Arts Desk

Juxtapose This: Oberlin’s Masterworks at the Phillips

renoir-luncheon-of-the-boating-partyRubens_FindingofErichthoniusWhen you and I decide to renovate our kitchens, we don’t have the luxury of putting our best appliances and nicest knife set on display over at a friend’s house while the cabinets get installed and the floors are torn up. But, when you’re a museum under renovation, that’s exactly what you do. With its space full of sawdust and plaster drippings, Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum decided to lend some of its best-known works to the Phillips Collection. The resulting show, "Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips," takes 25 pieces from the Allen's collection and puts them in conversation with one 40 from the Phillips'.

Pieces on display include Rubins’ "The Finding of Erichthonius" (seen here paired with the Phillips Collection’s holding "Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir"), Giuseppe Cesari’s "The Agony in the Garden (Christ on the Mount of Olives)," and Joseph Wright of Derby’s "Dovedale by Moonlight."

Renee Maurer, an assistant curator at the Phillips Collection, spoke with Arts Desk about "Side By Side," the pairing process, and how it revitalized her appreciation for the works she knew so well.

How rare an exhibit is this?

Since the Allen is a part of Oberlin, many people haven’t had a chance to go there. They have a tremendous selection that spans time and space and many of these pieces have never been seen on the East Coast, so this is really a once in a lifetime experience.

Did they let you choose which pieces would travel to D.C.?

They picked 20 and our chief curator and me took a trip to the Allen to choose five others that would fit well with those in our collection. The show is really about engaging their collection with our collection to see what wonderful things could transpire.

Was it an easy, organic process to match up pieces from the two collections?

Some works we saw pairings automatically; like putting their Monet in conversation with one of our Monets. Others look to the history of art, while others look to the sources. We took their Reuben and paired it with one of our Renoirs. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to find the similarities and differences between them.

Was there one piece that you had a hard time pairing up?

All of them have natural pairings. And though they don’t have to be of a specific era or movement in art history, you can make connections that move across those boundaries. That speaks to the versatility of Phillips’ collecting style. We’re lucky that we have the freedom and flexibility to work with such a great selection of our own.

Did the pairings reveal new aspects of your own collection for you?

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a fresh look at a collection I’m very familiar with. This is exciting, because you can be trained to think of an artist in a certain way, but when it’s alongside something new, it puts them in a new perspective. It’s been a tremendous learning experience and it keeps me alive and thinking about new concepts.

The exhibit runs from September 11 through January 16, 2011 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21 St. NW. Free for members, $12 for adult non-members. (202) 387-2151.

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