Words By Joseph Franco, Photos by Maya Moore
Here at BYT, we know you enjoy the finer things in life. But as far as culture in this city is concerned, that’s probably a little less Holland, and a little more hollandaise. So you might not be aware of Dutch artist Karel Appel, one of the preeminent figures in 20th century modern art. Our contemporaries in the Netherlands have grown up cherishing his works throughout an illustrious career spanning more than a half century.
Now, one of the District’s most notable repositories for fine art is bringing Appel’s work into the spotlight. The Phillips Collection, located at 1600 21st St NW in Dupont, has received seven works–five paintings and two sculptures–donated by the Karel Appel Foundation in Amsterdam. That acquisition is complemented by an additional 15 Appel originals. This concise survey of the artist’s oeuvre is presented here as Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color, opening at The Phillips Collection on Saturday, June 18.
Duncan Phillips, the late D.C. based collector, is credited with bringing modern art to the forefront of American culture, and the site of his original Dupont home became the first modern art museum in America. It’s probably housed a piece from every major figure of the past 150 years. Yeah, that’s every artist whose prints you’ve been tempted to buy because your room looks dull and you’re out of ideas: Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, Degas, all that jazz. Anyone with at least a passive appreciation of fine art would take something away from a visit here.
If you’re traveling from points south, stop at the corner of 21st and Q to see the most physically imposing installation of the entire collection. Allowed to stand freely on the lawn of Phillips’ former home, The Elephant is a painted bronze statue with appendages that envelop one another with a sort of undulating fluidity. The piece has an ethereal quality to it that reminds me, strangely enough, of otherworldly illustrations found in Hiyao Miyazaki films.
Enter the museum and proceed up the stairs, past the beautiful Mondrian on the wall, and you’ll find the second installation, a gouache watercolor on wood titled Tree. Perched on a corner pedestal before you reach the main collection, its vibrant interplay of bright hues is an introduction to the wildly experimental variation of colors that you’ll find in almost all of the remaining 20 pieces.
Once you’ve reached the top of the steps, you’ll be able to browse the four adjoining rooms and corridors that comprise A Gesture of Color. There’s a striking degree of variety in each of the works, in terms of both subject matter and medium. There’s almost sixty years of a man’s life on these walls.
You’ll definitely notice a focus on ranging facial expressions in many of the paintings, with non-traditional portraits and profiles hanging alongside landscapes, still lifes, and deconstructed collages.
The range of compositional elements is vast, with found materials, plastic flowers, bronze castings, and a whole lot of mixed media employed in works throughout the exhibit. An assemblage of mirror shards, rope, and images of body parts stared right into my soul (finding nothing but darkness, presumably).
But even the standard oil on canvas jumps off the page, with vibrant and swirling textures that feel active and alive. You’ll want to touch all of it; you know you can’t do that.
For a weekend activity that awakens your appreciation for abstraction and chronicles the measured progression of a contemporary virtuoso, definitely hit this exhibit. There’s a lot more to see throughout the museum, including a solemn Rothko room where you can sit, think, and listen to a contemplative audio meditation provided by The Phillips. There’s also a brand new William Merritt Chase exhibit if you’re into stuffy 19th century portraiture and landscapes that are immaculately constructed. An afternoon here will provide you and yours with a more than adequate dose of chin stroking and brow furrowing, so indulge your interpretive faculties here this summer.
Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color is on display at The Phillips Collection June 18 to September 18. For more information, visit their website.