Phillips Collection kicks off 90th year with weekend festivities

The Phillips home reopens this weekend after being shuttered following a fire in September.
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:11 PM

Starting Saturday, the nonagenarian Phillips Collection throws itself a monster, year-long birthday party.

The Dupont Circle museum that championed modernism opens for the weekend and unveils two recent gifts and one rehung treasure.

A pair of brand-new print acquisitions by Sir Howard Hodgkin, elder statesman of British abstraction, are a fitting link to the modernist tradition so revered by museum founder Duncan Phillips. One of Hodgkin's 20-foot-wide abstract etchings comes courtesy of arts philanthropist Luther W. Brady; the other was purchased by Brady in conjunction with a group of board members and museum friends.

The Hodgkin gift is something of a homecoming for the 78-year-old artist. He had his first American museum exhibition at the Phillips in 1984. Hodgkin, in town for the installation and birthday party, recalls that early exhibition as "nerve-wracking."

"I remember the installation of the show and having to arrange for the removal of tropical plants," Hodgkin recalls. "The installers asked, 'What do you want us to do?' and I said, 'Get rid of every plant.' "

If it wasn't part of the work, Hodgkin didn't want it around.

The new pieces, both from 2009 and collectively called "As Time Goes By," refer to one of Hodgkin's favorite songs from "Casablanca."

The works and the song, Hodgkin says, are "optimistic and sad at the same time."

Taking in the exuberant bursts of color, drips and gesture that explode across these prints, you'd be hard-pressed to find the sadness.

"I did them when I was quite ill," Hodgkin explains. He had surgery for hydrocephalus in November 2008 and took over a year to recover. "The sadness was in the making of them."

This weekend's festivities, which include free champagne for the of-age set, tours and a display of artful birthday cakes by area chefs, kick off nearly 11 months of programming featuring the museum's old friends and reinstallations of historical exhibitions.

On Jan. 29, Sam Gilliam unveils a site-specific, draped nylon work in the museum's elliptical staircase. In May, the museum installs a 13-work Augustus Vincent Tack series commissioned by the Phillips. Come late September, the museum recreates the Phillips's 1948 Paul Klee Room, the first room in a museum dedicated exclusively to the quirky early-20th-century surrealist.

Of course, no Phillips shindig would be complete without that party - Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," the museum's signature canvas. Early September sees the hanging of that picture in the original gallery that Duncan Phillips opened to the public in 1921. Works acquired during the museum's first decade will hang alongside it.

Dawson is a freelance writer.

"90 Years of New" begins with a free weekend at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Visit

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