Published: July 26, 2011
In 1921, Duncan Phillips opened to the public space in his home at the corner of 21st and Q Streets, near what is known today as Dupont Circle. The museum began life as the Phillips Memorial Gallery, and its mission was “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.”
Simply known as the Phillips Collection today, the museum still embraces that directive as it celebrates its 90th anniversary.
Offering a year-round celebration culminating in a series of special exhibitions and programming under the aegis of a “90 Years of New” theme, the museum has much to see and experience for both longtime and new visitors.
“It marks the start of a decade-long countdown to a magnificent centennial year in 2021, a decade of experimentation and discovery to define the power and potential of a museum of Modern and contemporary art in the Twenty-First Century,” says museum director Dorothy Kosinski. “From the start, the Phillips has been a place of tremendous risk-taking with an innovative approach to thinking about art and culture.”
One might not usually put together the ideas of 90 years and “new,” but in this case it is perfectly fitting. The museum has consistently broken new ground in its 90 years, and the exhibitions being showcased this year pay tribute to iconic pieces in the museum’s collection, as well as new works from contemporary artists.
Duncan Phillips dubbed the first gallery space in his home as the Main Gallery, and it totaled 768 square feet of exhibition space. By 1927, he had opened two additional galleries in his home for a total gallery space of just under 2,500 square feet.
The Phillips family continued to live in the space until 1930, when it moved into new quarters, devoting its original home and 5,500 square feet of gallery space to sharing the collection with the public. Over the years, the museum has undergone several expansions, including into the carriage house and an adjacent property. Today, it houses nearly 3,000 works of art and has 16,738 square feet of gallery space.
The first museum of Modern art in America, the Phillips Collection has a long history of visionary “firsts” †including being the first institution to purchase artwork by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Milton Avery. The museum also presented the first and only retrospective of Dove’s work in his lifetime, and afforded Avery his first solo exhibition. It also was the first US museum to present an exhibition of Marc Chagall’s work.
In 1942, the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art were the first museums to buy paintings by Jacob Lawrence. Each institution acquired half of Lawrence’s iconic “The Migration Series,” with the Phillips receiving the odd-numbered panels. Proving its enduring social relevance, the series continues to inspire.
Contemporary artist Allen deSouza has recently created an installation, “The World Series,” as a response to Lawrence’s series. Kosinski explains that deSouza’s work, presented in two facing galleries, explores themes of migration and dislocation through today’s lens.
Among other firsts on view in the “90 Years of New” exhibitions is an ambitious work by Turner Prize winner Sir Howard Hodgkin, who had his first American exhibition in 1984 at the Phillips. His work, “As Time Goes By,” 2009, comprises a pair of 20-foot-long hand painted etchings that the museum recently acquired for its permanent collection.
Artist Sam Gilliam, who had his premier solo show here in 1967, has created a new site-specific work, “Flour Mill,” comprising painted nylon panels draped and suspended from the museum’s iconic elliptical stairway that he is describing as a “beautiful, curved frame.”
A landmark piece in the museum’s collection, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” 1881, will return to its original location within the museum, the first gallery that Duncan Phillips opened to the public. The 51¼-by-691/8-inch oil on canvas was acquired in 1923. It will be on view September 2⁄ecember 31 with other European masterworks acquired in the museum’s first decade.
The Phillips is also recreating its Klee Room and Tack’s Music Room as part of its anniversary celebration.
The Klee Room opened in 1948 as the first room in any museum dedicated exclusively to Paul Klee’s work. Duncan Phillips assembled 13 of Klee’s works, which were hung together from 1948 to 1982. This installation will be on view September 29⁄ecember 31.
“Augustus Vincent Tack: Decorative Panels for the Music Room,” is on view through December 31. Phillips commissioned the American painter in 1928 to create a colossal cycle of abstract paintings intended for permanent display in the wood-paneled room that is today known as the Music Room. Tack’s 12 lunette-shaped paintings were installed in 1930 and well received. Painter John Marin, then a new Phillips associate, is said to have praised their color and originality.
While Phillips continued to champion Tack’s work for three decades, he lost interest in the idea of permanent exhibitions and embraced a more dynamic model of ever-evolving galleries, juxtaposing one artist’s works with others.
Another anniversary installation, on view through October 9, celebrates Washington artist Morris Louis and his ties to the Phillips Collection. The exhibition features Louis’s colorfully exuberant painting “Seal,” on loan from the Morris Louis Art Trust. It is being shown with the artist’s works in the collection, including four early pen and ink drawings and three signature paintings.
Other exhibitions this year will focus on contemporary artist Joseph Marioni, whose paintings were chosen from the museum’s permanent collection in a focus exhibition, October 20⁊anuary 29, while on view through October 2 is the exhibition “Left Behind: Selected Gifts from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection.” Since 2008, the Podesta Collection has donated 25 works to the Phillips, mostly photographic, enhancing an already strong collection of photographs. The museum’s collection of photography began in earnest when, in 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe gave Duncan Phillips 19 works by her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe told Phillips, “I think they will be very much at home with you.”
Visitors to the Phillips immediately notice a different museum experience. Despite the museum’s expansions over the years, care has been taken to keep the galleries intimate to encourage one to linger over the art rather than rush from room to room. Galleries here are smaller, and come in a variety of shapes and proportions rather than uniform sizes. Duncan Phillips once wrote of his museum, “There is a sense of art lived with, worked with and loved.” That holds true today. The Rothko Room, for example, was originally created in 1960 and described as chapel-like. While it has since been relocated, the room is much unchanged. It holds only four paintings by Mark Rothko and there is only a single bench for seating, ensuring a nearly private conversation with the art.
Conversations between the artworks is a central tenet of the museum’s philosophy. The artworks are not hung by schools or “isms,” but presented in diverse groupings that hint at visual “conversations” between the works in the viewer’s eye and mind. “My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy,” Phillips said by way of explanation. “I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time.”
Groupings of art accordingly shift over time and works are moved around the galleries with regularity, ensuring that visitors will always find something new to see on each visit. Continuing the theme of “conversations,” the museum’s Center for the Study of Modern Art presents a series of “Conversations with Artists” talks and symposia, while other programs, such as “Phillips After 5,” engage visitors in new ways.
Aside from the anniversary-focus exhibitions, the featured summer exhibition through September 4 is “Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border,” which provides an in-depth look at Wassily Kandinsky’s creative process during the five months leading up to his 1913 masterpiece “Painting with White Border (Moscow),” now in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
For the first time in the United States, this exhibition reunites the painting with Kandinsky’s 1913 oil study “Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border (Moscow),” a major holding of the Phillips Collection, as well as ten other preparatory studies in watercolor, ink and pencil.
While most of the museum’s gifts come from donations and corporate gifts, at a time when many museums are struggling with the vagaries of the economy, it is encouraging to note that admissions are significantly up here. In 2009, admissions accounted for just under $600,000 and last year, aided by the widely popular “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” exhibition, they soared to just over $1 million.
The museum is eagerly looking forward to next year when “Snapshot,” an exhibition of turn-of-the-century photography, goes on view during January and February. It is co-organized by the Van Gogh Museum (where it will debut this October), the Phillips and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (the final venue for the exhibition). Kosinski praises the featured photographers’ enthusiasm, which became part and parcel for how they saw the modern world.
Duncan Phillips was a thoughtful and select buyer of art. While he and Albert Barnes, who was collecting art at the same time, had similar tastes, Phillips might buy a painting or two from an artist during a studio visit, while Barnes was reported to have scooped up every painting in sight.
Phillips collected several artists deeply, however, Kosinski said. The Phillips is the world’s largest holder of American Modernism works by Arthur Dove and the largest American institutional holder of French Impressionism and contemporary art works by Pierre Bonnard. In ill health for years, Dove wrote to Phillips, who had been a longtime patron, shortly before he died, saying, “After fighting for an idea all your life I realize that your backing has saved it for me, and I want to thank you with all my heart and soul for what you have done.”
The Phillips Collection is at 1600 21st Street, NW. For information, 202-387-2151 or www.phillipscollection.org .
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