When gentle Jim McLaughlin died last Jan. 12, artists lost an ally. The Phillips Collection here lost a portion of its soul. For 50 years he'd worked there, memorizing pictures, pulling nails out of crates, making the place homey, playing his harmonica, organizing shows. His grin was something special. He had huge workman's hands. He often smiled shyly as if a bit embarrassed by the great waves of affection that poured at him from all sides. His humility was wonderful. You couldn't help but like him. He had a kind of glow.
He has become his paintings now.
The Phillips has selected 41 McLaughlins, some from 1940, some from 1980, for his memorial exhibition. You sense him in his pictures. They are charming, mild, warm and wholly unaffected. They look absolutely right in the museum he helped build.
He shared Duncan Phillips' taste. He liked subtle fine-tuned colors, early modernism's freedom, sunlight, fresh-cut flowers, and marks left by the brush. Almost all his works are small, as if scaled to the home. Their themes are unpretentious, too--a candle in a candlestick, his oil can, his hammer, a fried egg on a plate. If you call to mind the sweetest paintings at the Phillips--the small domestic Vuillards, the witty Arthur Doves, the Marins and the Braques--you sense the spirit of his show.
It is, almost uncannily, the spirit of the Phillips. The finest paintings there do not shock, they soothe. Founder Duncan Phillips was frightened, as a child, by a clown who flung a doll high into the air: He was brought from his hysterics by the sun-bright colors of the flowers by his bed. Jim McLaughlin's dappled paintings would have calmed him, too.
They are harmonious, sophisticated, full of small surprises--the white and zigzag highlights on the long-stemmed goblet in "Glass, Fish and Plate" (1941); the dazzling asymmetry of that small untitled still life, the one with the fried egg, from 1953; the eerie, dark and heart-shaped moon just behind the owl in "Sonorous Marauder" (1951). McLaughlin, like Ce'zanne, would shear the table edges in the backgrounds of his still lifes. He liked playing with perspective, he'd tilt planes this way and that. Although McLaughlin painted the common things about him, potatoes in a bowl, a straight-backed chair, anemones, his pictures draw as much from the history of art as they do from daily life.
McLaughlin, in these paintings, pays friendly, easy homage to many of the masterworks that Duncan Phillips bought. His memorial exhibition is full of in-house footnotes, of overlapping references to Degas, Bonnard, Picasso (all three of them are cited in his "After the Bath" of 1952), to playful Arthur Dove (Dove haunts McLaughlin's owl), to Georges Braque and Vincent van Gogh and his beloved Vuillard. Perhaps the nicest painting here, a small, undated piece called "Barn," is rich with rhyming rectangles, with last year's hay and sunlight. Its style is pure McLaughlin. The man knew how to paint.
He was in his early twenties when, in 1932, he came to study painting at the Phillips Gallery Art School. For many years thereafter, he lived behind the shop, in an old coach house on Hillyer Court. "We are kin and yet all different," said painter Sarah Baker to the artists Duncan Phillips gathered at his gallery, "all different fingers on the same hand."
"Well," said Jim McLaughlin, "that must make me the thumb."
His humility was never prim. Neither are his paintings. He disliked easy piety. He had a friend recite a robust Dylan Thomas verse, the one about "the old ramrod, dying of women," at his memorial service. He loved music, artists, art talk, food. He must have had a happy life, he made such happy pictures. The museum ought to show them every now and then. "James McLaughlin: A Retrospective Exhibition: In Memoriam" closes Sept. 5.
The painter Harold Weston (1884-1972) was another artist fond of color and the landscape, who, though tempted by abstraction, never quite succumbed. He, too, was befriended, half a century ago, by the founder of the Phillips, who gave him one-man shows in 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1939. A fifth Weston exhibition--one devoted to his last works--is now there on view.
The 27 paintings in Weston's exhibition, all gouache on paper, were inspired by a set of black-and-gray striated stones that were picked up on a beach, on the Gaspe' Peninsula, in 1968. The idea is Thoreau-humble--ignore the noise of city life, let nature have her say, hear the mute stones speak--but the pictures disappoint. Though painted in the period 1968-1972, at the end of Weston's life, they often call to mind such fashions of the '50s as the vogue for driftwood lamps.
The man had admirable intentions. At the end of World War I, he built himself a cabin in the Adirondacks and painted there alone. "In the eternal hills," he said, "the sublime epic of nature was unrolling the same as ever. It seemed to overshadow and engulf the petty affairs of men . . . So I have set up my studio at the foot of old looming Giant Mountain and there, winter and summer, I keep painting away at my serial picture song. It is a hymn to the endless glory of God." His last paintings, however, with their swoops and swirls and disturbing colors, suggest swimming pools of kidney shape as much as they do the stirring of the sea.
Weston was schooled at Exeter and Harvard. In the 1930s, he painted 22 murals here--depicting a "cross section of America"--for the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. He helped organize Food For Freedom Inc., after World War II. In 1949, he began a painting series that hymned the United Nations. And he lobbied long for the creation of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities. The smooth stones that inspired his last works are on view at the gallery. Their dark and subtle colors clash with the oddly artificial oranges and yellows that appear in his paintings, which will remain on view through July 18.