Visit "Exotic Places" in India, Iran, Haiti, Bali, and elsewhere around the globe, without leaving Washington's Dupont Circle.
D.C.'s venerable Phillips Collection recently substituted "Exotic Places" for "American Scene" section of its sweeping "Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970" exhibit.
"Exotic Places" is one of several summer refreshments among 200 of the museum's American masterworks in the exhibit that opened last March and continues through Aug. 31. It's the Phillips' most comprehensive presentation of its American art collection in four decades.
More than a mere history of American art, by more than 125 artists, the show demonstrates the importance of its founder Duncan Phillips and his museum. He was the first collector, patron, and exhibitor of many of these American masters -- Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley, Grandma Moses, to name only a few.
The fresh, deliciously inviting section of 13 selections by eight artists expresses what American modernist Maurice Sterne sought in his travels and artworks -- "a Garden of Eden where life would be simple, where beauty might exist as a part of daily living, rather than as an escape from it."
Sterne, who emigrated to the United States from Latvia, and began his career in the studio of preeminent American artist Thomas Eakins, found Edens in far-off spots like:
- "Temple Feast, Bali", (click on titles to see each painting) where Sterne felt most at home and lived for two years among the Balinese who have what he termed "a wonderful civilization all their own."
- "Benares", where India "entered into my own spirit and altered, by some mysterious process, my inner life and reactions." He lived for four months in Benares (now Varanasi), known as the spiritual capital of India. It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back thousands of years. Sterne's 1912 oil depicts worshippers on the Ganges River at this pilgrimage site for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Muslims.
Washington, D.C. trips also "were most fruitful for me," Sterne wrote to his friend Phillips. "No one can know you better with becoming better." Sterne also served on America's National Fine Arts Commission from 1945-1951.
American realist Rockwell Kent, best known for painting austere locations in New England, travelled widely also to Newfoundland, Greenland, and even sailed to the southern tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego.
"Kent moves us like mighty music with images drawn from his own romantic experience," wrote Phillips, who bought "Mountain Lake" for a planned "Rockwell Kent Room".
Although that never materialized, Phillips was so impressed with Kent that by 1925, the patron established a "sustaining fund" of $300 a month, in exchange for first choice of two paintings each year. For 1925, Phillips chose these two artworks.
Weston created "Persian Afternoon" and "Plain of Hamadan" during World War One when the American served in Iran as a painter with the British Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. Due to a paralyzed leg, Weston could not enlist with U.S. forces, but he did relief work and also painted these scenes of the former Silk Road area.
Phillips gave the modernist painter his first solo museum show. They established a lifelong friendship, and the museum now has 31 of his works.
Weston also helped create and enact a 1965 law that established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As a young man, Beal studied with famed American artist William Merritt Chase, and became a realist painter especially accomplished with watercolors. Beal created "Waterfall, Haiti" when he was 75. Phillips wrote to Beal, his uncle-in-law, "We are all charmed and amazed at the power and youthful gaiety...Congratulations on being so continuously young at heart and vigorous in execution."
Moving from "Exotic Places" to "The City" section, one of the most vibrant images and stories behind it, is "Street in Harlem" by Georg Grosz. A key member of Berlin's Dada movement and major critic of the rising Nazi party, Grosz fled to the United States from Germany in 1933 as Hitler rose to power.
Grosz remains best-known for his acidly satirical works that depicted German society as what he termed "ugly, sick and mendacious."
However, "A great deal that had become frozen within me in Germany melted here in America, and I rediscovered that old yearning for painting. I carefully and deliberately destroyed a part of my past," Grosz wrote in his autobiography.
Many of the other highlights among "Made in the USA" recent additions are in its "Abstract Expressionism" section:
Several of these works are by artists of the Washington Color School, a post-expressionist movement that began in D.C. in the late 1950s.
- Sam Gilliam's "Red Petals". When Duncan Phillips' wife Marjorie Phillips saw "Red Petals" in 1967, she decided to host an exhibit, Gilliam's first one-person show in a museum. He has lived and worked in Washington for more than half a century of his 80-year life.
- Morris Louis' "Seal". Born Morris Louis Bernstein in Baltimore, he lived in Washington for the last ten years of his short life. He died at home at age 49. The cause of death was lung cancer, blamed on inhaling paint vapors. One of the 20th century's most powerful art critics, Clement Greenberg, had proclaimed Morris Louis and fellow Washington Color School artist Kenneth Noland the "rightful successors" to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
- Kenneth Noland's "Inside", a departure from his signature style of brilliantly colored concentric geometric shapes. One key art critic wrote, "Along with Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, (Noland) invented a new kind of American abstraction based on the primacy of color."
- Helen Frankenthaler's "Canyon". Having so very few women artists is one of the very few disappointments in both Parts 1 and 2 of "Made in the USA".
Other artists in the all-engrossing, all-American, all-Phillips exhibit include: Georgia O'Keeffe; Mark Rothko; Alexander Calder; Edward Hopper; James Abbott McNeill Whistler; Winslow Homer; Thomas Eakins, and numerous other all-stars.
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. The Phillips Collection was the first American museum dedicated to modern art -- opening in 1921, eight years before New York's Museum of Modern Art.