THE CONTRAST in summer shows at the Phillips Collection makes one long for yesteryear. "Pioneers of American Modernism" -- an exhibit returning here after a year on the road -- handily upstages three one-man shows of Washington artists.
In the show of pioneers, we see the American painters who brought the gospel according to modern European art in the early 20th century.
Going from a position of critic to convert, Duncan Phillips was a great patron of American modernism. For instance, in the Phillips Collection is the world's largest grouping of Arthur Dove's work. And so this show gives a sense of that artist's range -- from his assemblage "Goin' Fishin'," where he broke a fishing pole into harmonic lengths and spiraled its parts about the sleeves of a denim jacket -- to his typical "Red Sun," a lurid eye shaded with blue-green cloud streaks.
In this art-survey-course exhibit, Georgia O'Keeffe's sensual images are essential. The closer you look, the more abstract they become. "Large Dark Red Leaves on White" becomes female genitalia next to her phallic "From the White Place," a landscape of pillars of rocks.
There are Stuart Davis' painted paeans to American life -- in opaque nursery colors like pieces of a child's wooden puzzle. And John Marin's watercolors, reflective sometimes of Cezanne, sometimes of cubism. And Charles Burchfield's "Road and Sky" where everything has a curve, even the shadows under the rounded trees.
If these American pioneers seem reserved to modern eyes, then the three Washington artists represented here should wake you up. Simon Gouverneur's highly decorative pieces appear to combine video game displays, boardgames and roulette wheels with principles of weaving. As wall hangings, they are gaudy Indian blankets of his own devising. Christopher Gardner is the one outside in the garden, with two imposing metal sculptures where arrows form both theme and legs.
A member of the Color School, Thomas Downing is the senior artist of the three. Static is the word for his harmonically placed and painted circles in "Dream Rate," and for the foot-wide stripes in "Swap," an enormous and unrestrained wall piece. They don't move, but their colors do.
PIONEERS OF AMERICAN MODERNISM -- At the Phillips Collection through September 8.
THOMAS DOWNING, SIMON GOUVERNEUR AND CHRISTOPHER GARDNER -- At the Phillips Collection through September 8.