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All American exhibit is all engrossing and all Phillips Collection in D.C.

'Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970'


"Made in the USA" exhibit now at Washington's renowned Phillips Collection displays 200 of its American masterworks, spanning 120 years and illuminating the importance of its founder, Duncan Phillips.

Thomas Eakins, "Miss Amelia Van Buren", is one of many highlights in "Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970". Exhibit is on from March 1-Aug. 31.
Thomas Eakins, "Miss Amelia Van Buren", circa 1891. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Phillips (1886-1996) was the first patron and exhibitor of many of these major artists, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley, and Grandma Moses.

"Our most enthusiastic purpose will be to reveal the richness of the art created in our United States, to stimulate our native artists and afford them inspiration," Phillips said in 1921, the year he opened his art-filled mansion as a museum.

The Phillips Collection was the first American museum dedicated to modern art -- it opened eight years before New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The landmark "Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970", just returned from a four-year tour, is the museum's most comprehensive presentation of its American art collection in four decades. American art comprises half of the collection, now totalling more than 2,400 artworks.

Among the numerous highlights of "Made in the USA":

For this deeply psychological portrait, viewers are invited to write their opinion about "What is Amelia thinking?" -- on cards and on Twitter at #MyAmericanArt.

Eakins focused mainly on portraiture after he was forced to resign from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886 due to his insistence on using nude models.

Eakins and Winslow Homer were "the heroes of realism," Phillips said.

  • Winslow Homer

Homer's "To the Rescue" captures a man dashing toward two finely dressed ladies venturing too near crashing waves on a stormy day.

Purchasing this work, Duncan Phillips fulfilled his wish to acquire a "fine oil of the Maine coast" by Homer. Phillips wrote that the painting "renounced story and sentiment altogether and let the mighty surf, which breaks tremendously on the rocks, work its will on the observer through the self-effacing agency of his recording brush..." Viewed almost 130 years after its creation in 1886, and almost 90 years after Phillips' comment, a man rescuing women seems an embrace of sentiment. But that was the reality at those times, and irrelevant now to embracing this glorious work.

A dejected man sits on the curb in a desolate street scene, epitomizing the Great Depression that had just begun when Hopper painted it in 1926. "Hopper defies our preconceptions of the picturesque..." Phillips wrote.

When Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and other "ashcan school" artists were labeled "apostles of the ugly", Phillips was one of the few museum directors who bought, exhibited, and celebrated their work.

(One of the many exhibit-related events is the screening of "Edward Hopper and the Blank Canvas", a 2012 documentary examining the social context for his art and his influence on international filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Jean-Pierre Devillers, the film will be shown on Saturday, March 29 at 2 P.M.)

The Phillips displays nine of Lawrence's 60-panel work about the migration of blacks from the south to the north between the two world wars. Lawrence, a master visual storyteller, is the most celebrated painter of the African American experience. The Phillips gave Lawrence his first solo museum exhibition soon after acquiring half of "The Migration Series" -- all the odd-numbered panels. The Museum of Modern Art owns all the even-numbered panels.

Phillips was the first to buy works by Georgia O'Keeffe for a museum. In 1926, he bought two --"Pattern of Leaves" and "My Shanty, Lake George". They're among five of her works in this exhibit.

Unfortunately, O'Keeffe is one of only six women included among the more than 125 artists -- Grandma Moses, Doris Lee, Isabel Bishop, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler are the others.

  • Other famed names abound among the highlights: William Merritt Chase: James Abbott McNeill Whistler; Childe Hassam; Mark Rothko -- certainly the Mark Rothko Room; Jackson Pollock; two small mobiles by Alexander Calder...

(Another exhibit-related event is "Mad Museum: The American 60s, inspired by the American 1960s". See a 2008 episode of "Mad Men" centered on a Mark Rothko painting, and also enjoy a "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" inspired photo booth in the "Phillips after 5" series, Thursday, March 6, 5-8:30 P.M.).

Not all artists in the show are well-known, but certainly deserve to be. "Duncan Phillips does not go in search of show works, he is not misled by names, he ... collects art as an artist would," wrote artist-collector Edward Bruce, a lawyer who was administrator of the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, the first federal program to support the arts. Bruce's "Power" is in this exhibit.

When the great Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard visited the museum in 1926, he singled out Twachtman's "The Emerald Pool" as his favorite American painting in the collection. (The Phillips was the first U.S. museum to exhibit Bonnard, in 1930, and has "the largest and most diverse group" of Bonnard’s paintings in the United States.)

Phillips ranked Twachtman's "Summer" as his best purchase in 1918-1919 -- ahead of two Monet paintings Phillips bought during that time -- and the artist's translucent snow scene "Winter" as his top acquisition of 1920. The collector compared "Winter" to Whistler's "Nocturnes" series.

A gorgeous, dreamy work is "Aspiration", one of a cycle of 13 abstract paintings by Tack that Phillips commissioned in 1928 to decorate a large gallery at the museum. A few small Tack works lead up the staircase between the three-floor exhibit.

Beneath a glorious headdress of black, white, and scarlet feathers sits a disillusioned showgirl. Kuhn was a vaudeville show producer, as well as a painter, cartoonist, and many other things. Phillips said the showgirl "seems to sag under her magnificent headdress that is a magnificent passage of painting. The feathers are the very essence of feathers ..."

The essence of appreciation for Phillips' patronage was expressed by Arthur Dove. Shortly before dying, Dove wrote to Phillips, "After fighting for an idea all your life, I realize that your backing has saved it for me and I meant to thank you with all my heart and soul...It has been marvelous."

Visitors to this marvelous museum, especially during this exhibit, will thank Duncan Phillips with all their heart and soul.

For more info and tickets: "Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970", Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-387-2151. March 1 through Aug. 31.

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