Since it first opened its doors in 1921, the Phillips Collection has been revered as a pioneer in contemporary art.
America’s first museum of modern art, and it has remained a relevant and progressive hub for contemporary fine art throughout its life. It con- tinues this tradition today with major retrospec- tives of renowned living artists, photographers and political cartoonists, contextualizing their work in the canon of history. Here’s a breakdown of the major exhibits on view in the Phillips. For more information, visit www.PhillipsCollection. org.
Per Kirkeby, on Art and Geology
Per Kirkeby—a Danish painter, poet, sculptor, filmmaker, as well as a trained geologist—is one of Europe’s most celebrated living artists. For more than 40 years, he has exhibited a mastery of color and fascination with form, creating an ongoing dialogue with geological structures that are engrained deeply within him. “Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture,” on view through Jan. 6, is the most comprehensive survey in the United States to date of his works.
The exhibition features 26 expressive paint- ings and 11 striking bronze sculptures. Kirkeby’s paintings—some more than six-feet tall—are structured like geological strata, constantly in flux, moving and changing, continually and passionately maintaining a dialogue between art and science. For Kirkeby, art, like science, is engaged in an ongoing, self-correcting process. His works incorporate all aspects of natural his- tory, reflecting the artist’s considerable curiosity about the infinite variety of life. He even likens paintings to “collapsing structures,” a metaphor borrowed from geology.
His bronze sculptures in the exhibition are fragmented bodies—mostly arms, legs or heads, often melted together—reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s radicalized torsos, but rooted in a deep dialogue with nature. The sculptures have a sense of brutal history, reworked and fragmen- tary limbs and forms that barely suggest a figure.
Kirkeby’s synthesis of history and science is also informed by the art history and landscape of his native Denmark. The contrasting combi- nation of Kirkeby’s deep affinity with Danish romantic naturalism and his empirical training is evident in his film “Deer Garden: The Romantic Forest” (1970), on view in the exhibition. Shot near Copenhagen, Deer Garden juxtaposes lush, idyllic depictions of the park with dispassionate, factual spoken commentary.
Despite his prolific writings on art and artists (he has written books on Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh), he rarely discusses his own work in great length. “I am a painter, and I have painted a painting,” he once wrote. “And really, I don’t want to say anything more about it.”
Art thumbs its nose at politics in the election- inspired gallery, “Politcal Wits, 100 Years Apart” (through Jan. 20), featuring works by Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–79) and Patrick Oliphant (Australian, b. 1935) from the museum’s permanent collection. A master of caricature and satire, Daumier so lampooned King Louis-Philippe that the artist was charged with sedition and impris- oned for six months in 1832. Pulitzer Prize- winning political cartoonist Oliphant—whose work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress and pub- lished in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—had a deep and long- standing admiration of Daumier’s work. During a Daumier retrospective at the Phillips in 2000, Oliphant even produced a lithograph inspired by the exhibition and proclaimed in his Washington Post review of the show, “Monsieur Daumier, you certainly are a humbler.” This is a perfect show in the perfect city at the perfect time.
Natural Destruction and Destroying Nature
Eleven photographs document how artists use the camera to capture the beauty, as well as the human destruction of the natural world in “Picturing the Sublime: Photographs from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection” (through Jan. 13). The exhibition brings together iconic works by Ansel Adams with contemporary examples by Edward Burtynsky, Lynn Davis, and Richard Misrach. Davis, with a remarkable sense of value and composition, offers a haunting portrait of glacial erosion. Misrach’s serene landscape of a sand dune reflected in still water, titled “Battleground Point #14,” carries with it the shadow of Middle-Eastern conflicts over the past 40 years, without denoting any specific time or place.
There are also 19th-century photographs by Francis Frith and Carleton Watkins. Frith was an English photographer, remembered for his seminal depictions of the Middle East and Egypt. Watkins was a noted Californian photographer, whose series of conservation photographs of the Yosemite Valley in the 1860s significantly influ- enced Congress’ decision to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864. ?