Phillips Collection Expands With a Serene New Space

The rectangular Mark Rothko room was rebuilt to its original scale on the gallery annex's second floor.
The rectangular Mark Rothko room was rebuilt to its original scale on the gallery annex's second floor. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

The visitor experience at the expanded Phillips Collection, opening tomorrow with a "The Renoir Returns" Parisian-style block party, has many elements of the familiar old gallery, but quite a few surprises in art and ambiance.

In the new space -- a pleasant but mazelike 3,300 square feet -- the visitor needs to adjust some old points of view once inside the buildings. Light streams in from a third-floor skylight, with additional shaded light from apartment-size windows and narrow slants. The addition -- the Sant Building -- is north of the other Phillips buildings on 21st Street NW, behind the facade of what was once an apartment building. Inside, the walls are hung with post-World War II paintings, part of the museum's holdings that were just too big for the mansion's rooms.

So first, there are 39 works inside to admire and study, or learn again. Morris Louis's 1960 "Blue Column," Joan Mitchell's 1957 "August Rue Daguerre," Robert Motherwell's "Chi Ama Crede." Elsewhere, there's Adolph Gottlieb, Frank Stella, William Christenberry and Jackson Pollock.

In one large gallery, "The Hollow Egg" by Alexander Calder presents a graceful mix of black-and-white wire and paint.

But right behind it is a section of the wall that can be removed, and there the familiarity sets in. The Phillips still has nooks and crannies that can be surprises. And a room might change slightly from visit to visit.

The annex, despite its freshness and limited home decor, and the new spaces -- like the old ones -- carry an air of meditation.

Nowhere is that more evident than on the second floor of the addition. Here the designers have relocated the Rothko Room. The room is a rectangle, made to the exact dimensions that founder Duncan Phillips and artist Mark Rothko worked out in 1960. The canvases need room to breathe, so they don't collide with one another, Rothko said. He wanted the colors to saturate every corner of the room. So here are four paintings with a bench, ready for some contemplation. The visitor can come up with his own answers about the meaning of these precise blocks of color since the artist sidestepped explaining his later works.

The adjustments to the Phillips experience start with the entrance to the Goh Building. Just inside is a formidable admissions desk and coat check. Straight ahead is a gallery with selections from the collection. An untitled work from John Walker and "Zennor Quoit 2" by Ben Nicholson are the welcoming canvases.

To the right are the new galleries, auditorium and classrooms in a canary-yellow building named after the principal donors, Roger and Victoria P. Sant. The Phillips raised $29 million for their improvements, with the Sants giving $9 million.

The main galleries are upstairs but the building also has two levels below ground.

Downstairs are features the Phillips wants to use to bolster its education programs and improve its work as a national research center. For the first time the museum has an auditorium, with 180 seats bought from the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall when it was being renovated. The library has Duncan Phillips's books and correspondence, including exchanges with Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Stieglitz, and other research materials. There are classrooms and an art workshop, so the Phillips can bring more area schoolchildren into the museum setting.

Student exhibition spaces are in a long corridor and roomy lobby outside the auditorium. This year the Phillips starts a summer teacher institute, with the first focus on Paul Klee, the great whimsical abstractionist.

The new addition also will house the headquarters of the Center for the Study of Modern Art, a facet of the museum that Duncan Phillips had wanted. The museum has joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop a place for scholars to research and publish.

Some things won't change. As always, the Phillips will be closed on Mondays.

And for those not familiar with the fees at the Phillips: It pays to remember the charges vary. On weekdays admission for adults to the permanent collection is free, with a $12 fee for special exhibitions. On weekends there is always a $12 fee, which includes admission to special exhibitions.

In the expanded Phillips, a bonus awaits the visitor: a new courtyard. It's off the first floor. The museum shop and the cafe, run by Firehook Bakery and scheduled to open at the end of the month, are adjacent.

But the courtyard transfers some of the charm of the old Phillips by giving visitors a secluded hideaway. The 10-foot walls give protection from the busy alleys behind 21st Street and provide another oasis from the street scene of Dupont Circle. There's also art to reflect on: Ellsworth Kelly's untitled floating black shaft and Barbara Hepworth's "Dual Form." Hepworth's two juxtaposed bronze forms could indicate the two faces of the Phillips, as the old and the new are blended.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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