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Indepth Arts News:

"Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips"
1999-09-25 until 2000-01-23
Phillips Collection
Washington, DC, USA United States of America

Duncan Phillips and his collection. A museum-wide installation of some 300 works from the permanent collection along with archival materials correspondence, journals, manuscripts, ledgers, and historical photographs the exhibition will show how Duncan Phillips evolved as a collector and champion of modern art in America from the 1920s until his death in the 1960s.

Phillips’ early ambition was to be a critic. At the end, he had become one of the primary interpreters of modernism in the United States, as well as the collector of nearly 2,000 works of art, an exemplary patron, and the founder and director of an idiosyncratic museum in one of the most conservative cities in the country. Phillips, traditional by nature, was an unlikely modernist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who celebrated the revolutionary nature of modernity, he accommodated himself to modern art by stressing its continuity with the past. He bought works by artists of earlier times, whom he saw as prefiguring the art of his own time in certain ways: Daumier, Delacroix, Chardin, El Greco, and Goya, amongst them. Themselves validated by history and time, their work would be the standard against which he tested the quality of his modern choices. Instead of installing his museum in chronological order by national school, or even in a museum building, Phillips embarked on an unending series of experiments, in his own house, hanging new acquisitions with the works of earlier periods, the sources of modernism, to see how they held up. He looked for significant conversations between works of different times and places. He suggested that visitors should sit quietly in the presence of these conversations until they heard them and could participate.

Although the exhibition uses all the galleries of the museum, there is room for only about one ineight works to be seen at one time. Those in the show were chosen for their significance as milestones in the creation of the collection. Frequent visitors will be familiar with many of these. However, a substantial number are rarely on view. For example, the Music Room will be devoted to the works of Augustus Vincent Tack who created them for that space. Works are installed to show the sequence of Phillips’s acquisitions and simultaneously illuminate the larger themes of the collection, and the personal, aesthetic preoccupations that guided his choices. Starting with the choices Phillips made in the 1920s, and continuing through to his encounter with the New York School, visitors can comprehend the various manifestations of the collector’s romanticism, the various facets of his appetite for color, the changing scale of his ambition for his collection, and the constancy of his belief in the power of art to comfort, transform, and redeem an imperfect world.

Renoir to Rothko uses Phillips’s correspondence and collection not only as a reflection of his tastes, but also to show the important role his relationships with artists, dealers, and other collectors played in shaping the collection. For example, his patronage of Dove and Marin is well known. This exhibition will also show the important influence on Phillips of other artists such as John Graham. For although Phillips was a consummate aesthete, what he prized ultimately in works of art was their humanity, and the heroic individualism of their creators. If an artist was worth knowing, he or she was worth knowing well, and one work was not necessarily enough to convey all the important aspects of his or her personality. The significance of this approach is seen in the depth in which Phillips collected certain artists, amongst them Arthur Dove, Arthur B. Davies, Jacob Lawrence, Pierre Bonnard, Honoré Daumier, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, and Mark Rothko. Phillips’s relationships with collectors or museum professionals differed from those he had with artists. Looking at his correspondence with Katherine S. Dreier, Alfred Stieglitz, Alfred H. Barr and Albert C. Barnes, visitors will become aware of occasional undercurrents of rivalry in their efforts to put together outstanding collections and promote the cause of modernism. Catalogue

The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making, to be published by Yale University Press and The Phillips Collection, will serve as the catalogue for this exhibition. At more than 800 pages, with 201 full-page color illustrations and 266 black-and-white images, this book is both a survey of European and American works in The Phillips Collection as well as a guide to the museum's holdings and significance. This lavishly illustrated book studies the history of taste in twentieth-century America, the evolution of modern art, and the development of Duncan Phillips as critic, collector and patron. The editor, Erika D. Passantino, was the research curator and project director for The Phillips Collection's scholarly catalogue from 1986 to 1995

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