They've refurbished the Phillips Collection. Everything's the same, yet everything is different. In "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," the exhibition of his pictures now filling his museum, familiar ground seems to shift beneath your feet.
Paintings have been moved, shabbiness abolished. The sunlight shines, as always, blood-red through the ear of the reader in the easy chair in Edouard Vuillard's "The Newspaper," but she isn't where she used to be. Dust balls have been swept away, the paneling restored, the gray and grungy carpet replaced with flooring of red oak. The stabbing mental rectitude of Thomas Eakins's "Miss Amelia Van Buren" is as beautiful as ever, but her gaze is fixed no longer on the darkness in the shadows in Albert Pinkham Ryder's "Moonlit Cove." The home improvements cost $461,250. The whole place has been painted, polished, and re-lit; the air conditioning has been upgraded, the boiler replaced, the window treatments tweaked.
When careful Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), that clubbable and sensitive finely mannered gentleman, opened his museum in 1921 it was no museum, really, just two or three fine rooms in a rich man's house on 21st Street, where one could go and see his pictures. But now the place is burdened by the curators, computers, archivists, conservators, registrars, accountants, fund-raisers and thermostats that forward-thinking, show-arranging art museums need.
The changes aren't good or bad. It's just that Time performs its work on edgy modern pictures and public institutions in different ways.
Carried on a wave of scholarship and money and public obligation, the Phillips, the institution, is surging toward the future, staying up to date. But its paintings aren't. When Duncan Phillips picked them, each to take part in his "intimate personal creation," they were fresh and daring objects that didn't cost him much.
Before opening his gallery he bought Winslow Homer's "Rowing Home" for $2,000 and an Edward Hopper for one-tenth that amount. In 1930, he got Pablo Picasso's "Studio Corner" for $800 and paid $650 for "Tree Nursery" by Paul Klee. "The Newspaper," his wonderful Vuillard, cost $6,000 in 1929. Such objects are worth millions now, and their demands are unrelenting. When his father died, writes Laughlin Phillips, the museum found itself "in the anomalous and alarming position of possessing a very significant collection of art objects, mostly paintings, which had never been adequately examined, cared for, registered, accessioned, studied or catalogued." It was Laughlin who put in train the 820-page multi-author volume whose publication by the Yale University Press is the occasion for this show. But the book, despite its thickness, covers only 411 objects. There are even fewer, 363, in "Renoir to Rothko"--but 2,033 others belong to the museum, and they, too, must be scrutinized, attended to, insured. Think how much must be done.
"Go upstairs, open a door, and people will fall out," says Jay Gates, the director.
Duncan Phillips ran the place with Jim McLaughlin and a secretary and some artist-guards, and that was about it. In those days, when you opened a closet door, people didn't fall out, pictures did. But more than 250 people--73 full-timers, 87 part-timers and 95 volunteers--work at the Phillips now.
They need room. They need desks and books and telephones. There is talk now at the Phillips of creating a center for the study of modernism, and the museum has acquired an option to buy 1618 21st St. NW, the stuccoed apartment building next door.
Duncan Phillips hoped to see his place stay much as he'd left it. "The impression is now right. The setting and the spirit are right," he wrote in 1965. "These are fundamental. . . . Such a creation can no more be changed than any fine work of art can be transformed into something different." He should have known better. Phillips, after all, kept adjusting it himself and he must have been aware that institutions change.
It was nice enough in olden days to climb the steps to Phillips's home (his guests, of course, weren't charged) and pet the gallery cat, and smoke before the paintings, but those times are long gone. Some collectors often long to see their accomplishments embalmed. Charles Lang Freer insisted that his museum, the Freer Gallery of Art, stay just as it was, and so did Henry Clay Frick, of Manhattan's Frick Collection, and so did Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner, but not even a stick-in-the-mud could wish to see the Phillips set in amber.
It was never intended to be a specimen in a bell jar. Phillips created it as an "experiment station," a place for living art, and for living artists, "which will have the character of a beautiful home." But that's not what it is now.
"We clearly have evolved from one kind of organization to another," says director Gates.
Though Phillips hoped his home would stay "disarmingly informal," the now-refurbished gallery, its 1989 Goh Annex particularly, isn't all that homey. Most of the well-stuffed furniture, the ashtrays and the cat are gone. Phillips did not want his gallery to be "a public building with all that the phrase implies," but that's what he got. The income it receives from its $11 million endowment doesn't pay the bills. The Phillips has an annual operating budget of $6.6 million. It charges admission--$7.50 to see the old favorites, and the surprises, in "Renoir to Rothko." It has 10,800 members, and holds $1,000-a-plate fund-raising galas, and reaches out for grants. (It took 11 grants to produce the Yale book, edited by Erika D. Passantino. Of these, the largest came from the foundation organized by the late Paul Mellon.)
In "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," which was arranged by chief curator Eliza Rathbone and curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, one is reminded everywhere of his adventurous, incisive, color-oriented eye. But he, too, like the newness of pictures, now belongs to the past.
Not stressed in this exhibit, but nonetheless apparent, is Phillips's rather dreamy, gentlemanly shyness, which is not what one expects from a fan of modern art. He liked small pictures, and blurry ones, and reverie-inducements, but distrusted confrontation. With very few exceptions--of which the grandest is his grand self-portrait by Paul Cezanne--he seldom purchased paintings that stare you in the eye.
Glances out of windows were a favorite of Phillips. "The Newspaper" by Vuillard (1896-98), Pierre Bonnard's "Open Window" (1921), and "Girl with Plant" by California's Richard Diebenkorn (1960) have so much in common--the foreground woman in her chair, the view beyond her to the landscape, the sharply jutting triangles--that they seem to be expressions of a single drifty thought.
The hardness of sharp focus, and the intellectual severities that sharp focus suggests, didn't much appeal to him, though he purchased Eakins's "Miss Amelia Van Buren" in 1926. But then she is no peasant. She's a lady of high class who seems to be absorbed--as Phillips himself longed to be--in a drift of inner thought.
Colors fueled his reveries. He was as deeply moved by colors as others are by music. That's why he loved Rothko: "In the soft edges and rounded rectangles of Mr. Rothko's mature style," observed Phillips, "there is an enveloping magic which conveys to receptive observers a sense of being in the midst of greatness. It is of course the color."
Vulgarity distressed him. He shuddered when he saw it. Phillips, when a young man, was offended by the clashing unsweet colors of Matisse ("a deliberate fakir"), and was similarly distressed by the fiery passions of van Gogh and Cezanne, two painters whom, at least at first, he dismissed as "damn fools." Georges Braque, however, soothed him, for Phillips sensed in Braque "an aristocratic type . . . whose manner is courtly, who wears formal dress with the distinguished ease and the charming grace one likes to associate with aristocracy in sports clothes."
Phillips was himself a man of highest rectitude. He seldom displayed nudes. He sought out higher realms. The biblical abstractions he commissioned for his Music Room from Augustus Vincent Tack are as loftily high-minded as Albert Bierstadt's landscapes, which they distantly resemble. They are as musical as hymns. (Thirteen of those abstractions are now hanging in the Music Room, but since they have been framed they no longer fit precisely into the tall spaces between the dark-wood panels for which they were designed.
The walls in Phillips's neo-Georgian home have been painted in new colors, 1990s colors, white and beige, for instance, or salmon with gray trim.
One forgets in this display how much Phillips liked dark shadows. "Miss Amelia Van Buren," for example, often used to hang (with Ryder's moody paintings, and a just-as-moody Ralph Blakelock) in a room so dark that one had to wait awhile before one could see their subtly matched shadows conversing in the gloom.
There are objects in the present show that have not been seen for years--John Marin's small self-portrait, say--and that is one of its chief virtues. And the galleries are rich in visual conversations. "Miss Amelia Van Buren" looks at Ryder, but she still dwells among the shadows--but now they are those of the darknesses of fine "Hide and Seek" by William Merritt Chase.
Which may be just as well. There is a newness in the air here, a sense of the familiar being rediscovered by new eyes in a new age. With its costly restoration, its telephone-book-size volume, its fund-raisers in place, one can almost feel Phillips being readied for a jump into the new millennium.
"Renoir to Rothko" is not a restoration.
Though something subtly new is with us here, something old's been lost. "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," which Merrill Lynch is sponsoring, is less an early modern exhibition than the sort of big, considered show one now expects to see in American museums.
It does not attempt to reproduce the Phillips as it used to be. The complex, often-rhyming, color-gauged displays on which he lavished so much thought--that little room of Klees upstairs, say, or the placement of Vuillard's brown-clad woman sweeping beside the brown front door--now belong, as Phillips does, to the retreating past.
The exhibition closes Jan. 23.
'RENOIR TO ROTHKO'
For "Renoir to Rothko," the Phillips Collection has been extensively refurbished and filled throughout with objects, 363 of them, from the museum's permanent collection. Admission for the ticketed exhibit is $7.50 for adults and $4 for students and seniors; visitors under 18 will be admitted free. Tickets may be purchased at the museum entrance; there is no admission charge on Wednesdays. "The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making," the 820-page book that accompanies the show, sells for $85. The Phillips Collection, at 1600 21st St. NW, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m., Sundays from noon until 7 p.m. and is closed on Mondays. For information call 202-387-2151.