Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington without a Government

I arrived in Washington DC to do research at the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Hirschhorn and the Library of Congress exactly 90 minutes before the government shutdown. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be prohibited from my research thanks to a handful of angry Republicans. After the initial anxiety and frustration grew tiring, I set out to spend time in places I know and love in Washington, as well as discover new ones.
El Greco, The Repentant St Peter, 1600-1605
Although I have been to the Phillips Collection on a number of occasions, this seemed like the opportune time to return. It’s a wonderful collection that reminded me a lot of some of the private collections in Europe, in particular the Lehnbach Haus in Munich. There are both lesser know, but not necessarily minor, paintings by well known artists —Juan Gris’ Still Life with a Newspaper 1916, Georges Braques’ Birds, 1956, Corot’s View From the Farnese Gardens, Rome (1826), El Greco’s The Repentant Saint Peter, c. 1600, a wonderful Soutine Portrait, all of which made an afternoon at the Phillips Collection a treat. For me, however, the collection stands out for its evidence of a common American tendency: the mixing together of French paintings with the works of significant Americans – Sir John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, some wonderful Georgia O’Keefe works that really demonstrate the surrealism of her early painting.

Sir John Sloan, The Wake of the Ferry II 1927

There was a lot to love about the collection, to name just one painting, Sloan’s The Wake of the Ferry II 1927. I loved it for it’s greyness, for its vision of the cold, silent air, the loneliness of being on water. The tilt of the ferry also speaks the drama of the ocean, and I was fascinated that the line between ferry and ocean is blurred, the one becoming the other, painted in the same cold grey paint. There was something very unsettling about this painting: the two ships in the background look as though they may collide thanks to the tilt of the ferry. And that there is no sight of land, for a ferry, is an ominous sign.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968
My favorite room –unsuprisingly — was that with the four Rothko paintings. As always, the natural movement, vibrations of colour, the lightness and luminosity, together with a simultaneous density of colour, were mesmerizing. Also on display, down the corridor was a room covered in beeswax by Wolfgang Laib with a single light bulb. Despite the closeness of the space, there was nothing claustrophobic about it. On the contrary, Laib’s installation was calm, meditative, even spacious and freeing to be inside. The orange of the beeswax communicates with the orange across Rothko’s paintings as the eye moves around the room designed specifically for the exhibition of the Rothkos. Like Laib’s beeswax covered walls, the Rothko room is surprisingly small. It is always tempting to contemplate Rothko’s paintings from a distance, but this is not possible at the Phillips. This is, of course, how Rothko wanted his paintings to be hung; to create an immersive experience for the viewer. Inside we are surrounded by the paintings, bathed in their light and their dynamic movements. And because they are yellow and orange and red, there is a brightness and a luminosity that makes this small room, like that covered in beeswax, very comfortable to be inside.
Wolfgang Laib, Laib Wax Room, 2013
I shared my time in the Rothko room with a woman who had come to Washington for the Byzantine exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Of course we got into a conversation about the Government shutdown, it’s only natural. At the end of the conversation she reminded me: we are the lucky ones. And she’s right, as much as I am so frustrated and angry at the Republicans for putting an end to my research while I am in Washington, it’s a great joy to be forced to sit in a room, surrounded by Mark Rothko paintings.

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