THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION is celebrating the centennial of the birth of its founder, Duncan Phillips, by putting the paintings back where he had them. His reasons for why he hung what where were based on his belief that American artists could hold their own next to European artists.
Skimming the cream from a collection of 2,500, "Duncan Phillips: Centennial Exhibition" displays 200 works. This is a back-in-your-own-backyard reminder that one doesn't always need to wait on special exhibitions at the National Gallery. To add to the enjoyment, the paintings are not covered with glass that reflects the rest of the room back at you.
Phillips opened his gallery in 1921, as a memorial to his father and brother. At first it was two rooms of his house on 21st Street. But basically he bought himself out of house and home: He and his artist wife Marjorie had to move out to make room for the growing collection.
A banner year was 1923, when Phillips scored a major coup, Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party." Phillips paid $125,000, and it's said that collector Albert Barnes wanted that painting so badly he sent the dealer a blank check -- which was returned. Later, when Barnes, who owned many Renoirs, was visiting the Phillips Collection, he asked Phillips if that were the only Renoir he owned. He replied, quite justifiably, "It's the only one I need."
Regular visitors to the collection will find no big surprises in the reinstallation, but they will note that "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" is once again hanging in the room Duncan Phillips had designed for it. You can stand back and view the masterpiece from another room, or, lured closer, study it within the small room it dominates.
Also given a place of honor, a Cezanne self-portrait adorns the main lobby. Phillips felt that this work compared favorably to Rembrandt's. Of all the collection, Daumier's "The Uprising" was his favorite. But the catalogue for this show notes that John Gernand, a longtime registrar at the museum, said that Duncan Phillips had instructed him, in the event of a disaster, to "grab the Cezanne self-portrait and run."
Through juxtaposition, Phillips demonstrated, almost on an intuitive level, how one artist influenced another. Shown near El Greco's "The Repentant Peter," Chaim Soutine's "The Pheasant," painted 325 years later, echoes the folds in Peter's robe; both create emotional impact through form. Grouping Milton Avery with Matisse and Bonnard shows very clearly how he mimicked those masters of color. Another pairing has John Henry Twachtman trading dapple for dapple with Monet in their similar pink-blush landscapes.
Collecting from 1918 to the mid-1950s, Phillips owned so many works by individual artists that several merit rooms of their own. Mark Rothko's uncompromising rectangles of color have been hung in isolation in their own gallery.
Prendergast has a room of his own -- his watercolors of fashionable ladies were the most avant garde works in the museum when it first opened. (And what a leap Phillips had to make between Prendergast and modernists O'Keeffe, Marin, Dove, Demuth and Hartley -- the Americans he later championed.) Klee is another one-man show, which includes works on paper that aren't usually out because of their fragility. And delightful Bonnard has a private showing of ten paintings, only half of which were displayed in the gallery's recent Bonnard show.
And then there is an artist named Augustus Vincent Tack, a protege of Phillips'. His lunettes of free-floating waves or mountains fill the music room for which they were originally designed. Having specialized in society portraits, Tack was encouraged in these flights of abstraction by Phillips. Afloat with continental masses, some of the paintings look as if they were copied from maps. Under the elaborate, coffered ceiling of the music room, the paintings are like windows revealing pastel clouds and possess appropriately cosmic names: "Outposts of Time," "Aspiration" and "Ecstasy."
Tack's paintings are simply decorative when compared to, say, Degas' "Dancers at the Bar." This hangs downstairs in one of the Victorian double parlors -- over a fireplace, just where Phillips liked it. We like it there too.
DUNCAN PHILLIPS: CENTENNIAL EXHIBITION -- Opening Saturday at the Phillips Collection, through August.