City Paper is not for tourists
It’s fitting that the newly reinstalled American paintings at the Phillips Collection are back after a world tour across Europe, Japan, and the states. The story of American Modernism, especially the story of American Modernism that the Phillips Collection tells, is one of painters embracing expatriation (or following the painters who did). “Made in the USA” surveys more than 200 examples of Impressionism, Realism, Cubism, and other modes spanning 12 decades of American painting—all of them painted in places like Seattle and Cape Cod and New York, and most of them painted with places like Paris and Berlin and Moscow in mind.
One way to organize this show might be by the points of contact and departure between Europe and its former colonies. Of American painters strongly influenced by Cubism, Stuart Davis was the most indebted to the 1913 Armory Show (a New York survey of the leading European painting of the day and many Americans’ first introduction to concepts like Cubism). Davis realized one of his signature accomplishments, “Egg Beater No. 4,” in 1928, a year before he ever set foot in a Parisian studio. Charles Demuth, another artist who shaped America’s take on Cubism, spent significantly more time in Europe absorbing its lessons in person. Many other artists, of course, emigrated to the U.S. during periods of continental crisis. Over time, these works contributed to a highly literal American style, one distinguished from the formal chess match between Braque and Picasso by a focus on cityscapes, the finest of which were painted by Charles Sheeler (see 1922’s “Skyscrapers”).
To tell this chapter of American art history in its entirety would take a survey at least as large as “Made in the USA”—which rather aims to say something about a period of American painting encompassing both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. There’s simply no single story there to tell (and many narratives that were ignored or suppressed). Hence, at the Phillips Collection, a mostly chronological installation that waxes and wanes: A convincing gallery on “Impressionism” (featuring Childe Hassam, William Glackens, and Maurice Prendergast, among others) is matched by galleries that are either too narrow (“American Scene”) or hopelessly broad (“Nature and Abstraction”).
But forgive the Phillips Collection for not breaking from the chronological and thematic mold everyone uses when hanging permanent-collection exhibitions. And give the museum credit for telling one story exceptionally well: that of Duncan Phillips’ career as a collector. While it’s far from the first reason anyone wants to see Thomas Eakins’ “Miss Amelia Van Buren” (1891), the stories of how this and other works came into the Phillips’ collection lend action to the exhibit. Their telling is subtle, a gradual amassing of parentheticals in the wall text. And for works that played an important role in the Phillips Collection but were all but forgotten by art history—a series of large abstract paintings by Augustus Vincent Tack hanging in the stairwell is a prime example—these insights are crucial context.
Would it be wrong or reductive to say that “Made in the USA” is simply good branding? No timeline in American art history leads to Adolph Gottlieb rising as the figurehead of Abstract Expressionism. Yet there’s his 1963 painting “Equinox” dominating the Ab-Ex gallery, lording over a Richard Diebenkorn and a Philip Guston (“Native’s Return,” a gorgeous, rare, early abstract Guston), the thread connecting them being hard to trace, other than the fact that Phillips collected them all. The narrative connecting these with a lone piece of folk art (“Domino Players,” 1943, by Horace Pippin) or Jacob Lawrence’s searching “Migration Series” (1940-1941) is even harder to follow (but wonderful to track).
That’s American art history, though—large, and containing multitudes.