hear the tapping of feet on that gleaming floor. Yet the picture has a mysterious element, one that hints at thresholds, leaving childhood behind, even going through a final door into blinding light: is it harsh or benevolent?


"Portrait of Dora Wheeler," 1883

“Portrait of Dora Wheeler,” 1883

Enough of that blather. You get the idea. But while the picture knocks me out, I knew next to nothing about the artist. A recent Phillips Collection retrospective of this influential artist’s career—spanning the late 1800s and early 20th century—was a revelation. Chase, an American who trained abroad as a young man, cut a dashing figure in his ornate 10th Street studio in New York City. Despite his eccentricity and reputation as a bon vivant, he was a devoted family man and a respected teacher whose Chase School became the Parsons School of Design.


The show—some 70 works drawn from museums and private collections all over the country— was organized chronologically and by subject: historical genre paintings, landscapes, the seaside, domestic interiors, public parks. All were delightful. But on my second visit, I found myself most drawn to Chase’s portraits.


"James Abbott McNeil Whistler," 1885

“James Abbott McNeil Whistler,” 1885

“Portrait of Dora Wheeler,” painted in 1883, was intended as an exhibition piece, showing off Chase’s formidable skills. Dora Wheeler, a former student, was a textile designer in the same 10th Street building as Chase’s studio. This large oil painting, with its thoughtful sitter and brilliant yellow background, won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon, but was generally panned by New York critics, as far too “radical a departure from convention.” The image of Wheeler was thought to be “lost” in the sea of textured brocade.


"The Young Orphan (At Her Ease)," 1884

“The Young Orphan (At Her Ease),” 1884

Surprise! I did know another of Chase’s paintings. Coming upon his portrait of James McNeil Whistler was like running into an old friend. Bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1918, I’d seen it many times. In 1885, Chase, long an admirer of Whistler, paid him a visit in London on his way to Madrid. The older artist suggested the young Chase stay and allow time for each of them to paint the other’s portrait. Chase’s portrait was intended as an homage, using many of Whistler’s own techniques and conventions: free brushwork, a somber palette, the figure floating in space. Whistler, though, thought it an unflattering “abomination,” and may well have destroyed his own portrait of Chase in a fit of pique.


"Meditation," 1886

“Meditation,” 1886

“The Young Orphan,” painted the year before, is arresting. It’s only paint on canvas, we know that, but we also feel that we are looking at a real person who once lived and is still alive somehow. The model likely came from the quaintly named Protestant Half Orphan Asylum next door to the 10th Street studio. The exquisitely detailed hair, and lush rendering of the chair is tour de force painting. The picture evokes the influence of Whistler and John Singer Sargent, as the girl floats in a sea of crimson, her black dress an almost abstract shape.


"Lydia Field Emmet," 1892

“Lydia Field Emmet,” 1892

Chase also shows off his ability to render texture in “Meditation,” 1886. The drapery in the background looks like watered silk, or imitates brushstrokes. This intriguing portrait (presumably of his wife to be, Alice Gerson, whom he married the following year) is done in pastel, not oil. Hard to believe. Anyone who’s worked in the medium knows how hard it is to control, and how ambitious it would be to take on such a large, complex composition. I love the sitter’s direct, yet somehow veiled gaze. She’s likely thinking interesting thoughts about the painter.


Another student of Chase’s, Lydia Field Emmet, became a noted society painter and designer of Tiffany glass. In this 1892 portrait Chase again defies convention by posing her much as a noble gentleman would be seen in a classic Rembrandt or Frans Hals, painters Chase adored while studying in Europe. In researching Emmet, I learned, as I has suspected, she was related to dear friends of the same name, descendants of the Irish poet and rebel patriot, Robert Emmet. I again experienced that sizzle of connection: yes, she’s long dead and gone, but something in her gaze spoke to me. And I spoke back, telling her (in my head, of course) about the new additions to her long lineage who lived,  until recently, not far from where her image now hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.


"Mother and Child (The First Portrait)," 1888

“Mother and Child (The First Portrait),” 1888

“Mother and Child (The First Portrait),” ca. 1888, is a dramatic full-length oil painting of Alice Chase and her first baby. The child appears about to wiggle out of its mother’s arms, while Alice herself is a static, monumental figure in her figured black robe. She seems about to turn toward the viewer, and although viewed in profile, has none of the hauteur of Lydia Field Emmet, as appropriate for the subject. Despite its intimate, domestic nature, Chase imbues the image with a grandeur and solemnity which surprised me. In a good way.


Art historians may debate whether William Merritt Chase was an American Impressionist, or a realist, but it seems to me he was both, able to capture light and skew his compositions in interesting and modern ways while communicating a very real sense of time and place. If you missed the show, take a look at this video:


A very fine exhibition catalogue is also available through the Phillips Collection store and at






"Beach at Vignasse," by Henri-Edmond Cross

“Beach at Vignasse,” by Henri-Edmond Cross

Sorry about the pun. I just had to poke a little fun at the high-blown title of this show, now on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

The exhibition includes some 70 works by 15 artists working in the late 1880s to mid-1890s– the period after Impressionism and before Cubism. The visiting curator, Cornelia Homburg, makes the case for Neo-Impressionism—or pointillism, as I have always thought of it—as more than an optical experiment with light and tiny strokes of color, but as a response to the dreamy expression of Symbolist writers and musicians. Rather than depicting a singular event in a particular place, the Neo-Impressionist impulse was to distill an experience, create a dream, and pull the viewer into a universal vision.

"Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221," by Paul Signac

“Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221,” by Paul Signac

I happened to be in the galleries when the curator was escorting a group of VIPs on a private tour. I eavesdropped a bit, but wanted to see the works without the lens of even her learned eye. So I can’t give you insider goodies, but what I can tell you is that she was positively rapturous about the paintings. I found them rather chilly, empty, and technical. But I loved watching Ms. Homburg’s sweeping arm gestures and hearing her little audience laugh with her. So maybe there’s more here than met my eye. For this review, I’ll focus on the paintings that drew me most.

“Beach at Vignasse,” 1891-92, by Henri-Edmond Cross, appears to be a contradiction of the stated premise. Here, the artist seems to be in love with a specific place, its plant life and gentle light. In the distance, the sea shimmers—you can almost feel the heat on your skin, smell the fragrant sage and delicate flowers.

"L'Ile La Croix, Roen (the Effect of Fog), by Camille Pissarro

“L’Ile La Croix, Roen (the Effect of Fog), by Camille Pissarro

Paul Signac’s “Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 22,” 1891, on the other hand, gives us sardine fishing reduced to its most pure expression. No smelly fish to spoil the rapture—not even any people. Many of the canvasses in this show are empty of human life. This was the intent, as I gleaned from a scrap of Ms. Homburg’s overheard talk. I find it difficult to connect the “adagio” and “opus” of the title with any evocation of music in this work. Perhaps the boats are meant to signify musical notes, but instead the image reads as—however scintillating the surface color—static.

""The Beach at Blankenberghe," by Henry van de Velde

“”The Beach at Blankenberghe,” by Henry van de Velde

In the room entitled “Urban Landscapes,” Camille Pissarro’s “L’Ile LaCroix, Roen (the Effect of Fog),” 1888, portrays the newly important river in industrialized European cities. Many Neo-Impressionists were anarchists, painfully aware of the desperate conditions of the poor, yet the paintings here focus on atmospherics rather than human suffering.

In the summer, the accompanying notes tell us, many painters went to the country or the coastlines of Belgium or Northern France. Much of the work they did in pastoral settings was sketched out of doors and then finished in the studio. Perhaps this is why much of the work feels contrived, even stiff.

"Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242," by Paul Signac

“Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242,” by Paul Signac

“The Beach at Blankenberghe,” 1889, by Henry van de Velde exemplifies the “absence and ambiguity” of these works. One experiences the scene (and several others) as ominous, freighted with some free-floating angst, much like the mood of isolation and loneliness in the word of Edward Hopper. Yet Hopper was drawn to people with their very particular inner despair or ennui. Here, the tiny people are insignificant gestures in the enormous empty space.

In the room called “Arabesque” we learn that these painters were attempting to create “a more long-lasting idea of reality” (emphasis mine) rather than recording fleeting events. This urge to synthesize seems to have backfired. The paintings are so stylized, despite their surface beauty, that they become mere illustrations rather than works with great depth and power.

“Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242”, 1893, by Paul Signac is one of the more appealing paintings in this group, with its undulating trees and rich color. Yet the lone man is almost cartoonish, sitting under the trees on yet another solitary bench.

"Le Chahut," by Georges Seurat

“Le Chahut,” by Georges Seurat

The room titled, “Poetry, Music and the Synergy of the Senses,” attempts to show us the connection between painting and music for the Neo-Impressionists—unconvincingly, in my view. We learn that Theo van Rysselberghe illustrated the poet Emile Verhaeren’s works, that Maximilien Luce and Paul Signac designed covers for Symbolist composer Gabriel Fabres, and that painters reviewed new music and written works and vice versa. This is interesting, but the paintings in the room are imbued with the same stilted, thoroughly non-musical flatness as many of the other pieces. The collaboration between the arts only went so far—especially when we think of the astonishing meeting of art, dance, design, and music that Sergei Diaghilev achieved not very much later.

In Frenchman Georges Seurat’s study for “Le Chahut,” 1889, the dancers, although still decorative, are indeed engaged in a wild and spirited dance. We see more dynamism in the composition as well, with its angled stage and flanking musicians.

In the room called “Timelessness” we are told that the Neo-Impressionists had a “special affinity with rural life and the peasant.” Camille Pissarro’s “Peasant Women Planting Poles the  Ground,” 1891, ripples with color, but again gives us idealized women symbolizing toil in the fields, but conveying little of the muscle and heat of the task at hand.

"Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground," by Camille Pissarro

“Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground,” by Camille Pissarro

In the final room, “Arcadia,” Henri-Edmond Cross’s “Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul),” 1891-2, is a standout. Unfortunately, an image of this lovely work (on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago), is not available. Go to see it, and the rest of these works, if only to better understand a sometimes overlooked moment in art history. The show is up until January 11, 2015.



"Ty Cobb," by Joseph Kernan, 1916

“Ty Cobb,” by Joseph Kernan, 1916

Baseball season comes as a whiff of freshly cut grass every year, but especially this year, after the long, hard winter of 2013. The beauty of it all—the brilliant green field and terracotta diamond; the players’ breathtaking choreography as they catch bare-handed, pirouette and throw; the batters fanning the air; the Kabuki-masked catcher in his crouch; the pitcher strutting to the mound. I could go on and on…and I haven’t even mentioned the beer.

But I’ll spare you more hyperbole. What I will tell you is that here in the nation’s capital, there is a surprising amount of art devoted to the sport, most of it cached in the National Portrait Gallery’s third floor “Champions” collection.

"Roger Maris," by Robert Vickrey, 1961

“Roger Maris,” by Robert Vickrey, 1961

The Georgia Peach, “Ty Cobb,” oil on canvas, by Joseph F. Kernan, 1916, played in the majors for twenty-four years. A powerful, accurate hitter and fleet base runner, he perfected the “hook slide” and set a life-time record of 892 stolen bases, which held for 50 years. His lifetime batting average of .367 was never equaled and in 1936, Cobb was the first player to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Next up, “Roger Maris,” egg tempera on board, by Robert Vickrey, 1961. What a swing! And what determination in the set of his jaw. Maris was acquired by the Yankees in a 1960 trade in and promptly hit two home runs, a double, and a single, driving in four runs in his very first game. By 1961 he was in a “home run derby” with his teammate Mickey Mantle, both in the running to beat the Babe’s single season record of 60 homers. Maris hit number 61 on the last day of the season.

"Juan Marichal," by Gerald Gooch, 1966

“Juan Marichal,” by Gerald Gooch, 1966

Here is the “unorthodox catapult style” of San Francisco Giants “Juan Marichal,” acrylic on canvas, by Gerald Gooch, 1966, in all its windmill glory. Marichal pitched a one-hit shut-out against the Phillies to end the 1960 season with a total of 191 wins and was the first Latin American to be inducted into the Baseball hall of fame “via the regular selection process.”

"Casey Stengel," by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981

“Casey Stengel,” by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981

One of the greatest all-time managers, “Casey Stengel,” polychromed bronze, by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981, led the New York Yankees to ten American League pennants and seven World Series Championships in twelve seasons (1949 – 1960). When he took on the New York Mets, he declared, despite their hapless performance, “the Mets are gonna be amazing!” I love this weary-eyed, long suffering Stengel, with his noble earlobes and meticulously detailed uniform.

"Reggie Jackson," by Howard Rogers, 1974

“Reggie Jackson,” by Howard Rogers, 1974

You can almost hear the crack of the bat in “Reggie Jackson,” tempera on board, by Howard Rogers, 1974. The mighty swing of this Oakland A’s hitter–nicknamed “Mr. October,” for hitting three consecutive homers in the clinching game of the 1977 world series–drove in 563 career home runs. Known for his theatrical, out-sized personality, Jackson played in seven World Series.

"Carlton Fiske," by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993

“Carlton Fiske,” by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993

“Carleton Fiske,” oil on cotton duck, by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993, looms out of the black background, in his eyes a certain desperation. It’s clear this man plays on the edge. “You don’t play baseball,” Fiske said, “you work at it.” Fiske played 24 seasons in the American League (for Boston and the White Sox) and was one of the top hitting catchers of all time. In 1975, despite recent knee surgery and a broken arm, he blasted a twelfth inning home run to win the sixth game of the series (playing for Chicago).

Look at the eyes in “Nolan Ryan,” oil on canvas, by Ruth Munson, 1994. You can feel that 100 mile-an-hour fastball coming at you—or maybe it’s one of his killer curve balls. Check out the hand—like a ballet dancer’s port de bras. Ryan played 27 years in the majors, in both leagues. He was drafted by the Mets and helped them win their first World Series in 1969. After being traded to the Angels, he pitched four no-hitters from 1973-1975. At his retirement in 1993, he held the all-time career strike-out record of 5,714.

"Nolan Ryan," by Ruth Munson, 1994

“Nolan Ryan,” by Ruth Munson, 1994

In “Yogi Berra,” bronze, 1973, another wonderful sculpture by Rhoda Sherbell, the artist has caught this self-effacing charmer in a characteristic moment. With his furrowed brow and knowing eyes, you can almost hear him saying, “It’s too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore,”or another of his many “Yogi-isms.” In his eighteen seasons (1946 – 1963), Berra was described as a catcher who “stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

"Yogi Berra," by Rhoda Sherbell, cast 2000, after 1973 original

“Yogi Berra,” by Rhoda Sherbell, cast 2000, after 1973 original

Before we leave the National Portrait Gallery, we’ll stop on the first floor and see the newly acquired portrait of baseball great, Hank Aaron. This arresting portrait by Ross Rossin, oil on canvas, 2010, greets you like an old friend as you enter the museum. The Atlanta Braves home run king was on hand at the museum to unveil the picture, as well as to celebrate his 80th birthday in February of this year. He stayed to meet with admirers and recorded this delightful accounting of memories of his father and childhood.

"Hank Aaron, " by Ross Rossin, 2010

“Hank Aaron, ” by Ross Rossin, 2010

Next, we make our way across town to the Phillips Collection, where we find one of my favorite baseball paintings, Marjorie Phillips’ “Night Baseball,” depicting a 1951 game between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees. Wife of Duncan Phillips, founder of this preeminent modern art museum, Marjorie became a devoted Senators fan and often sketched in the family’s box seats just behind the dugout on the first base line in Washington DC’s old Griffiths stadium. Joe DiMaggio, with his characteristic wide-legged stance, can be seen in the outfield playing in his last season.

"NIght Baseball," by Marjorie Phillips, 1951

“NIght Baseball,” by Marjorie Phillips, 1951

Nearby hangs, “World Series,” by Arnold Friedman, oil on canvas, undated, acquired in 1938. This genteel vision of the sport reminds us, sadly, that we don’t see enough straw boaters these days. Maybe we can bring them back to replace backwards baseball caps. Well, sigh, maybe not.

Both works are part of the blockbuster show, “Made in America,” now on view at the Phillips Collection and previously reviewed in this space.

"World Series," by Arnold Friedman, undated, acquired 1938

“World Series,” by Arnold Friedman, undated, acquired 1938

Ah, baseball. With each new season, new hope. See you at the game!

[Full disclosure: no, I don’t have all these stats memorized. Hardly. I gleaned them from the excellent accompanying notes in the National Portrait Gallery. “Champions” is a permanent collection and  features other sports art, including the lovely portrait of Arthur Ashe, by Richmond VA artist,  Louis Briel.]