Each Friday, University of Virginia art history students – three graduate students and an undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences – travel to Washington, D.C. to spend the afternoon at the Phillips Collection. There, they are responsible for an evolving installation in the Main Gallery, founder Duncan Phillips’ original exhibition space.
During the course of the semester, the students rearrange and swap out artworks based on their research and analysis of American modernism.
Professor Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who was senior curator at the Phillips before joining U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Art in August 2007, preselected the works for the installation based on a 1927 photo of the space in order to immerse the class in Duncan Phillips’ perspective of modernism. The first time the course met at the Phillips was just as the works were being installed.
The four students in Turner’s seminar on American modernism are looking at the period through the lens of two men: collector Duncan Phillips and New York gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Both were supporters of modernist artists and played leading roles in the story of American Modernism; Stieglitz was the first to exhibit the European modernists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse in the United States, and Phillips collected and exhibited works by American artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur G. Dove, John Marin and others.
Through the study of the objects themselves, plus archival and primary source materials, including letters and materials that establish the provenance of the works, and extensive readings, the students are putting themselves into the mindset of American modernism in the first half of the 20th century, Turner said.
They are also able to go behind the scenes to examine works with curators and conservators at the Phillips to learn about how each artist used their medium in new ways to create a desired effect.
“The students are creating a new narrative for the period,” Turner said. Working directly with the art and the installation provides “opportunities to move things and further understand the concepts of the course,” she added.
Already they have added Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1927 painting, Red Hills, Lake George, to the exhibit. They also added a hornet’s nest, which was inspired by a 1915 photo of an exhibition in Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York City.
Stieglitz and his circle of artists are the “protagonists” in the American modernist narrative, graduate student Tom Winters said.
The idea was not to reproduce the original exhibit Phillips had on display, but to use it as an inspiration. “We are using the concept of the exhibition not as a last word, but as the first word in the next thing,” Turner said.
Based on their research, the students are creating the wall texts for the individual artworks and for the introductory wall panel. “The wall texts change as we go,” graduate student Jennifer Camp said. “We rethink the narrative as we obtain new information.”
As the students visit the gallery each week, they walk through the space and construct a new narrative based on the readings for the week. Being in the space and visualizing how it will work, “that is the process that has to happen,” Winters said. The exhibit is open through January.
“We are generating new knowledge and testing out assumptions,” Turner said. “We are working with the idea that the space and objects themselves speak to us as history and help us answer questions.”
The museum-related focus of the class helps students to put objects in different relationships and “speaks to larger ideas” of what was made, how it was made, what influenced the artists and how the works speak to us today, she added. “Objects speak to us about the shape of time and history.”
In addition to shaping the exhibit based on their ongoing research, each student will write a 15- to 20-page paper about a chosen aspect of American modernism and give a presentation at the Phillips.
Also, the Phillips invited Winters to contribute to its “Experiment Station” blog, and he is currently working on a fourth entry about the class experience.
His classmates had other ideas for blog entries. Camp said a version of their papers distilled for a general audience would be a great addition, and undergraduate Meryl Goldstein suggested that a series of behind-the-scenes entries would be an opportunity to show what the students are doing.
For Goldstein, the experience has been particularly rewarding. In addition to having the opportunity to examine works with conservators, use original sources and create independent thoughts about the works, object-based research is something that undergraduates don’t usually have an opportunity to do, she said.
The seminar is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Phillips Collection and U.Va. that includes interdisciplinary programs, conferences and courses that explore modern and contemporary art. Turner said the collaboration with the Phillips is distinguished in that both institutions use the space as a creation of new research and knowledge.