Canaletto’s "The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Southeast from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto," c. 1738, is part of the Paul G. Allen Family Collection now on tour. (Paul G. Allen Family Collection/The Phillips Collection)
Art and architecture critic

Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is not the worst billionaire on the planet. Yes, he owns mega-yachts, estates and sports teams, and is a regular on the sun-and-champagne circuit, but he gives generously to good causes, including biomedical research, the environment and the arts. He also collects art, and 39 works from his collection are now on view at the Phillips Collection.

“Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterpieces from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” is ostensibly about landscape, but the curators use that term elastically. Watery cityscapes from Venice are well represented, as are surrealist works in which landscape becomes darkly dreamlike and hellish. An Ed Ruscha gas station from 1989 and a Georgia O’Keeffe Iris painting from the 1930s could be considered idiosyncratic treatments of landscape, as could Milton Avery’s curious purple blobs on a green background, a 1960 painting called “Dancing Trees.”

There is an important difference, however, between a few rooms full of substantial paintings, and a substantial exhibition, and this show is not substantial. The real curiosity buzzing around it has to do with Allen’s collecting, which he has pursued with great secrecy for decades now. Only recently has his art begun to circulate through exhibitions such as this one.

Not surprisingly, the landscape thread is a thin one, and little effort has been made to dig into the history, definition and evolving understanding of landscape as a genus. Even the brief catalog essay acknowledges: “The Allen collection is not a comprehensive historical overview of landscape painting.” And in an interview, also published in the catalogue, Allen connected the tourist’s pursuit of experience to the collector’s avidity for images of beloved places: “To me, if I’ve been to a place, I feel a connection to it, and if there’s art that really celebrates it in a wonderful way, that does connect with me.”

Jan Brueghel the Younger, "The Five Senses: Sight," c. 1625. Oil on panel, 27 5/8 x 44 5/8 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection. (Paul G. Allen Family Collection/The Phillips Collection)

So the paintings cluster around certain themes of particular interest to Allen, not just Venice, but volcanoes, ancient history and the Grand Canyon. For ordinary visitors, this is a rare chance to see a dozen or so significant works by name-brand artists (Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Gustav Klimt, Paul Signac) and half a dozen or so fascinating works by minor artists who deserve a little less obscurity: Maxfield Parrish, Henri Le Sidaner, Thomas Moran.

More important, however, are the questions this exhibition raises about wealth, art and private collectors. Collecting art isn’t morally neutral. It may seem more enlightened, and cultured, than collecting rock-and-roll memorabilia (another of Allen’s hobbies) or airplanes (ditto). But private collectors with deep pockets — Allen is worth about $18 billion, depending on which side of the bed the market got up on today — drive up the cost of art for everyone. That puts many of the works in this exhibition beyond the means of public institutions, where audiences could have regular access to them and where curators could study them and incorporate them into robust scholarly exhibitions.

Allen speaks enthusiastically about a personal connection to the art he loves, but he is reportedly a canny investor when it comes to the work he pursues and purchases. Exhibitions that display the work of private collectors are generally, and rightly, discouraged, because they can raise the value of those pieces and create unseemly alliances between nonprofit museums and wealthy collectors.

Allen has been cagey about what will happen to this work after he dies. Will it go to public collections? That would be the ideal dispensation. But it is also likely that he, like many wealthy collectors before him, will pursue some kind of private museum, adding to what seems increasingly like a clutter of dispersed and often unfocused exercises in self-aggrandizement. Even that lesser public good isn’t certain, however. Perhaps it will be auctioned off and the proceeds will be used for something else entirely.

A spokeswoman for the Phillips said the exhibition gives valuable and rare public access to Allen’s art : “Clearly, Paul Allen has a lifelong passion for art and how it can help us see the world around us a little differently, and we appreciate his openness to making these masterworks accessible to the public.”

Noting that the founder of the Phillips was also a wealthy art collector, she added: “We feel that this museum has a special perspective that allows us to examine the personal taste and evolution of an individual collector.”

Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset," 1909. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection. (Paul G. Allen Family Collection/The Phillips Collection)

You may not want to dig too deeply into that, however. This exhibition includes only 39 works from the several hundred Allen has apparently acquired, so perhaps it’s not entirely representative. But if one searches for a theme to unite the paintings on display, one definitely emerges: This is about the power of wealth to conquer geography, to visit beautiful places, stand over and above them in a masterful way, and return with visual souvenirs that can be commodified and exchanged long after the tourist is safely home and abed.

A series of five oil paintings by Jan Brueghel the Younger (a meticulous reproduction of a set painted by his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens) features landscape as just one possession among many, in loosely allegorical images that celebrate wealth, pleasure, power and luxury. The landscapes appear as framed glimpses of gardens and palaces, surrounded by a cornucopia of paintings, musical instruments, flowers, food and armaments. They unashamedly promote aristocratic privilege: “Drink deep, touch, feel, hold, taste, it’s all yours.”

The images of Venice include two of Canaletto’s vedute, or view paintings, a classic 18th-century status object acquired by wealthy northern European travelers on the “Grand Tour” of Italy. They idealize the light and moods of Venice, and when purchased and displayed by tourists, they set up a self-affirming loop of art and ego: I came, I saw, I shopped, and now I’ve brought it back, permanently fixed like a trophy hunter’s prize on the wall of my country house. Before the age of the snapshot, it was a powerful thing to possess an image of a beloved place, an inoculation against the fading of memory, one of the most terrifying symptoms of our mortality.

Images have, of course, always been used as a goad to memory. This is one reason Plato was so suspicious of them, that they became substitutes or crutches to a diminished faculty of recollection. But the images in this collection are bound up not just with reminiscence, but possession. Consider a painting by the German artist Gerhard Richter, “Vesuvius,” from 1976. It is one of several volcano pictures in the Allen collection, but it is perhaps the most ominous and unsettling. Rather than depict the drama of volcanic eruption, Richter shows the mountain asleep, barely visible in the distance, viewed from a small rock outcropping across a vast, hazy sea. The painting captures the double nature of the sublime, the terrifying power of nature (in this case dormant) along with the inherently arrogant belief that man can overpower, assimilate and tame nature (implied ironically by the vantage point, high and distant).

The Richter is the most keenly critical work in the show, dramatizing and undermining the idea that man can stand above and survey the world as if he owned it. Many wealthy people believe that this is true, but in the end they are always disabused of the notion. “Ars longa, vita brevis” comes for everyone at some point.

It’s not clear whether Allen understands this, sees the irony, or just likes the painting, which can pass surreptitiously for a postcard view of a pretty place. And that’s the problem. Like so many other shows devoted to work amassed by individual collectors, the collector himself is a cipher. His comments in the catalogue interview are disturbingly inarticulate and jejune. The promise that an exhibition such as this one will illuminate something interesting about the collector, or the idea of collecting, is almost never fulfilled.

What have we learned? That a man who scored big with Microsoft more than a quarter century ago loves classic paintings of places he has visited. He can’t really say why, or even why it should matter, but he has enough money to pursue his passion on a grand scale. It’s good that he’s sharing it with us, but it comes packaged with a theme so transparently factitious that one can’t take it seriously. Curating and scholarship have been reduced to putting a sprig of parsley on the plate.

In the end, we’re supposed to feel grateful. But I don’t feel grateful. I resent the fact that when this show is over (it will travel to Minneapolis, New Orleans and Seattle through 2017), all of the art will remain in the private collection of Paul G. Allen. And I can hear the retort: That’s life, that’s capitalism, and get over it because at least it’s not in Qatar.

But the problem with collecting masterworks of great artists is that the act of ownership is in itself a kind of theft, stealing from the public commons of genius. Put another way, once a work of art is important enough to be of interest to a man like Allen, it belongs to all of us. He may not know that, but we do. And so when the show is over and the art is subsumed back into the private palaces of plutocracy, one feels its loss more keenly than any fleeting gratitude to the person who made it temporarily accessible.

“Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” is on view at the Phillips Collection through May 8. For more information, visit www.phillipscollection.org.