On Saturday morning at 10, the Phillips Collection will open its doors after having shut them earlier this month for a top-to-bottom refurbishing that includes lighting upgrades, new window treatments, hardwood floors where carpeting used to be, fresh paint and restoration of wooden trim. What's more, for the first time in a decade, the main entrance to the museum will again be through the stately doorway of the original 1897 brownstone at the corner of 21st and Q streets NW and not beneath the blue awning of the block-like, 10-year-old addition next door known as the Goh Annex.
That access to the 78-year-old institution is once again through the home of its founder, legendary art collector, critic, patron and museum director Duncan Phillips, and that egress will be through the clean contemporary annex is no accident. This symbolic returning to the collection's roots in the art of the 19th century and its flourishing in the art of the modern age is part and parcel of a special four-month-long exhibition, opening this weekend, called "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips."
In a complete reinstallation of the Phillips's permanent collection, 360 artworks culled from a trove of 2,396 fill every public room of the old house and every gallery of the new wing. In the words of museum director Jay Gates, "It's unquestionably the largest gathering of paintings and sculptures ever assembled from the collection at one time in one place."
The roughly chronological story it tells in a stunning array of pictures -- some of which are old friends, some of which haven't been seen in years -- is not just the story of a century and of an innovative arts organization but the story of one man whose unique vision and quiet energy brought Washington, and the world, quite literally the first museum of modern art eight years before the founding of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Although the show seems calculated as a perfect way for the Phillips to ring in the new millennium, the truth is that the timing of "Renoir to Rothko" has its origins in the coincidental publication of a reference book, first begun 15 years ago. Just released by the Phillips Collection in association with Yale University Press, "The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making" is an 820-page, meticulously researched scholarly reassessment not only of the museum's holdings but of Duncan Phillips and his exquisite taste. This exhibit is the tangible companion to the book.
Closer to catalogue of the entire collection than of this particular show, the copiously illustrated volume (nine pounds according to my bathroom scale) matches the ambitious scope of the exhibit itself. And, like the meandering edifice that houses the Phillips Collection, the book is meant to be dipped into and out of for pleasure and illumination, not read from cover to cover like a mystery novel.
"The Phillips Collection is a museum of no pattern," Gates says. "You go up a staircase, you go over a bridge, you go down a staircase, you find yourself backtracking."
And what will you discover here?
As always, mostly paintings of course, wonderful, wonderful paintings everywhere you turn. Although he collected a smattering of sculpture (some small Calders, a Henry Moore, a few Gaston Lachaises) and was given some Stieglitz photos by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949, Duncan Phillips's first and foremost love was the daub of brush-stroked color, the paint that seems sometimes applied to the canvas with a cotton swab, as with the candy-colored cityscapes of Maurice Prendergast.
In addition, the show includes numerous display cases filled with fascinating archival material worth poring over: grateful correspondence (often illustrated) to Phillips from some of the artists he sent monthly stipends to (like Arthur Dove) as well as other documentation of his collecting. Check out Georgia O'Keeffe's loopy handwritten note agreeing to send Phillips a series of her late husband's sky photographs known as "Equivalents."
What's most surprising here is just how surprising the well-known pieces of the collection can still be. But then again, during his own lifetime (1886-1966), Phillips was notorious for constantly shuffling and reshuffling his prized possessions.
In the main gallery that icon of Impressionism, "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," has returned to the very wall where it first hung when Phillips brought it back from Paris in 1923 (after paying $125,000 for it, up to then the most ever paid for a Renoir). It's accompanied by what Gates calls "some of the monuments of the collection": Pierre Bonnard's "The Palm" and "Woman With Dog," a striking Cezanne self-portrait, Van Gogh's "Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles" and not one but two versions of "The Repentant St. Peter" -- one by El Greco and one by Goya.
Lovers of the popular and contemplative Rothko room, worry not. Except for a door jumping from one side to another, the quartet of color-field canvases by the Russian-born American expressionist remains as unchanged as it has since the mid-1960s, when "Ochre and Red on Red" joined the already comfortably ensconced trio of "Green and Maroon," "Green and Tangerine on Red" and "Orange and Red on Red."
The music room on the first floor of the old house is hung with nothing but Augustus Vincent Tack's dramatic, nearly abstract mountaintops. Commissioned by Phillips for that room, most are hung too high to get close to, but inspect those that are at eye level. Try to figure out exactly how the artist captured air and light by a process of addition and subtraction of color.
You'll discover that the Paul Klees are not where they used to live, in the quaint little second-floor room with the yellow fireplace, but that the merry bunch has not disbanded. Ten of the Swiss artist's delightful canvases have relocated to the annex, taking their gibbering music with them. Taking their place in the house is a wall of gorgeously abstracted landscapes by the American modernist John Marin, one of Phillips's favorite painters, and one represented in the collection by 29 works.
Half of Jacob Lawrence's "Migration" series (30 paintings!) covers an entire wall. Although it has recently been judged unstable by conservators and its surface has darkened almost to the point of impenetrability, Albert Pinkham Ryder's "Macbeth and the Witches" has thankfully not been relegated to storage. "To tell you the truth," says curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who along with Eliza Rathbone organized the show, "I like it better the darker it gets. It's alive." You'll find this treasure just around the corner from Ryder's tiny -- but oddly moving -- "Dead Bird."
In one gallery, dedicated to American art acquired by Phillips in the 1930s, you'll find such strange bedfellows as one of Edward Hicks's "Peaceable Kingdoms," along with Yasuo Kuniyoshi's cartoonish "Maine Family" and a couple of small paintings by the obscure and eccentric Louis Eilshemius.
"Each room is like another chamber of this many-minded man," Gates says. "Yet there's a harmony, a music created as you move through. In some cases, though, we just drop a `kaboom' like a cold splash of water."
One such example is Francis Bacon's "Study of a Figure in a Landscape," an atypical painting from early in the artist's career whose crouching subject (defecating, it appears) squats impolitely in the middle of a room populated by a nice Matisse, Mondrian and Van Gogh. Even the normally tortured Oskar Kokoschka's "Portrait of Lotte Franzos" nearby seems decorous by comparison.
That's only one of the surprises in store for you at the comfortable as an old shoe but never shopworn Phillips, where, for those who have already fallen in love with the collection, "Renoir to Rothko" can feel both reassuringly familiar and radically fresh, like a reunion with a dear, old friend who may or may not have had a face-lift. Sometimes just a fresh haircut and a new pair of glasses is all that is necessary to rearrange your view of the tried and true.
RENOIR TO ROTHKO: THE EYE OF DUNCAN PHILLIPS -- Through Jan. 23 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202/387-2151. Web site: www.phillipscollection.org. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 to 5, Thursday evenings until 9; Sundays noon to 7.
The Man Behind the Art
Imperially slim, "rich but not filthy rich," in the words of critic Robert Hughes, Duncan Phillips is heir to a Pittsburgh banking and steel fortune when he graduates from Yale in 1908 with that most useless of sheepskins, a degree in English. Planning to pursue literature and criticism, a gentleman's career for which he has decided he has an affinity, Phillips knows he needn't work a day in his life if he doesn't want to.
"He was a young, intelligent, articulate man," says Phillips Collection director Jay Gates. "But at that point he was headed for a comfortable life of leisure of no historic significance."
Along with his older brother James, Duncan has already begun collecting art -- with early taste running to painters like Ernest Lawson and Paul Dougherty, early purchases that fit in with what Gates calls his attraction to "very conventional, mid-19th-century, sepia-toned landscapes." Soon the siblings ask their father for an annual stipend of $10,000 to support their acquisition habits.
In the autumn of 1918, however, "the bottom falls out of his world," Gates says.
Stricken with flu spread by soldiers returning from World War I, Jim Phillips falls ill and dies, leaving Duncan devastated even as he was mourning his father's death a year earlier. As therapy for his grief, he decides to create exhibition rooms in memory of his father and brother; and, in late 1921, two rooms of the family home near Dupont Circle open without fanfare to the public as the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, an institution dedicated to, in the ambitious mission statement of its founder, "modern art and its sources."
For the rest of his life, Phillips and new wife Marjorie Acker Phillips (herself a painter and a not-to-be-underestimated influence on her husband's evolving aesthetic) throw themselves into their newfound calling, ultimately moving their family to a new house in 1930 in order to turn the entire building and its intimate, domestic spaces over to the museum.
Disregarding "isms" and advice (with the exception of his wife's), Phillips fills his house with only what he likes and with what moves him.
Never gravitating to just one thing or even the same thing, this "least canonical of all collectors," in the words of Gates, begins to collect the first of dozens of works by his favorite artists (Augustus Vincent Tack, Arthur Dove, Karl Knaths and John Marin, among others) in what he liked to call "exhibition units."
Sometimes he makes mistakes.
In reviewing the 1913 New York Armory show, for example, the infamous survey that introduced America to the Fauvists, Impressionists and Cubists, Phillips writes an intemperate slam of the same painters whose work he will ultimately come to champion, reserving special abuse for Matisse, an artist who, Phillips writes at the time, "creates patterns unworthy of ... little children and benighted savages, patterns not only crude but deliberately false and at times insanely depraved."
To his (and our) credit, of course, Phillips sees and admits his error. In 1927, he writes of that earlier version of himself, "I liked extravagantly a few painters and writers whom I now consider mediocre and I did scant justice to other painters and writers who now seem to me great artists. To the charge of inconsistency I plead guilty, but it does not trouble my conscience. Consistency from youth to middle age is at best a stiff-necked virtue."
At his best, according to Gates, Phillips the connoisseur was "absolutely lucid and poetic."
Listen to this pithy description of another of his favorites, from a 1942 lecture:
"Paul Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood's innocence and everyman's prospect of infinity."
When all is said and done, though, the legacy of Duncan Phillips stubbornly resists being judged by one painting or even by one pet artist. It's a body of work as complicated and as seemingly contradictory as the man himself.
"The question is always asked, `Are you born with an eye or is it something you can cultivate?' " says Gates of Phillips's unschooled yet confident and lasting sense of discernment. "And the answer has to be, `Yes, you are born with it, as he was, and yes, you have to cultivate it every single day of your life.' "
For tickets to the special exhibition "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," the Phillips Collection has temporarily raised its regular weekend admission and eliminated its voluntary weekday payment policy.
Tickets, available at the museum entrance, are now $7.50 instead of $6.50, $4 instead of $3.25 for seniors over 62 and full-time students and free for children under 18. The admission price includes a free audio guide with two hours of information on CD-ROM about Duncan Phillips, the collection and the artists, as well as musical selections related to some of the works in the show. On Wednesdays, admission to the collection is free for everyone and audio guides may be purchased for $3.
As of Oct. 1, interested families may request a Family Fun Pack featuring a gallery guide with interactive activities for adults and children ages 6 to 12. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 247. The kit is free, but contributions are welcome.
More to See and Do
Public programs associated with the exhibition "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips" include a lecture series at the John Wesley Powell Auditorium, 2170 Florida Ave. NW. Tickets to individual lectures are $10, $8 for museum members and senior citizens and $5 for full-time students. A subscription is $70, $50 for members. All lectures begin at 6:30. For information and reservations, call 202/387-2151, Ext. 235:
SEPT. 29 -- "The Romantic Tradition at the Phillips Collection."
OCT. 14 -- "An American Prado: Duncan Phillips, Art and Nationhood."
OCT. 28 -- "The Lyrical and the Repellent: The Twin Forces of Modernism."
NOV. 4 -- "The Paradox of Modernism: Romantic Continuity or Scientific Fault Line?"
DEC. 9 -- "Modernity, Escapism and the Pleasure Problem."
DEC. 16 -- "Color and the Modern Tradition."
JAN. 6 -- "At Home With Art."
JAN. 13 -- "Duncan Phillips and His House of Art."
Other programs include:
NOV. 7 and NOV. 14 from 10 to 1 -- "The Artist Sees Differently": A two-part workshop on drawing in the galleries, open to beginners and advanced art students alike. $30; $20 for members. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 247, for reservations.
DEC. 28-29 at 9 a.m. -- "Art at Home": Special before-hours family tours designed for children ages 6 to 10. $8 for each adult/child pair. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 247, for reservations.
In addition, regular evening and lunchtime gallery talks, free with museum admission, will be held each Thursday at 6 and 7 and on the first and third Thursday of the month at 12:30. No advance registration is required. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 853, for weekly topics.
On Nov. 11 at 6:30, members of the team responsible for the book, "The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making," will present a behind-the-scenes look at the years of research that went into producing this scholarly publication. The discussion is free with museum admission. Reservations are not required.