The Phillips's Growth Spurt

The Phillips Collection is perhaps best known for its well-regarded trove of masterpieces by Renoir, Picasso and other modernist masters. Over the years, the museum has added more works by artists that were part of the original holdings, but also pieces by new photographers, painters and sculptors.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008

The title of the latest Phillips Collection exhibition simultaneously trumpets and undersells its central point.

Opening Saturday, "Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects" is all about debunking a single myth. That's clear from the subtitle, "The Phillips Collects," which means to shoot down a notion held by far too many of even the museum's die-hard fans. According to Director Jay Gates, it is the idea that the institution has remained frozen in time since the 1966 death of its founder, Duncan Phillips. To demonstrate that the museum is indeed thriving, this exhibition of 120 recent acquisitions features art that has come into the collection since 1994, most of it in the past decade.

The "Degas to Diebenkorn" part of the title, however, tells only half the story.

That's because, of the 67 artists in this show, including such already well-represented giants as Edgar Degas and Richard Diebenkorn, 28 are newcomers. If not to you and me, at least to the Phillips Collection.

Wayne Thiebaud? Hard to believe, but brand spanking new. Even though his candy-hued "Five Rows of Sunglasses" (a gift from the artist's family after his 2001 Phillips Collection retrospective) seems custom-made for Duncan Phillips, whose love of color was legendary.

Same with Elizabeth Murray, whose almost gaudy abstractions didn't come into the collection until 2006 and 2007. Photographer Ansel Adams, represented by three prints acquired in 2003, 2005 and 2006, is another newbie. We welcome these artists to the club, even though they feel like lifetime members.

That's a measure of the care with which head curator Eliza Rathbone has conducted the Phillips Collection's acquisition program. Its aim is twofold. On the one hand, the museum wants to strengthen its healthy collection of works by, for instance, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Paul Klee. Each painter, already well familiar to Phillips visitors, is represented by two new acquisitions in this show.

But Rathbone also wants to expand the very definition of what a Phillips Collection artist is.

That's why you'll find artists who are new to the museum. Artists such as Lee Bontecou, who toiled in relative obscurity for decades until her 2003 retrospective organized by the UCLA Hammer Museum and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Her untitled drawing from 1970, a darkly shadowed floral still life of sorts in colored pencil on black paper, feels like a tonic to the more upbeat palette associated with so much of the collection.

At the same time, remaining open to the discovery of such unexpected counterbalances as this, among artists, eras, nationalities and media, has always been central to the Phillips Collection's mission. The show is as much about staying engaged with its audience as it is about staying engaged with modern art.

The exhibition underscores Gates's point that all museum art is a gift. The show reminds us that ultimately the museumgoer, not the museum, is the true beneficiary.

Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects Through May 25 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle) Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 to 5; Thursdays until 8:30; Sundays from 11 to 6. Info:202-387-2151. Admission: Tickets to the special exhibition are $12; seniors and students $10; 18 and younger and members free. Programs: On Thursday at 6 and 7, Jay Gates, director of the Phillips Collection, will discuss the museum's collecting practices in "Director's Perspective: Introduction to 'Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects.' " The gallery talk (free with museum admission) will be repeated Feb. 21 at 6 and 7.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company