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Made in the USA: Excerpting a Legacy

Having doused Duncan Phillips in my initial essay – which will be forthcoming - and set him on fire, I feel I need to put my gasoline can aside and revisit the man's "folly", which was a lifelong occupation that changed, not only the cultural landscape of this country, but helped a great many artists find their voices, visions, and studio keys. (His stipends to artists allowed them to concentrate solely on their work - to the lasting advantage of our collective imagery.)

I grumped about Phillips' bias toward modernism in the essay I have decided to publish after this one. And insofar as grumpiness for a cause is justified, my grumpiness might hold water. Yet Phillips' commitment to painters who were looking, not only for a technical freehold, but a more expansive keyhole through which to view the world, was nothing less than extraordinary. No other collector, including Gertrude Stein and John Quinn, understood - let alone credited the notion that - art was a democratic process with a unifying principle. It was from this philosophical persuasion that Phillips was able to forge a "both/and" approach to schools and visions that were seen, in his day as well as our own, as antithetical. He could admire, for example, Thomas Eakins' intellectual honesty while recognizing in the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder an American visionary who could not do anything other than "see what isn't seen" and paint that. He could embrace the gloomily puritanical imagery of an Edward Hopper and watch his old "American Scene" colleague, Charles Burchfield, explode it. And he could provide a kind of inner sanctum to the spiritual aspirations of Augustus Tack, who was the first American artist to fuse the dreamy qualities of Eastern art with the sturdy realism of the West.

When Phillips began collecting, art - as I will explain at greater length in part two - was the province of a rigidly stratified system that awarded those who, as we say now, "played the game." Phillips decided, early on, not to go down that path. Fortunately, artists themselves were leading the way. And while I am no admirer of Alfred Stieglitz's elitism, he and a handful of other arts entrepreneurs - who were equally weary of such a system - decided to start an aesthetic revolution which would have repercussions for some time to come.

Instead of exhibiting the prize-winners, Stieglitz had found a corps of rebels who represented a reaction against the monolith of the academy - or, for that matter, any school that groomed its pupils for success rather than the artistic exploration without which opened doors swing shut and the vitality of a nation stagnates inside of a classroom. Stieglitz's neck-sticking-out policy did not shake the art world right away. His gallery was, for a time, a bully pulpit from which a Euro-centric intellectual could inveigh against an America that wanted its art to reflect a complacent mediocrity. Phillips was not as interested in Stieglitz's iconoclasm as his entrepreneurial spirit, which was fearless enough to introduce Arthur Dove, John Marin, and, his lady-friend, Georgia O'Keefe to a public that hadn't gotten over the Ashcan School. It was, in fact, Phillips' genius to recognize that both schools might happily co-exist and set about purchasing work by John Sloan, William Glackens, and George Luks as well as the modernists who would eventually supersede them. Phillips was a kind of visionary in that he was impatient with the jingoism that trumpeted patriotic values in art. Phillips saw beyond such provincial concerns to the meaning of art itself, which was to find commonalities painting and sculpture could illuminate better than anything else. It is ironic that, in a collection that included Rockwell Kent – who, besides John Sloan, was the most left-leaning artist of his day - William Gropper, Pepino Mangravite, Alan Crite, and Marsden Hartley, other, less strident personalities like Robert Spencer, Preston Dickinson, and Doris Lee could sit down without catching on fire.

Time and again, Phillips’ museum was the first so many artists had ever known. Stuart Davis's Parisian scenes were snapped up in New York. Isabel Bishop’s working-girls - who would have been far more comfortable on Fourteenth Street than on the walls of a gallery - came in through the back door. Gifford Beal found his way in - as did Max Beckman, Karl Knaths – another underrated fellow – Harold Weston, Earnest Lawson, and Paul Dougherty. Subjects as "static" as still life and as dynamic as a baseball game were more than welcome. (Phillips was a baseball fan and a frequent spectator at Senators' games. His wife, Marjorie's, first-base line view is a fresh, if pedestrian, rendition of a game in full stride.) Phillips' eye was as attuned to spirit as it was to technique. He saw past the clumsy brushwork of primitive painters and found a sincerity that was tied more to life than it was to art.

Phillips’ interest in art forms that are considered disappointingly acceptable today was marked by his own sensibility. His taste for American Impressionism was limited, but charged with a passion for the reductive approach that informs many of the choices he would make later on. His Twachtman’s are a case in point. They are all chromatically gorgeous, but they are minimal in their treatment of a landscape’s “clothing.” He was far more interested in the feeling of snow rather than its rolling geometries. He was more drawn to suggestion than description.
In “Summer”, Twachtman gives us a fairly conventional subject: house, meadow, rolling clouds. But he invests them with a personal lyricism that is absolutely captivating. (One might study his clotted textures for a great while. And do it again without any apparent loss of interest.) It is Phillips’ visceral response that is intriguing and, with that to guide him, his always-quirky, unostentatious leanings toward what is essential in a landscape, still life, or partial abstraction.

I cannot follow him, however, past the Stieglitz years to the Fifties, during which Phillips' head was turned almost exclusively toward abstract art. The two big rooms that are devoted to it were my least favorite. However, Diebenkorn is there with two colorfully gestural paintings that not only hold their own, but, in my view, invalidate their room-mates. I'm sorry that Phillips abandoned figuration as he evolved - which he most certainly did. And if he did not evolve in a way that suits me, he was still moving toward, rather than away, from something and must, as such, be respected for it.

As to the exhibition itself, it flows magnificently, with artistic over-lappings that pose questions one might wrestle with as he or she meanders through. It is divided into categories like “American Scene” and “Nature Abstracted”, but these categories are not so rigid as they might seem. The over-lappings to which I have just alluded help unify a babel of voices as well as a bewildering diversity in style, subject, approach, and personality. These categories are both observed and broken as they offer us the work of artists who occupy them and no other – as well as artists who belong in others.

Its captions offer personal stories, quotations from the artists themselves, and financial information that makes, in light of the art market today, for a fascinating read. For example, Phillips purchased the first Edward Hopper painting ever to enter a museum in 1926. For that painting, he paid the lordly sum of $600.00, which wasn’t a great deal of money at the time, but was hardly insulting. Given the price of any Hopper painting today, one might wince at Hopper’s “neediness.” Yet he didn’t know he would become THE Edward Hopper and accepted the money with thanks. As did John Sloan, who had toiled for decades without attracting the interest of a museum curator. As Sloan’s prices were always modest, I would imagine that Mr. Phillips got himself a pretty good deal. (I seem, however, to remember that Phillips paid quite a bit of money – over $10,000 – for Twachtman’s “Summer”. Like all collectors, Phillips had his “must-have’s” and was willing to pay for them.)

I don't believe any single man has made a more felicitous imprint on American art - even if I cannot agree with, endorse, let alone admire, many of his choices. (I wish every museum would de-accession the work of Louis Eilshemius. He wasn’t “naïve” enough to be a true primitive, but lacked the chops to paint pictures in the vein of his contemporaries. He was a “character” for sure, but so are a lot of people who don’t paint pictures or make bigger-than-life sculptures in their front yards.) Yet a collector should, in the final analysis, be judged, not merely for his trophies, but for an overarching perspective that lends a stern and thoughtful credibility to these choices. After having written the essay that will follow this one, I saw an exhibit I thought I knew already and lived to be humbled. In fact, part one embarrasses me somewhat. Yet I intend to offer it as a partially accurate imprint of a mind that wanted to stick too closely to its own prejudices rather than roam an exhibit that devoured them.

Because Duncan Phillips has reminded me of my own hubris, I will give him the last word:

When asked about his museum, he described it as: "a memorial…a beneficent force in the community where I live—a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."

I don’t think anything else need be said.

The Phillips Collection is at 1600 21st Street, NW, with easy access to the Metro.

Hours are as follows:
Tuesday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Hours on extended every Thursday from 5 – 8:30 p.m.

Admission is:
$12 for adults; $10 for students; $10 for seniors.
Admission is free for members and everyone under 18.

“Made in the USA” will be open through August 31, 2014.

For further information, call: (202) 387-2151

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