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Insatiable Collector

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Phillips Fulfills Founder's Vision of Expanding Holdings

Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, a venue generally regarded as one of the world’s finest small museums, loved to invite folks over to his home in Dupont Circle to view his ever-expanding art collection. And even though Phillips died in 1966 after playing a pivotal role in introducing America to modern art, his spirit prevails in the museum’s current exhibition, “Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects.” After all, what could be more fun than inviting friends over to see what you’ve added to your home in the past 10 years?

The Phillips Collection, which opened in 1921, is America’s first museum of modern art and has a stunning permanent collection of almost 2,500 works by American and European impressionist and modern artists. Duncan Phillips’s wish for the gallery was that the collection would continue to grow, and he explicitly stated that it should be revitalized through new acquisitions and frequent rearrangements, according to Jay Gates, the museum’s director. The current exhibition honors that legacy with more than 110 works of art, including paintings, photographs, sculpture and works on paper, as well as the introduction of 28 new artists to the museum.

For the habitual museumgoer, this exhibition presents a different viewing experience. Instead of the almost trance-like state that can imbue a visit to a single-artist exhibition, there is a jolting stimulation as one room after another presents vastly different styles.

From Richard Diebenkorn’s mesmerizing abstraction “Ocean Park No. 138”—part of a series considered to be among the artist’s most outstanding—viewers enter a much smaller room where they encounter Jasper Johns’s catty “The Critic Sees”—a pair of glasses with two mouths instead of eyeballs penciled into each lens. Right next door is renowned political cartoonist Pat Oliphant’s lithograph on paper, “I Have Returned,” a 1984 piece depicting white V-for-victory gestures in Richard Nixon’s hands against an eerie black background.

Also enhancing the museum’s prestigious holdings is the promised gift of Edouard Vuillard’s “Interior with a Red Bed,” the fourth such scene to enter the Phillips Collection. The museum’s most recent acquisition, Susan Rothenberg’s “Three Masks,” purchased in 2007, is also on display. One of the most celebrated contemporary artists, Rothenberg has received international acclaim for her edgy paintings, which include fragmented forms floating in mysterious settings.

But before one finds immersion in Rothenberg’s strange spaces, there’s an Ansel Adams black-and-white photograph of an icy lake to admire. However, don’t settle in too quickly with Adams’s lake because Frank Stella’s watercolors are lurking ahead, while an Alexander Calder sculpture pops up in the middle of the next room. It’s exhilarating, distracting, overwhelming and really rather impossible to absorb in just one visit. And, yes, one does eventually make it to Edgar Degas.

This amazing display and reputedly maverick approach represents the newest additions to the Phillips’s already internationally recognized collection. The works span the 19th to 21st centuries and also include pieces by Hans Hofmann, Paul Klee, Milton Avery, Robert Motherwell and David Smith, as well as living artists such as Howard Hodgkin, William Christenberry, Ellsworth Kelly and Sean Scully, among others.

Yes, there’s a lot to look at, but there’s something else that makes this a unique gallery experience—the physical setting itself. One might expect such an extraordinary offering to take place in a large, institutional museum. Not so. Viewers meander with a light step on the third floor of this Georgian mansion filled with warm hardwood floors, airy skylights and white walls. Postings next to the paintings encourage viewers to dial a number on their cell phones to hear more about the work from its owner or the curator. No awkward audio tour headsets here—just the intimacy of a phone call. Yes, it’s almost as if Duncan Phillips were right there next to you showing off his collection.

Phillips was already an art critic when he started his collection with a handful of paintings. But he worked diligently to expand it and made modifications to the Dupont Circle house for optimum art viewing. A specially built sky-lit room over the north wing of the family home provided a public gallery space. The collection continued to grow, and in 1930, the Phillips family moved to a new home and officially turned the 21st Street residence into a museum.

Phillips described his museum in part as “a beneficent force in the community where I live, a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence.” That influence only continues to grow with these new additions—all the more reason to see this extraordinary new exhibit, even if takes more than one trip to America’s first museum of modern art.

Degas to Diebenkorn:The Phillips Collects through May 25 Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999