A work of art is not a passive object. It is the aesthetic embodiment of a particular experience that exists in the world to initiate a particular experience in another. It makes the first move, and we respond.
I have spent my professional life working in or with art museums as an art historian. These wonderfully complex institutions exist because their founders believed that art is a common good: that the work done in the privacy of an artist’s studio, emerging from an artist’s distinctive experience of the world, is not only worth sharing with others but worth making it part of a community’s public trust. Art enriches our lives by reminding us through such ordinary materials as oil paint and canvas that we are more than our own ordinary materials. Art deepens and broadens our humanity, which we receive as a gift to be shared with others.
As part of the Briefing Conversations for Q Washington, D.C., Gabe Lyons asked me to explore how artistic practices help us share our humanity by leading a tour of a local art museum. I’ve led hundreds of tours and my goal is always the same: to provide a point of interest that connects each person to the humanity in at least one work of art.
Washington, D.C. is full of wonderful art museums and while many visitors to the city look first to museums like the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn, the Phillips Collection can be overlooked. It is, however, one of the city’s hidden cultural jewels, known by locals and respected by art professionals around the world for its world-class collection of nineteenth and twentieth century painting. When I am asked to give museum tours for conferences and gatherings around the country, I usually select a museum that visitors have overlooked.
Founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, the Phillips Collection is the oldest public collection of modern art in the United States. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929.) The art museum is housed in Duncan Phillips’ childhood home located near DuPont Circle. That the building was first a private residence gives the museum an intimate human scale that makes the artwork much more accessible. Indeed, it places the work where the Phillips family lived with the art they acquired. Duncan Phillips believed that these intimate spaces, living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and hallways were comfortable contexts within which to view art—a public collection shaped by an intimate environment.
At the Phillips Collection, with its world-renowned collection of modern art, we explored how to respond to abstraction. Modern art raises our suspicions because we presume that art that does not correspond to our conception of the world is a denial of it. Yet the intention of abstract painting, the intention of such artists represented in the Phillips Collection like Mark Rothko and Paul Klee, was to use paint to push through those assumptions, to probe deeper into the world of persons, landscapes, relationships, and emotions that are infinitely more complex than we presume. For example, a small room of four paintings of pure color by the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko pulls emotion from us without the assistance of representational imagery.
The intimate scale of the Phillips Collection allowed us to talk about the role of the curator to present certain works next to others, creating connections and tensions, deepening our experience of the work. We concluded our tour with a question: why did the curator install this particular oil painting (Georgia O’Keeffe’s From the White Place, 1974) next to this particular bronze sculpture (Linda Ridgway’s Rose, 1995) in this particular narrow area in the hallway?
To answer this question is to probe more deeply into the ethical dimension of artistic and curatorial practices, the responsibility of the artist and curator for the common good, which I am eager to pursue next year when Q comes to Los Angeles.