Eager to Get Busy at the Phillips

Dorothy M. Kosinski, who will take the reins of the Phillips Collection this spring, intends to bring in more works by living artists. She's shown here with an untitled sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly.
Dorothy M. Kosinski, who will take the reins of the Phillips Collection this spring, intends to bring in more works by living artists. She's shown here with an untitled sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Here's what Dorothy Kosinski, incoming director of the Phillips Collection, remembers as a cheery youthful adventure: close to 20 hours spent on a train from New York to Indianapolis, then a bus trip to Indiana University in Bloomington, followed by a week at the Kinsey Institute researching 19th-century lesbian erotica.

For a couple of years in the 1990s, Kosinski thought that the trip from Basel, Switzerland, to Dallas, Texas, counted as a reasonable commute.

Kosinski's résumé is 14 pages long, listing three degrees (Yale and then the famous Institute of Fine Arts at NYU), 36 publications (including such early potboilers as "Gustave Courbet's 'The Sleepers': The Lesbian Image in Nineteenth-Century French Art and Literature") and 31 exhibitions (from "Women of the American West," back in 1985, to "Matisse: Painter as Sculptor," which just closed in Baltimore).

"Some of my colleagues think I'm slightly -- insanely -- hyper-energetic," she says. The remark comes halfway through a two-hour interview, which has come right after a portrait shoot, which has come at the end of a long day's work -- the morning after she's flown in from Texas, where she's busy winding up her job as senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. (She was due to start at the Phillips on May 1, but now the gallery is saying she's so "eager to get going" that she may be there in April.)

Walk Kosinski to her hotel after the interview, and she's talking Washington art and real estate until the moment you part ways. Despite her day from hell, her business suit, Hermes scarf and pixie cut are all unmussed. She still looks absolutely brisk and tidy. "A huge part of my worldview is that I'm an urban creature," she says, and looks forward to finding a citified energy in Washington that Dallas rather lacks.

Washington old-timers like to recall the days when the Phillips Collection was the quietest of places. You could spend hours all alone with its Vuillards and Klees. At most, you might run into some not-yet-famous artist -- Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Richard Diebenkorn -- drinking in the pictures, or into the museum's founders cruising for a chat.

With Kosinski on board, that vision of the Phillips seems likely to recede even further into history. She's got a major mission and mandate, and is set to get things moving.

Kosinski aims to raise something like $40 million in endowment funds. No more scraping by and muddling through, she says.

Kosinski is a big fan of special exhibitions, but thinks they need to be about "finely honed, important ideas" -- something that can't be said of every recent Phillips show. Hard-worked Phillips curators had better brace for more hard work.

Kosinski is charged with reengaging the Phillips with work by living artists -- much of which, today, is geared toward countering precisely the sleek, modernist aesthetic the museum's founded on. There'll be some juggling to do.

And Dorothy M. Kosinski, PhD -- student of 19th-century lesbianism and obscure French symbolist painting -- has got designs on the entire history of modern art, as represented at the Phillips. She's not satisfied with old notions of who or what matters or with asking standard questions. She wants to see new names and new ideas put into play at her new institution.

In an interview with Washington blogger Tyler Green, Kosinski took cautious aim at the Phillips's reputation -- not entirely deserved -- for being all impressionist, all the time. (Asked one local wag: "What's next after 'Impressionists on the Seine' and 'Impressionists in Winter' and 'Impressionist Still Life' and 'Impressionists by the Sea'? -- 'Impressionists in the Outhouse'? ") Noting first that many of the recent shows -- "even given the dreaded 'i' word" -- were very fine, Kosinski went on to insist that "the legacy of Duncan Phillips's collecting is a very complicated narrative. And by no means is it impressionism -- it's largely figures from the 20th century."

That's yet more evidence of the "directness" that Jay Fisher, deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, says he enjoyed when he collaborated with Kosinski on her Matisse sculpture show. There's never a "guessing game" in working with her, Fisher says. Only the kind of forthright ambition that let her mount impressive shows of modern art while based at a Texas museum with scant holdings in her field. Fisher points out that Kosinski's home museum only contributed two minor sculptures to its major Matisse show -- and neither was by the master himself. "I think of Dorothy as a just amazing generator of exhibition projects -- she's the driving force."

Gaile Robinson, art critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, says she's had her moments of tension with Kosinski, who can sometimes be "defensive and prickly." ("She has no patience for idiots.") But Robinson nevertheless feels that the Phillips made "a very brilliant move" in hiring Kosinski. "She's not warm and fuzzy at all -- but she's very, very smart."

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