Exhibition Preview | The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection
Paul Cézanne was famous for laboring over his tabletop compositions, meditating upon the contours and colors of each apple, plate, table, and cloth to find the perfect formal arrangement. While rare in his dogged persistence, he was not alone among artists of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century in using the still life (the depiction of natural or manmade inanimate objects) as a vehicle to explore radical approaches to space, brushstroke, and line. During this era, still lifes—traditionally considered the lowliest genre in painting—increasingly became a means for investigating ways of seeing and the nature of painting itself. This exhibition of thirty-eight paintings from the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, founded by the collector Duncan Phillips and his wife, the painter Marjorie Acker Phillips, offers a survey of the modernist still life, with works by European and American masters such as Cézanne, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Selected jointly by the curatorial staff of the Princeton University Art Museum and the Phillips Collection, the exhibited works—many of them rarely seen masterworks of modern art—provide a lens to examine a period in which artists struggled to find aesthetic strategies that responded to a rapidly changing world. Artists of the Impressionist generation answered the poet Baudelaire’s rallying cry to paint “modernity . . . the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” by choosing more contemporary subjects than those selected by the artists of the French Academy, which privileged the epic narratives of history, mythology, and religion. Still lifes served as their means to define modernity precisely because the Academy disdained it. 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. Many artists chose the still life as a way to experiment with abstraction and investigate the tensions between the reality beyond the frame and the complex visual structures within it.
The Phillips Collection was founded in 1918, and when it opened its doors to the public in 1921 it became America’s first museum of modern art. Soon afterward, in 1928, a small selection of its masterpieces was lent to Princeton “in order to exemplify the plans and hopes” for the collections the Art Museum intended to build. Princeton will be the only venue for The Artist Sees Differently, an exhibition whose title is derived from a collection of essays published by Duncan Phillips in 1931 and that includes key works from the Phillips Collection’s renowned holdings of American and European avant-garde art.
The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from the Phillips Collection has been organized by the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. This exhibition at Princeton has been made possible with generous support from the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; and William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher, through the Sakana Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Betty Wold Johnson, through the Robert Wood Johnson III Fund of the Princeton Area Community Foundation; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Barbara and Gerald Essig; and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.