Works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and other US abstract expressionists are on show at Berlin’s Barberini Museum. Despite current political tensions, the exhibition creates an artistic transatlantic bridge.When Donald Trump was inaugurated in Washington, DC this January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent the evening browsing Impressionist paintings at the newly opened Barberini Museum in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin.
The image of the chancellor facing a colorful Monet was lapped up by the press, and seen by many as a willful show of disinterest in the goings-on in Washington.
The museum’s next exhibition will further put the spotlight on the US capital, albeit in a very different manner. Opening on June 17 and on display until October 3, the museum will present 68 works in a show titled “From Hopper to Rothko: America’s Road to Modern Art.” The pieces are on loan from the Phillips Collection, a private museum in Washington DC.
New artists for European visitors
Ranging from Impressionism to abstract expressionism, the works show how America’s early modern art scene came to fruition during the first half of the 20th century. This evolution culminated in the abstract expressionist movement that made New York the center of the western art world in the 1950s.
While the US public may know most of the artists, the museum’s director, Ortrud Westheider, says many of the works on show may be new to European museum-goers.
“The European public is familiar with Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko. Other classics from the American Modern like Arthur Dove, Milton Avery or Richard Diebenkorn are included here to be discovered,” she said, adding that this is part of what makes it so attractive.
Collector was a Georgia O’Keeffe patron
The pieces hail from the private collection of Washington-based collector Duncan Phillips. He supported artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove when they were in the early stages of their careers, a time when few knew their work might someday become part of the canon of American classics.
Born in the late 19th century, Phillips put his family fortune to good use, opening an intimate museum in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC in 1921. Housing over 4,000 works in styles and periods ranging from French Impressionism to Color Field paintings, the collector was an especially keen supporter of modern art in the period between the First and Second World Wars.
According to Westheider, he helped pave the way for later collections in museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1929, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, founded in 1931.
Phillips was a patron of a special group of prominent artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove, who gathered at the New York City gallery of Alfred Stieglitz.
“Phillips supported them, bought their work for Washington and showed them for the first time at a museum,” said the curator.
Seminal abstract expressionist Mark Rothko had his first room in the Phillips collection. Still known as the Rothko Room, the artist saw it as a realization of his vision of creating an immersive environment for his soft, rectangular forms.
When the room opened to the public in 1960, few would have foreseen that two of his works would sell for a combined $36.5 million in a 2014 New York auction.
Spotlight on Hopper in Berlin
The work of American realist painter Edward Hopper is in the spotlight during the current exhibition. Hopper, who studied in Paris before moving to New York, often painted empty cityscapes like his work “Sunday,” which plays on themes of isolation and loneliness and uses light dramatically.
“Hopper is an artist who expresses the feelings of the modern man, independent of national borders,” says Westheider. Like many of his works that focus on a single individual, “Sunday” depicts a man sitting on the steps of a shop, leaving many questions unanswered.
“It’s not entirely clear what the situation is here. Did the man just get home from work? Is he sitting in front of his store? Why are the displays completely empty?” asks Westheider. “This openness accounts for the modernity of the work. It doesn’t specify what I’m supposed to see, but allows me to decide on my own.”
Hopper was part of a group of artists referred to as the “Ashcan school” because, writes Westheider in an essay accompanying the exhibition, “they expressed the urban reality of the street for the first time.”
‘Art transgresses time and boundaries’
In the Phillips Collection, works by European and American artists are shown side by side. Just as the European public today may gain a greater understanding of American art from this period while visiting the Barberini museum, the Phillips collection in DC was once a “pilgrimage site” for US artists looking to learn more about what their European counterparts were up to.
“During the Second World War, a time of isolation for US artists, painters like Richard Diebenkorn studied European art in the Phillips collection,” explains Westheider.
In an era where transatlantic diplomatic relations seem shakier then they have in decades, such artistic exchanges can perhaps be seen as a means to keep people connected on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Phillips believed that art transgresses time and boundaries to affect people. This is still an inspiration today, and very relevant,” says Westheider.