"Men of the Rebellion: The Eight and Their Associates at the Phillips Collection" is like a sweater knitted by a favorite auntie. Created with love and worn with affection, it does not quite measure up to public scrutiny. Outsize on one side, skimpy on the other, it fails to fit the body beneath.
Among the show's 65 oils and works on paper is one American masterpiece, "The Wake of the Ferry II," painted in 1907 by John Sloan. And there are numerous minor treasures, like Guy Pene du Bois's "Blue Armchair," Rockwell Kent's early nightscape "Moonlight -- Maritime Alps" and George Luks's stirring 1917 ode to the French military, "Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue." But anyone expecting to see the work of "The Eight" is in for a disappointment.
An in-house show curated by Elizabeth Hutton Turner, "Men of the Rebellion" has two organizing principles. On the one hand, it presents works by rebel American artists, The Eight and their friends, who were in the forefront of a movement in the second decade of this century to break the conservative hold of the National Academy of Design over American art.
On the other hand, the show records the involvement of Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, with these artists and their associates. Most of these works were purchased by Phillips before 1930.
This is not a match made in any historian's heaven. Not only are The Eight -- Robert Henri, Luks, Sloan, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast -- most unevenly represented at the Phillips, the spirit of the group is positively misrepresented.
The Eight's public fame was built on teeming scenes of tenements, docks, beer halls, boxing rings, city beaches, theaters, dives and their denizens, recorded in slashing, color-rich paint strokes by Henri, Luks, Sloan, Glackens and Shinn. Phillips preferred romantic landscapes.
The gritty city subjects that earned the group its nickname the "Ashcan School" were not at all to the collector's haute bourgeois taste. Except for a fine suite of etchings by Sloan and a Shinn pastel of tenement roofs, purchased as an afterthought in 1943, this lowlife aspect of The Eight's work is strikingly absent from the exhibition.
On the other hand, Phillips adored the works of Davies, the most lily-livered of The Eight. A whole gallery full of Davies' anemic landscapes and fey classical subjects awaits the visitor. The collector also liked Prendergast's genteel park scenes rendered in an eccentric style located somewhere between Seurat's pointillism and Botticelli's pagan dreams. And there are several moody impressionist New York landscapes by Lawson.
One of the more surprising works in the show is "Bathers at Bellport," a scintillating impressionist seascape by Glackens, whose subjects usually ran to cafe society and circuses. The painting's sunlit colors and synesthetic suggestion of wind and sound put Lawson's plein-air efforts in the shade. Phillips must have really plowed through stacks of Glackens's canvases to find this rare gem.
But Phillips never bought another Glackens. "He has been more interested in the vivacity of line, light and color than in the problems of solid form, " the collector wrote dismissively in his 1931 "A Collection in the Making."
Oddly, although he avoided the spirited social commentary of The Eight, Phillips was enthusiastic about the tamer, social consciousness-raising of contemporaneous realists like Jerome Myers, Robert Spencer and Eugene Higgins. Before 1930 Phillips bought the single atypical Glackens, nothing by Shinn and a Henri "Dutch Girl" that apes Franz Hals's similar subjects. By contrast the collector invested in nine works by Myers, six by Spencer and three by Higgins. Unfortunately the examples of their work on view are uniformly dreary. It just goes to show that even the most astute collector can miss the mark.
The truth is that Phillips's only involvement with the rebellion was to pick up a few pieces after the barricades had been breached. The three independent shows that spearheaded the revolt took place some years before he started collecting seriously. The Eight's February 1908 show in New York's Macbeth Gallery was the kickoff; the Independent Artists Exhibition of April 1910 was a successful end run; and finally came the blockbuster touchdown, the famous Armory Show, held from February to March 1913.
Phillips saw the Armory Show but found its modern art distressing. Three years later, when he persuaded his parents to give him $10,000 a year to buy art (an enormous sum in those days), he began cautiously with sylvan scenes in the French manner. It was the cultured, aristocratic Davies who inducted the collector into the joys of modern art. Perhaps the uneven selection of works by The Eight reflects Davies' taste as well as Phillips's.
In any case, perhaps it's best to simply ignore the miscast art history in the show and enjoy its offbeat pleasures. Best known for somewhat stereotyped portrayals of city shopgirls on the make, Pene du Bois is revealed as a sensitive portraitist in "Blue Armchair." Powerfully composed, the panel's compressed dark masses focus but do not overwhelm the stubborn features of the young sitter curled up in the chair. She has a poignant face you won't forget.
A political activist who won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, Rockwell Kent eventually degenerated into a slick social allegorist. But "Moonlight -- Maritime Alps," an early work, is a marvel of subtle light effects. Also on view are Kent's somber symbolist oil "Burial of a Young Man" and his more familiar rollicking winterscape, "The Road Roller." This is an artist whose aesthetic range outstrips his reputation.
Luks's "Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue" makes a fine counterpoint to Childe Hassam's more famous impressionist treatments (not on view) of the same subject -- the numerous military parades through New York City in 1917 and 1918 rallying citizens to the Allied cause in World War I. Where Hassam diffused brilliant color throughout his daylight canvases of waving flags, Luks concentrated on drama. The flags are in deep shadow, and a single shaft of light piercing the parade like a flare illuminates the brilliant blue of the French soldiers' uniforms.
Giving historical shape to in-house shows is never an easy task. When a collection is built around the taste of one person, it is even more difficult to achieve historical breadth. Perhaps it would have been better if the Phillips's curators had even more directly structured this exhibition around the complexities of Phillips's taste. For example, I would love to see a re-creation of the inaugural Phillips Memorial Gallery show in 1921.
"Men of the Rebellion" will be on view through Nov. 4.