• U.S.

Art: A Livable Treasure-House

8 minute read
Robert Hughes

There was a time when Americans were apt to connect the owning of art with the possession of virtue, but that is long gone. We know in our heart of hearts that the Rothko on the boardroom wall does not turn the saber-toothed CEO into Bambi and that some of the nastiest beasts in history, such as Hermann Goring, have been sincere and knowledgeable art lovers. Moreover, being an important collector doesn’t even show that you have halfway decent manners, let alone morals. Witness the late Dr. Albert Barnes, who before World War I became a multimillionaire from selling a snake oil called Argyrol. He bought a huge collection–175 Renoirs, 66 Cezannes, 65 Matisses–and built a foundation around them, but Philadelphia still remembers him mainly as a geek and a bully, and his theories about art as the honkings of a crank.

Yet there are some American collectors–just a few–whose memory lives on in a distinct aura of sweetness and reason, and at the top of that list is Duncan Phillips (1886-1966). Phillips was the kind of man who gives Wasps a good name: modest, highly educated, public spirited and devoid of affectation. The Phillipses, though not as rich as the Carnegies, had made their fortune in Pittsburgh, Pa., in banking and steel, then moved to Washington. After graduating from Yale, young Duncan set himself the task of becoming an “interpreter and navigator” between the art world and the public. It was he who created one of Washington’s most beloved institutions, the Phillips Collection. It is a museum, but not an encyclopedic one, containing slightly fewer than 2,400 works of art (including drawings and prints); a place dedicated to Modern art, but with a collection that ranges back to Goya and Corot; a public space that feels private.

“It is worthwhile,” wrote Phillips some 80 years ago, when marble temples of culture were sprouting like didactic mushrooms from the American soil, “to reverse the usual process of popularizing an art gallery. Instead of the academic grandeur of marble halls and stairways and miles of chairless spaces, with low standards and popular attractions to draw the crowds, we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture, of rooms small or at least livable.” In fact, Phillips and his artist wife Marjorie started the gallery in their own house, and although since its founding in 1921 it has grown some 19,000 sq. ft., the Phillips Collection still feels more “livable” than any other in America. It is a memorial, but without funerary overtones. It commemorates Phillips’ brother James, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and his father Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, who died the previous year. They were to be remembered not by the tomblike associations of the museum but by the vivacity of the art.

The Phillips Collection was the first U.S. museum to be devoted to Modern art (eight years before Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art opened its doors) and the first to take serious account of Modern American art (nine years before the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded). In the past, it has mounted a lot of distinguished shows by living artists. But in these closing days of the Modernist century, it has chosen to commemorate itself and its founder. Through Jan. 23, the whole winding building is filled with “Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips,” the chronological story of its creation, and it’s one of the great American cultural narratives.

Phillips wasn’t a Modernist missionary like Alfred Stieglitz. He came to things gradually and took his time, feeling no embarrassment about changing his mind: to do so was a sign of authentic judgment. He was still in his 20s when he began writing art criticism, and his first reaction to “radical” Modernism, which hit him in the 1913 Armory Show, was one of utter horror–Cezanne and Van Gogh were “unbalanced fanatics,” Cubism “simply ridiculous,” Matisse “insanely, repulsively depraved.”

His taste changed and developed; in due course he would acquire a number of Cezannes, including the mighty Self-Portrait of 1878-80, solid as a Provencal mountain, which he perceived to be a sort of midpoint between El Greco and Picasso. In the same way, his early dislike of Matisse didn’t stop him from eventually buying one of the greatest and harshest of all Matisses, the Studio, Quai St.-Michel, 1916.

There was never a time when Phillips felt the need to approve of all Modernism. He was making a record of his own taste, not trying to reflect whatever was there. German Expressionism, or any other movement whose main aim was to record conflict and misery rather than celebrate a degree of Apollonian pleasure, was foreign to his nature. Dada and Surrealism hardly raise a blip on his radar. All efforts to “subvert” painting were beside the point. In his view, the Modernist impulse really began amid the sensuous delights of Renaissance Venice–Giorgione being the first “Modern” artist.

Phillips’ thinking about art, his impulse to collect it and set it in order, was sponsored by two main beliefs. The first is that art is continuous. It is not–whatever the avant-gardists may crudely suppose–locked in an Oedipal battle with its past. Every masterpiece contains the genes of earlier masterpieces, as Manets and Daumiers do of Goyas, as Goyas do of Velasquezes. Second, art gives us access to a paradise of the intelligent senses that, once attained, justifies itself. Its aim is pleasure. Thus, Phillips had a fascinated respect for Picasso’s anxiety but no great paintings by him, whereas Braque was wholly another matter. Braque’s lucid and calm balance drew the American like a magnet, as a demonstration of the unbroken tradition of classical painting that ran forward from Chardin–tradition being, in Phillips’ words, “the heritage of qualities which deserve not only to endure but to develop.”

In America, where Picasso ruled supreme among Modernists, this must have seemed heretical. And even more so was Phillips’ rapturous appreciation of Pierre Bonnard, whom he prized as much as he did Matisse, while most American pundits were dismissing him as a very delayed Impressionist. In the end, the Phillips Collection was to own the finest group of Bonnards in America, and one can easily see their influence pervading the American artists who saw them: how Bonnard’s fierce but modulated color and his love of diagonal cuts in the scaffolding of his compositions affected young Richard Diebenkorn, for instance, when he was a Marine based at Quantico, Va.; how the purity of his color challenged Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, for whom visits to the Phillips were like Sunday attendance at church.

No such collection will ever be assembled again. The money doesn’t exist. Nor will the museum’s coverage of American painting ever be duplicated. Phillips was the first American museum director to go deep and seriously into U.S. Modernism. “I do not collect American paintings because they are American,” he said, “but because they are good and often great.” It was a declaration that few U.S. collectors, haunted as they were by the specter of provincialism, would have made. He began with those two heroes of realism, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. But Phillips’ taste was more for the visionary, especially for the dark, light-mottled sea pieces of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and for the younger painters they inspired–Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and others. He was convinced that the defining characteristics of American art were more spiritual than stylistic and that they had been laid down in the 19th century.

In this he was right, and he was right too in his belief that if you scratched any American abstraction, you would find a landscape not far below the surface. This was part of the deep sympathy that ran between Phillips and Dove: a belief that “abstraction” was not autonomous, that it was a way of getting to the core of reality by jettisoning whatever might be incidental. Then, Phillips wrote, “abstract art ceases to be an amusement for the aesthete and becomes a divine activity.” Phillips couldn’t be Ryder’s patron: the man was dead. But he was Dove’s lifeline, acquiring some 55 works during the years of their friendship. “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,” Dove wrote to Phillips in 1946, just before Dove’s death. And as this wonderful show reminds us, Phillips deserved every scrap of thanks he got.

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