ART: Contemporary artists inspired by the past

Eager to inject contemporary art into the Phillips Collection, museum director Dorothy Kosinski has launched an appealing enterprise to integrate new and old works within the galleries.

Called "Intersections," the series invites contemporary artists to create pieces based on their reactions to treasures from the Phillips' holdings. Ms. Kosinski views the effort as extending founder Duncan Phillips' vision of the museum as both "an experiment station" and intimate place for considering the formal relationships among artworks.

"Duncan Phillips left a mandate to continue a vibrant dialogue with our time," she said during the opening of the series earlier this month.

The first installment of "Intersections" is a promising start to renewing this idea. It places contemporary art — a video, a sculpture and wall reliefs — within the older spaces of the museum rather than a separate gallery so they blend into the collection.

The juxtaposition encourages a fresh view of familiar 19th- and 20th-century paintings as seen through the eyes of three female artists: New Yorker Jennifer Wen Ma, Washingtonian Barbara Liotta and Rhode Island-based Tayo Heuser.

The trio was chosen by Vesela Sretenovic, the Phillips' curator of modern and contemporary art, who has tapped four more women to intersect with the collection in the future.

Not to be missed in a nearby gallery is Ms. Liotta's floor-to-ceiling sculpture rising in a corner of the space. Titled "Icarus," her suspended installation is named for the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea.

Its wings are made of synthetic black cords with small rocks suspended from a central ridge of hanging fringe. This graceful arrangement of stones and strings creates an intriguing study of gravity and figural allusions.

So how does this installation relate to the five seemingly unrelated paintings in the room? The obvious answer seems to be the Argentine granite of the rough stones, which matches the rusty tones of the paintings and reddish color of the wooden gallery floor.

Ms. Liotta replies by comparing her sculpture to the character studies shown next to the piece, including paintings of a woman by Chaim Soutine and a painter at his easel by Honore Daumier.

She conceived "Icarus" as representing "the strong will to rise and soar," an ambition similarly expressed in the paintings, rather than a literal portrait of the Greek figure.

Her stone-bound installation also might be seen as the visual embodiment of a human spine and a stringed instrument, as expressed by the fiddler in Eugene Delacroix's "Paganini," which also hangs in the gallery.

Even without the paintings for comparisons, Ms. Liotta's sculpture succeeds in enlivening the space with the dynamism of a stretching dancer. Its power stems from the tension between the heavy stones and delicate webs, and the tightly controlled configuration of the piece.