When the Phillips Collection reopened its original building this summer, after more than a year of renovations, the refreshed galleries didn’t simply provide more space to showcase the impressive permanent collection. The renewal also reconnected the Phillips to its heritage as the country’s first modern art museum, founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips in their family home near Dupont Circle.
The art the couple initially collected was mostly representational and European. Their signature acquisition was Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party,” an engaging summertime tableaux that is often considered the museum’s exemplary possession. They also acquired works by Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and — long before his reputation flowered — Vincent Van Gogh.
The early acquisitions include older works, notably one by 17th-century painter El Greco. But the Phillips also acted as a patron to contemporary U.S. artists, including women and African Americans. It was the first museum to buy a Georgia O’Keefe canvas and purchased half of Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series shortly after it was first shown.
As 20th-century painting moved toward abstraction, so did the Phillips. The museum’s taste in abstract expressionism tended to favor the serene and sublime, such as the work of Mark Rothko, over the brash.
The Phillips’s emphasis on color was a significant influence on the Washington painters who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s; several of them worked at the museum and some saw their work added to its holdings. After Duncan Phillips died in 1966, he was succeeded by his wife and then, in 1972, by their son Laughlin. He ran the museum for 20 years, professionalizing the operation and continuing its expansion into adjacent buildings as the permanent collection widened its focus. It now includes such 21st-century art as the Wolfgang Laib installation “Where Have You Gone, Where Are You Going?” (see below).
These days, the Phillips, like most museums, attracts crowds with temporary exhibitions. But its permanent holdings (which can be viewed for free Tuesday to Friday) remain the museum’s essence, historically and aesthetically. Here are some highlights:
Although best known for sunflowers and starry nights, Van Gogh as a beginning painter in his native Holland often depicted peasants and laborers. This picture of road workers in Saint-Remy, France, recalls those earlier works. Yet it nearly hides the crew behind the massive plane trees in the foreground, an approach typical of the artist’s later emphasis on nature. Likely made in December 1889, less than a year before Van Gogh’s death, the canvas has an autumnal color scheme with just a distant touch of red. The vigorous brushwork on the tree trunks can’t offset a sense of waning light.
It’s just a leaf, albeit one that has been enlarged to unignorable scale. The power comes from the simplified form and deep red color, which suggests blood and the human body. O’Keeffe’s 1925 painting is thus both personal and objective, and quite modern. It shows the influence of photography, which allowed close-ups and the cropping of extraneous elements. It also presages abstraction and pop art, which used elemental shapes — from chevrons to Brillo boxes — as a way to elevate style over subject. O’Keeffe works from nature, but paints the universal.
In the years after the Great Depression began, more than a million African Americans moved from the rural South to the industrial North. Rather than memorialize this vast event on an enormous canvas, Lawrence divided it into 60 small paintings — now split between the Phillips and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Painted with tempera, a quick-drying medium, the pictures were planned altogether and executed simultaneously in an artless, direct style. The result suggests a series of storyboarded close-ups from an epic movie, frozen in time yet imbued with the energy and immediacy of a history-making social transition.
Duncan Phillips bought the four luminous abstractions exhibited here — all made in the 1950s — between 1957 and 1964. Phillips was the first curator to assemble multiple Rothko paintings in a chapel-like setting, and the only one to do so with the artist’s counsel. (Phillips didn’t take all of his advice, though.) Each of the pictures brackets soft-edged lozenges in two main colors, with others hues flickering through the painted depths. The horizontal forms suggest landscape, but the territory Rothko depicts is elusive and unearthly.
Where the Rothko Room suggests infinity, this tiny 2013 installation is womblike. It’s the first wax-lined chamber the German artist created for a specific museum, and it was partly inspired by Laib’s experience of the Rothko suite. The sculptor is one of those artists who works with plant and animal materials, mostly pollen and beeswax. But rather than shape the natural environment, he brings it inside to effect a greater contrast between organic and man-made. Coated with 440 pounds of fragrant wax, the 6-by-7-by-10-foot space is claustrophobic yet calming — a place to be escaped into, not from.
1600 21st St. NW. phillipscollection.org.
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday from noon-6:30 p.m.
Admission: Free to $12, depending on exhibition and day of the week.