Monday, April 8, 2013

Tampa Museum of Art presents To See as Artists See: American Art from the Phillips Collection

Last week I headed up to Tampa to see a friend from my law school days.  As long as I was going to be in the neighborhood, I decided to make a stop at the Tampa Museum of Art and see the traveling show from the Phillips Collection in DC:  To See as Artists See.  It would have been worth the trip just to see the show.

Although I've spent a lot of time in DC, I've never been to the Phillips Collection.  I learned that the Phillips was the first museum of modern art in the United States, pre-dating MOMA by almost ten years.   Duncan Phillips fell in love with art when he went to college at Yale in the early 1900s.  Being a member of the lucky sperm club (he was heir to a steel fortune), Duncan persuaded his parents to give him a $10,000 stipend for art collection upon his graduation.   His collection grew, and in 1921, Phillips converted his house into a museum and opened it to the public.  Today the Phillips owns approximately 2400 works of art.  To See as Artists See contains a mere 100 of those pieces, but they are gems.

The show is broken into ten themes ranging from Romanticism and Realism to Nature and Abstraction to Modern Life.  That's obviously way too much to chronicle here, but I wanted to share a few of the highlights.

Whistler's Miss Lillian
Whistler's "Miss Lillian Woakes" is the opening work of the show and is housed under the Romanticism and Realism theme.  While I liked the painting, I loved the description of the work because it gave me a sense of the negotiation that can go on between portrait artists and their subjects.  Whistler assured Miss Woakes that it would take him no more than three sittings to complete her portrait.  It took 25.  I hope she was happy with the finished product! Whistler signed his pieces with a butterfly logo rather than a traditional signature.  This work was signed twice--once in the bow of the dress where Whistler wanted it and once above Miss Woakes' right shoulder where she thought it was appropriate for him to sign.  (Even knowing where the signatures are, I couldn't find them.)

This portion of the show also contained paintings by Homer and Eakins and, again, the descriptions of the works contained some interesting tidbits.  I wasn't aware that Homer began his career as an illustrator on the battlefields of the Civil War.  This puts his recurring theme of man versus the sea in perspective.   Nor did I know that Eakins was fired from his job as an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia because of his "insistence" on using nude models.  This was not to the liking of the Philadelphia Main Liners at all.

John Marin's The Sea Cape Split,
John Marin's work "The Sea, Cape Split, Maine" really captured the sense of the roiling sea with his dark palette and thick brushstrokes.  This work appeared under the heading of Forces of Nature.  I was struck by how many of the works were set in Maine and its Canadian counterpart Nova Scotia.

Georgia O'Keefe's works were included under the theme Nature and Abstraction.  O'Keefe said, "Nothing is less real than realism.  Details are confusing.  It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

Georgia O'Keefe's Ranchos Church,
No.II, N.M. 
Ranchos Church No. II, N.M., is the second in a series of eight paintings that she did on her first visit to the state that provided so much inspiration for her.  I just love this work, with its deceptively simple lines and wonderful colors.  Even though the building is rock solid, it invites the viewer in like a big easy chair.

Arthur G. Dove's Red Sun (1935)
While the exhibit primarily contained paintings by artists whom I am familiar with, there were some new names as well.  (Isn't it fun to discover a new artist--even if the artist is only "new" to you?)  Arthur G. Dove is one example.  I was quite taken with his work Red Sun, which was inspired by the sunsets near his home in upstate New York.   Adjacent to this work was his Morning Sun, creating book-ends to the day.

Jacob Lawrence is another artist whom I "discovered" at the exhibit.  The Memory and Identity portion of the show included several paintings from Lawrence's "The Migration of the Negro (Series)", and they were extremely powerful.  The folk art-style series contains 60 paintings.  The Phillips owns the odd-numbered paintings and MOMA owns the even-numbered paintings.  Here's a link to the Phillips' website if you're interested in checking them out.  (The website is wonderful, with detailed descriptions of many works and teaching ideas for the classroom.  The works that I had the chance to see are numbers 7, 59, 23, 15, and 3--in that order.)

Milton Avery's Girl
I could go on and on but I'll leave you with one of my favorite works from the show--Milton Avery's Girl Writing.  There's something captivating to me about Avery's work in general and in this painting specifically.  Again, the lines are simple but there's so much beauty.  I particularly love the way he captures this girl--his daughter March--doing her homework; the foot hooked behind her ankle is a small detail but it's so true that it brings her to life. (This work appeared under the theme Legacy of Cubism.)

The show will be on at the Tampa Museum of Art through April 28th, so get there if you can.  A visit to the Phillips Collection is now on my list for my next visit to DC.  So much art, so little time!


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