Phillips Collection: Jasper Johns Exhibition Layers onto Rothko

The Phillips Collection, one of the few museums in town I don’t terribly mind paying for (looking at you, Textile Museum) and “America’s first museum of modern art,” houses some of the most astoundingly masterful pieces in the world, all tucked away in a former residence in Dupont. Upon entering (and paying $12), the viewer is overwhelmed with masterpiece after masterpiece…Lichtenstein, Miró, Calder, Renoir, Picasso…on and on.

Then, the crown jewel of the collection, The Boating Party. If you are like me, you saw Amelie at a very formative moment in your life [liberal arts college]. The Boating Party plays as large a part in the movie as Audrey Tautou‘s saucer-sized brown eyes do. And even without the movie, The Boating Party looms large in the permanent exhibition. Not only is it a huge presence, it’s really large. Like, 6 by 9 feet. Andre the Giant-big.  Instead of telling you about each, I advise you to watch Amelie, go see the painting, then come home and watch The Princess Bride.

Besides The Boating Party, the Phillips possesses the Rothko Room, as close to a religious experience as you’re likely to get at the Phillips. The Rothko Room was established decades ago, and a visit from Rothko prompted the Collection to install a bench in the room for more comfortable reflection. With four paintings–one on each wall, the Rothko Room exudes a pious atmosphere. No more than eight people can be inside at a time, enforcing the private experience. As I sat, looking at the painting in front of me, I wondered, How did he know he was finished?  How often can I really call something “finished”?  Is it even possible with the way our brains are conditioned to constant distraction?  Am I doing right now?!

The traveling exhibition on the third floor, Variations on a Theme, belongs to Jasper Johns, a mid-century printmaker. Johns layered and layered, creating the famous number overlay prints and American flags–two together that are each different: Can you see the same things two ways? asks Johns…looking at the political landscape in the country today, I’d have to say sadly, no. Besides layering up, in the seventies Johns also created a series of completely deconstructed scenes, Fragment–According to What, featuring items labeled String, Spoon, Lightbulb, Fork…cubism for the twentieth century?

Did I mention, they have air conditioning!

1600 21st Street, NW

Written by Haley Fults.

UPDATE: For more on Jasper Johns, check out Artsy, a site dedicated to making art accessible to all.


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