This exhibition of thirty-eight paintings from The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., offers an analysis of the modernist still life, including rarely seen works by European and American masters such as Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, and Georgia O’Keeffe. In their quest to create a new art suited to new times, many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists rejected the official hierarchies of the French Academy, which privileged epic narratives of history, mythology, and religion, and chose instead to paint still lifes—depictions of the humble objects of daily life, and traditionally considered the lowliest of genres.
Still life provided artists with the means of experimenting with pattern and abstraction and investigating the tensions between the reality beyond the frame and the complex visual structures within it, and thus for pushing the boundaries of painting itself. Moving into the twentieth century, avant-garde painters continued to rethink and disrupt their relationship to the past as they attempted to create work relevant in a world transformed by technology, new media, and, ultimately, two world wars. For many artists, still life offered a vehicle to experiment with abstraction and to investigate the tensions between the reality beyond the frame and the complex visual structures within it. Spanning the first six decades of the twentieth century, the exhibition provides a focused lens to examine a period in which artists explored aesthetic strategies that responded to a rapidly changing world.