Duncan Phillips opened the first American art museum that championed modern art in 1921 in the staid town of Washington, D.C. Eight years later, MOMA opened in New York City.
Phillips put art he had collected on public view in his family’s home and named it the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in honor of his recently deceased father and brother. The institution, with Duncan and his wife, Marjorie, regularly splashing out for new acquisitions, grew into one of the world’s preeminent repositories of 19th- and 20th-century art.
Many of the pieces in the permanent collection, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-1881) (that rarely travels and is not with this exhibition), are iconic examples the artists’ work.
Now known as The Phillips Collection, the galleries are under renovation, and while refurbishments are being made, the European works have traveled to the Kimbell Art Museum.
Phillips collected works with which he felt a frisson. He was not interested in filling his family home with a checklist of important names, and a timeline of “isms,” but with pieces he found inspiring.
“Pictures send us back to life and to other arts with the ability to see beauty all about us as we go on our accustomed ways,” Phillips wrote. “Such a quickening of perceptions is surely worth cultivating.”
Phillips bought both European artists and American. The home-grown contingent was on exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in 2012-13. During his early collecting years, Phillips focused on acquiring the work of Europeans, but it wasn’t long before he realized Americans had as much to offer. Seeing only the Europeans or only the Americans from Phillips’ collection is a disservice to his broad-ranging tastes and critical eye. He was an unapologetic collector of artists whom he liked and whom he felt brought a sense of their time to the table.
He bought Honoré Daumier’s “The Uprising,” painted in 1848, the same year as the revolution that deposed Louis-Philippe’s monarchy, for its immediacy. The large canvas depicts a street rally of people from many walks of life with a dominant central figure with an arm upraised in protest. Phillips wrote that is was the drama of the street, the romanticism and the rebellion against authorities, and the evils of the time, that attracted him to the painting.
Phillips also was attracted to outliers, and he often collected their work in bulk. He amassed 13 pieces by Paul Klee, and 17 by Pierre Bonnard, an impressionist who dazzled Phillips with his colors.
Outrageous color is rampant in the Kimbell galleries of the Piano Pavilion. Color was Phillips’ addiction, and he had to have it. According to noted art scholar Robert Hughes, “Phillips was in fact the complete optical collector. He craved color sensations, the delight and radiance and sensory intelligence that is broadcast by an art based on color. Color healed; it consoled, it gave access to Eden.”
The effects of color saturation intensify in the galleries, which are laid out somewhat chronologically in the Kimbell. This was not Phillips’ style of display. Typically he would hang his collection in such a way as to invite comparisons and contrasts, not caring if the artists were from different eras or continents, saying, “the really good things of all ages and periods could be brought together.”
For this exhibit, Kimbell deputy director George Shackelford has deviated from a strict timeline on occasion to assemble pieces in the Phillips style, to great effect. He filled the large center gallery entirely of works by Wassily Kandinsky, Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso. The result is a visual delight, and each canvas is a powerhouse of chromatic appeal.
Throughout the exhibition are examples of the color intensity to which Phillips was so attracted — Edgar Degas’ “Dancers at the Barre,” Picasso’s “Bullfight,” Bonnard’s “The Open Window,” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles” are almost overpowering. It is a testament to the quality of their gallery companions that they do not completely steal the show.
Phillips was able to acquire two Van Goghs. One, the aforementioned “Public Gardens,” was painted before the artist’s mental breakdown and has an intensity of color and composition that is almost oppressive. The other is “The Road Menders” painted in more muted pastels after his release from a sanitarium. The scene of workers repairing a road, and the physical rebuilding both on and off the canvas, is reflected in composition and color choice.
Because this is a collection compiled by one man, it is often more accessible than a museum collection representing the same artists. Phillips didn’t have to consider the collection’s holding of impressionists, or whether a painting would work with others that would hang in the same gallery? He purchased the absent Renoir and never bought another, knowing he would never find a better one. This is not the sort of guideline that drives the acquisitions committee at a large institution.
He didn’t care if a piece was from the artist’s most important period, which is why the Picassos are early works. The visiting curator from the Phillips Collection, Renee Maurer, said, “Phillips would have preferred Picasso to continue his blue period.”
Picasso only dwelt in blue for three years, 1901-1904, then he shifted to cubism, and this is where he lost Phillips. The collector was slow to appreciate cubism, and it was only through the work of Georges Braque that he was won over and began collecting cubist works.
The fact that Phillips preferred the quiet stoicism of Braque over the flamboyance of Picasso, both of whom were consummate cubists, flies in the face of most museum collections. One Braque and a multitude of Picassos is the usual score. At the Phillips, there 14 Braque paintings and eight Picassos.
The last piece Phillips bought before he died in 1966 was a work by Braque, “Bird,” and it is in the final gallery.
There are quibblings in academic circles that Phillips erred on the side of the decorative. He was not dissuaded, says Shackelford. “He believed beauty is to be revered not mistrusted.” Which is why The Phillips Collection has always been highly appreciated by its audience. It is lovely, and rarely challenging.
Phillips did not collect for financial appreciation. He collected because he appreciated art and artists and was unfailingly supportive of the artists in whose work he believed. He gave several Europeans their first American exhibitions, among them Henry Moore, Braque, Chaim Soutine, and Bonnard. Typically, artists of this caliber would have been introduced at a more canonical institution, says Shackelford. But it was Phillips who had the foresight.
The only way to see the full scope of Duncan Phillips’ magnificent obsession is to visit The Phillips Collection in the nation’s capital. The Euro-half will spend the summer in Fort Worth on view at the Kimbell Art Museum through Aug. 13.