There is a screw loose at the Phillips.
The two exhibits that opened there last night are among the poorest ever offered by that much-beloved museum of older modern art.
One is an exhibit of chintzy folk art from Peru. The other show is given to the imitative paintings of the Argentine-trained artist who calls himself Batuz. The embarrassed viewer wonders: Why are those objects here?
Once upon a time, when Duncan Phillips ran it, his museum was determined "to do reverence to the best." Phillips had a mission, high intelligence, high courage, an extraordinary eye. The gallery today seems to dart from this to that as frantically, as pointlessly, as a poisoned mouse.
"Peruvian Folk Art from the Collection of Ambassador Antonio Lulli" seems less a show of art than a show of souvenirs.
There are colored candles in it, and candlesticks of tin, and functionless wall hangings whose colors include purple and garish Day-Glo pink. If tourists buy such gift-shop goods, perhaps to show their neighbors they've been to Peru, no one will complain, but why should a museum place them on display?
Not because they're beautiful. The handmade candles here are in no way more distinguished than those the hippies used to sell in Georgetown in the '60s. The "naive" paintings here are charmless crude cartoons.Nor are these things rare. The small, hinged, silver fish, the pots and figurines, have the look of objects made quickly and by rote. They refer, but only at a distance, to the Spaniards and the Incas and the traditions of Peru. A few objects on display do have charm - the engraved gourds, for instance - but most are crude and dull. They look new, and what traditions we sense in them have been muffled and demeaned.
The Batuz exhibition is equally displeasing. It is full of half-familiar hard-edge color art. His collage-like paintings are not bland; they're rather nervy, for Batuz borrows shamelessly from countless better men.
One could make a list. He seems to take his compositions from Motherwell and Newman and early Josef Albers; he has taken, too, from Jack Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly, and his torn forms bring to mind those of Clyfford Still.
Batuz was born in Budapest in 1933. In 1949, his family moved to Argentina, and he began to paint. Batuz came to this country in 1973, and now lives in Connecticut. His catalog biolography lists his associates and friends; "Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn visited his studio on several occasions," "In Argentina he had two memorable dialogues with Jorge Luis Borges . . .," "Henry Geldzahler's visit to Batuz's studio was very stimulating. He urged him to work." In addition to such wholly unnecessary name dropping, the catalog includes many costly color plates and much excessive praise.
"Batuz," writes Prof. Pietro Bardi, "has become one of the most important artists of Abstractionism." Frank Getlein, the entertaining critic who used to write on art here but now talks on the tube, backs into his essay by acknowledging that "there are half a dozen North American painters to whose work the work of Batuz . . . relates at one remove or another," but then he pulls the stops out. He writes of Batuz's "relationship" to Picasso and Matisse, and then relates the "formal perfection" that Batuz has "achieved" to the "inevitability" of the art of Mondrian and Bach.Batuz, writes Joseph Hirshhorn, has a "unique style." But one's first glimpse of the paintings obliterates such claims.
The Phillips needs thought-out exhibitions of quality and strength. It needs direction. It has a superb collection to explore and a grand tradition that ought to be maintained. To leave the Batuz and Lulli shows and to see again the old Rothkos and Cezannes there is to feel as if one has come up for air.