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“Renoir to Rothko:

The Eye of Duncan Phillips”

At the Phillips Collection to Jan. 23, 2000

General Mills’ Millenios cereal has barely reached grocery store shelves, and modern-art megaliths like the Hirshhorn, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney are already elbowing each other for choice pages in 21st-century art-history texts. They’ve shuffled their permanent collections into millennial retrospectives that, with the exception of the individual works on view, are exactly the same. That is, they tell identical stories: By 1950, Paris had handed over the art-world baton to New York, and the U.S. sprinted victoriously toward century’s end.

Even D.C.’s sleepy Phillips Collection, with its dreamy Renoirs and Bonnards, wants in on the fin de siecle action. The house-museum at Dupont Circle has mounted “Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips,” a paean to its founder, who collected late-19th- and 20th-century European and American art. The period of Phillips’ collecting activity—from 1916 to his death in 1966—corresponds perfectly to the rise in profile of American art, and the story of his acquisitions offers the backstory to post-1950 American dominance in the art world. Phillips saw and bought what was available—and in style—during his time.

But remember, this show is not so much about the art as it is about the collector. So rather than present the inventory like a bug preserved in amber, Phillips curators Eliza Rathbone and Elizabeth Hutton Turner have whacked it all to bits. They have forsaken loyalty to chronology in favor of a genial personal profile of their museum’s founder. The show puts all of its considerable assets in service of its curators’ myth: that Phillips collected at ground zero, supporting the unknown artists of his day—unknowns who just happened to go down in history.

Rathbone and Turner have picked 362 works from Phillips’ collection of 2,500 pieces for a show that fills the whole museum, beginning in the old house, crossing the bridge to the Goh Annex’s third floor, and snaking down to its ground floor. What works remain in dustbound storage—grudgingly omitted masterpieces? unknowns Phillips couldn’t give away? fearsome clown paintings?—we’ll never know. Although the curators have allowed a few benign, even charming, warts to show through—his nepotism, his stubborn insistence that Braque was better than Picasso—the show makes for little more than a gracious epitaph: Here lies a man of good taste.

First we meet Phillips the blue-blood conservative in the old mansion’s cozy wainscoted rooms: The show opens with the hazy mid-19th-century Portrait of a Woman painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, which Phillips bought in 1922. That canvas represents, the curators maintain, Phillips’ conventional taste at the time he began collecting. In their introductory text, Rathbone and Turner take pains to point up Phillips’ undeveloped eye and align his early favorite canvases with popular leanings at the turn of the century.

With an introduction like that, the Mark Rothkos and Kenneth Nolands at show’s end make it seem as if Phillips converted to the cutting edge. But despite Phillips’ inclusion of revolutionary abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock in the later parts of his collection, he managed to choose the most tepid pieces from the ab-ex corpus. Pollock’s delicate collage in the show’s final rooms can’t touch the vigor of his drip paintings. It’s not that far from a crowd-pleasing Corot after all.

So who was Phillips? Born in 1886 to a family steeped in steel and banking money, young Duncan lived the ultimate Gilded Age life, first in Pittsburgh, later in Washington. He was 11 when his family decided it preferred the District and commissioned a part-Georgian, part-federal red-brick mansion at 21st and Q Streets NW, near Dupont Circle—now the museum’s old building. Duncan Phillips, along with his older brother, Jim, left in 1904 to study English literature at Yale. The young art aficionado proved a solid writer; he penned Yale Review articles bemoaning the dearth of art classes for young aesthetes-in-training like himself.

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After college, Phillips and his brother moved to New York, where Duncan wrote and published essays on art. Among these was a scathing review of the 1913 Armory show—the exhibit that introduced vivid European art by the fauves, expressionists, and cubists to sleepy America, where the Ashcan School’s urban realism was the hottest thing going. The fauves’ bright colors and cubists’ parsed realities insulted his middle-of-the-road taste for French Romantics such as Corot and Eugene Delacroix. When Duncan and Jim started collecting in 1916, thanks to their father’s stipend, the brothers stuck with what they knew.

Young Duncan Phillips’ insular world was shattered when his brother and father died in quick succession in 1917 and 1918. But Phillips emerged from his mourning with a newfound cause: He would open a gallery in their honor, where he would collect art for its “joy-giving, life-enhancing influence.” The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery opened in 1921. Phillips’ insistence on art’s redemptive power—its ability to soothe the troubled soul—imposed difficulties later on, when the horrors of World War II produced tortured masterpieces by the likes of Francis Bacon, some of which Phillips eventually purchased. To the best of his ability, however, Phillips collected for beauty.

But as time passed, the modern, mostly American art Phillips wanted to collect posed greater and greater challenges to his “joy-giving” credo. Much of his later collecting became a matter of reining in the explosive forces of modernism and tailoring them to his more conservative tastes. Phillips liked ab-ex lite.

Phillips’ strategy regarding the explosive anti-traditionalism of modern art—impulses to obliterate the old canon and start anew—was to ignore it. He insisted that contemporary art wasn’t revolutionary, and he managed to fit the works he collected onto the historical continuum. He maintained that El Greco’s Repentant St. Peter, painted around 1600, anticipated the flat, outlined figures of Van Gogh and Picasso, and that Marsden Hartley’s choppy coastal scenes from the 1940s were the children of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s somber night scenes painted “in the quickened tempo of our time.” In making such connections, Phillips explained, “I demonstrate two things—the antiquity of modern ideas” and “the modernity of some of the old masters.” But in conceptualizing a time line, Phillips avoided abstraction’s most troubling question: What do you do when everything falls apart?

Rather than examine the psychology of a man who found rough art so hard to swallow, Rathbone and Turner paint over his complexities and leave the most interesting questions unanswered. They do offer intriguing glimpses, in the form of Phillips’ correspondence and notes sprinkled in vitrines throughout the show, that shed light on Phillips’ impetus to collect. Two “Top 15 Best Purchases” lists, from 1919 and 1920, inked on Hotel Gotham stationery, show Phillips enumerating the notches on his gallery bedpost.

We learn from this show that his collecting style—artist by artist—had all the flush, fervor, and inevitable decline of a heated affair. For example, Phillips became enamored of Rockwell Kent, whom he met in the mid-’20s and collected ravenously. In 1925, Phillips’ love grew so intense that he paid Kent $300 a month in exchange for first choice of two of Kent’s paintings per year. Two years later, Kent backed out of the deal, saying icily that the gallery “had acquired about all the Kents it ought to have.” The next year, Phillips retaliated by deriding Kent as formulaic and selling off some Kents from the collection. It was a nasty breakup.

There’s little explanation in this show of Phillips’ hot ‘n’ heavy approach to collecting, despite his infatuation’s being repeated over and over, with the likes of Pierre Bonnard and John Graham, throughout his life. Perhaps, like a stern sugar daddy, he wanted to control and consume artists he adored through patronage. And artists initially eager for his cash eventually bristled under the pressure.

But his alliances didn’t always sour. Early on, Phillips befriended artist Julian Alden Weir, whose early, contrived oil Roses (1883-1884), with its fallen petals arranged just so, hangs in this show’s second room. Weir encouraged Phillips to buy works by his friends. Most of those friends—like Childe Hassam, Ryder, and John Henry Twatchman—were much better artists than Weir himself. Later, Phillips’ alliance with New York dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz yoked Phillips into launching the careers of Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Hartley. Stieglitz, a major player in the New York art world, made it abundantly clear that “if [Phillips] really want[ed] [his] gallery to reflect a growth of something which is typically American and not a reflection of France or Europe,” then he needed to include significant works by painters in the Stieglitz stable. In this promotional partnership, Stieglitz advised Phillips, and Phillips enhanced the dealer’s reputation.

The collector’s nepotism is abundantly clear early in the show, where Rathbone and Turner have hung three mediocre works by Phillips’ wife, Marjorie Phillips. One, an oil called Night Baseball, from 1951, ignores the basic tenets of perspective: The third-base coach is several times the size of the bleachered fans in the foreground. And as if patronizing his wife’s forays into painting wasn’t enough, Phillips also acquired a cloying circus scene by her uncle, Gifford Beal, which hangs nearby.

But Phillips’ eye was also prescient. The textured masonite surface of Isabel Bishop’s 1940 painting Lunch Counter, with its incised lines and scratches, wrestles with the human figures for our attention—decades before minimalists made the canvas’ surface the subject of their paintings. And Phillips showed Dove early—thanks to Stieglitz—as well as the paint-thick canvases of Nicolas de Stael. Wisely, he snapped up half of then-23-year-old Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in 1941; the other half went to MoMA.

Rathbone and Turner would like us to believe that despite his sheepish start, Phillips was a renegade—the first half of the century’s Charles Saatchi. But Phillips remained forever trapped in his status and social standing, and he never broke free. His insistence that ab-ex conformed to a contrived art-historical time line confirms that Phillips was no maverick, but, in fact, an aristocrat with his money and sensibilities rooted firmly in tradition. CP