Washington painter Willem de Looper has been named curator of the Phillips Collection, a museum that employed him first as a guard in 1959.

For many years the Phillips has employed working artists, and de Looper's promotions through the curatorial ranks have followed that tradition. The appointment was not unexpected. De Looper, 49, has served the Phillips as acting curator since the death, last January, of curator James McLaughlin, another local painter who also worked for the museum most of his career.

In announcing the appointment, director Laughlin Phillips called it "richly earned," and cited de Looper's "love for and intimate knowledge of the collection, gained over the long time that he has been here."

De Looper, in recent years, has curated a number of Phillips exhibitions. These include "Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions" (1979), "Arthur Dove and Duncan Phillips: Artist and Patron" (1981), and "Philip Guston: The Last Works," which also opened there last year. He is now working on a Morris Graves retrospective, scheduled to open next spring.

De Looper, who was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, came to the United States in 1950. He graduated from American University in 1957, and then, after two years in the U.S. Army, took his first job at the Phillips. During the 1960s his duties were largely administrative. He became an assistant curator in 1972, and associate curator two years later. His subtly colored abstract paintings have been shown often in Washington. He has had 17 one-man shows since 1965.