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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Party at the Phillips

Was there a party going on?

It sure seemed like it Thursday evening at the Phillips Collection, with a young lawyers association taking a private tour of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series, the Brett Weston lecture in the auditorium, and the Gallery Talk on Vincent van Gogh's and Pierre Bonnard's paintings. Whew!

It was a race to get to all the places, paintings, and lectures I wanted to see and hear.

First off, the Brett Weston lecture, presented by the curator of the show, Stephen Bennett Phillips (any relation?), at 6:30 p.m. was delivered not only to a SRO crowd in the large, nice, new auditorium which seats 180, but also to a SRO crowd in a nearby overflow vestibule which heard the lecturer on remote and saw Weston's photographs on a large screen like the viewers saw them in the auditorium.

The Phillips' Brooke Rosenblatt wrote me the count was 197. Not bad for an art lecture in Washington, D.C. on a Thursday evening in July.

The retrospective show is entitled: "Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow" and will travel to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art after it ends at the Phillips September 7. Mr. Weston (1911-1993) was a photographer of the Southwest like his father, Edward Weston (1886-1958) who also has some art in the exhibit. It's interesting to compare the subjects and styles of father and son, black and white, stark photographs.

Edward Weston, whom Wikipedia calls one of the "greatest photographic artists" of the 20th century, was "almost" a manic depressive, Mr. Phillips said, and his illness is evident in some of his photographs (a dilapidated car, a chair). He was later struck by Parkinson's disease.

Brett Weston's photographs "pushed abstractionism" which Mr. Phillips mentioned several times. Brett Weston joined the Army in 1943, working in the Signal Corps as a photographer in New York City where he practiced and honed his art. On his way to a post in Texas, he was "transformed" by the white sands he saw, and some of his best shots are of contrasts in shadows, sand, and silhouettes. He loved California and the West Coast.

He wanted to shoot photographs of things "as they were," Mr. Phillips said. Many of his photos include sun and water and a empty, dark center. He was married four times, the longest marriage lasting four years, and his career, not surprisingly, took precedence over his wives.

When Mr. Phillips' presentation ended, I flew up three flights of stairs to find the “gallery talk” at 7 which took some doing since none of the five staff members I asked, knew where the group was. A new acquaintance, also hunting the gallery talk, and I were quite happy to eventually locate the talk already underway.

Standing in front of the first of three paintings of southern France and the Mediterranean which she described in the half hour talk, Lois Steinitz was engaging, informative, and delightful, and the crowd grew.

She began with Pierre Bonnard’s “The Open Window,” then his “The Palm,” and lastly, "The Road Menders" by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1880). Leading us from one painting to another, she contrasted the differences in the colors the painters selected: Bonnard’s bright and sunny scenes; Van Gogh’s, mute and practically monochromatic choices. Until she pointed them out, I was unaware of the "anthropomorphic" characteristics in the "Road Menders," and suddenly, the trees and lamppost came alive as people. The trees grew arms and legs, sometimes four, right before my eyes. (All it takes is an "awakening.")

Bonnard (1867-1947) inserted his wife in many of his paintings, and there she was: hidden in the right corner of “The Open Window” and standing, like a ghost holding an apple (suggesting Eve, Ms. Steinitz offered) at the front of the otherwise colorful “Palm.”

A truly captivating evening for art lovers and well worth a Phillips membership or single admission price. Did I mention the Diebenkorn show?

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