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The Collector

December 23, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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PAUL SOLMAN: To some art fans, the most comfortable museum in America: The private, personal Phillips collection in Washington, D.C. More to the point perhaps, in this 19th-century mansion, America was introduced to modern art. Duncan Phillips turned his house into a home for pictures back in 1921. Nearly 80 years later, the museum is returning the favor, by honoring the eye of its stately, curious collector, an exhibit that maps Phillips’ conversion to modernism and his role in introducing it to the rest of us, from impressionism’s Monet to Mondrian, the geometric modernist; from the 19th century’s satirist Daumier to De Stael, the 20th century abstractionist; or as the Phillips puts it, “From Renoir to Rothko.” The museum now owns nearly 2,400 works of art, but only 362 of them are part of the exhibit, almost all hand-picked favorites of Duncan Phillips, who once explained his approach on radio in the 1950s.

DUNCAN PHILLIPS: I do not venture to anticipate posterity and the ultimate evaluations of history. The collector can only be true to himself. My choices have been, frankly, personal.

PAUL SOLMAN: Duncan Phillips was born in 1886, heir to the Jones and Laughlin steel fortune. When he and his brother, Jim, went to Yale, Duncan discovered art. After graduation, the brothers wrangled a $10,000-a-year art- buying allowance from their parents, several hundred thousand in today’s money. After his father died suddenly in 1917, and his brother — of the flu, a year later– Duncan stepped up his collecting to stock a museum in memory of the loved ones. At first, there were few surprises: The 18th-century French Master Chardin; the 19th century’s Camille Corot and Alden Weir. The Phillips’ director Jay Gates:

JAY GATES: In his youth his tastes are very conventional — the Weirs, and the Arthur B. Davies. The Inness landscapes, the sort of sepia-colored mid-19th century romanticism that doesn’t show the love of color that he manifests just a few years later. And it’s one of the remarkable things about him that he starts one place, ends someplace completely different.

PAUL SOLMAN: In 1913, when Phillips got his first glimpse of the “completely different,” at New York’s armory show, he was appalled. The show was “stupefying in its vulgarity,” he wrote. Elsewhere, he dubbed one of its stars, Paul Cézanne, “an unbalanced fanatic,” and applied the same diagnosis to Vincent Van Gogh. As for Paul Gauguin, he was a “half-savage” returning to “savagery.” The cubists were simply “ridiculous;” Henri Matisse, “poisonous.” But the more Phillips looked, the more he saw. He would end up buying all of the above, revising his views and his earliest book, The Enchantment of Art, first published in 1914. We asked Phillips’ son Laughlin to read its revised opening from the 1920s.

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: “As I turn back to the essays of The Enchantment of Art, written from 12 to 15 years ago, I’m embarrassed by some of the premature judgments of my youth, and envious of its genuine ecstasy.” “I liked extravagantly a few painters and writers whom I now consider mediocre, and I did scant justice to other painters and writers who now seem to me great artists.”

PAUL SOLMAN: In 1921, just as he was making the transition to modernism, Phillips opened his home to the public.

JAY GALE: When he opened the museum in 1921, there was not yet a museum of modern art. There was not yet a national gallery on the mall. The idea that you could go into someone’s house on a regular basis and look at the work of living or recent artists was a relatively novel idea, and what he was buying in these years was nothing short of extraordinary.

PAUL SOLMAN: Two years later, he bought perhaps his most famous painting, Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: My father felt he needed one really great painting to attract crowds. He was disappointed with the number of people coming in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Phillips wrote that it was “one of the greatest paintings in the world.” “It creates a sensation wherever it goes.” Indeed, the Renoir’s superstar price tag made headlines: $125,000, several million in today’s money, though it’s said to be $80 million to $100 million. Phillips was still excited decades after he bought it, writing:

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: “Undoubtedly one of the great pictures of the world. Every inch of the canvas is alive and worth framing for itself, yet in spite of all the people, the landscape, the sparkling, sumptuous still life, there is not division of interest, and no crowding nor confusion.”

PAUL SOLMAN: The more Phillips exposed himself to modern art, the more modern his taste became.

SPOKESMAN: In our century, the Phillips Collection is especially strong in examples of Bonnard, the enchanter, the ever-young at heart; Matisse, the master of exotic arabesque; Braque, the 20th-century Chardin.

PAUL SOLMAN: Braque, Jean Baptiste, Simeon Chardin, and many masters in between — Phillips brought them all to the nation’s capital. He also resolved, as much as possible, to “buy American” and bought our earliest, moderns: Marsden Hartley, “Off the Banks at Night; Georgia O’Keeffe, “Red Hills, Lake George;” Milton Avery, “Black Sea;” Lee Gatch, “Industrial Night;” and Arthur Dove, “Electric Peach Orchard.” The show’s co-curator, Beth Turner:

BETH TURNER: I think what makes the peach orchard electric for Dove is the march of the trees into the distance, the wiry limbs crossing the sky as they — as they fill the picture plane and give us a rhythm and form that takes us right into the 20th century.

PAUL SOLMAN: Phillips provided some painters with a yearly stipend: Dove, Karl Knaths — Phillips extolled “the witchery of his color” — and the famous watercolorist John Marin, a sometime guest artist at the family home.

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: I remember one marvelous visit when he came to the Foxhall Road house, which has a terrace overlooking in the far distance. You can see the Potomac River, and in the middle ground are a lot of locust trees. He painted with both hands simultaneously, and in one hand was a big wash brush, you know, and in the other was a little pointed brush for doing the line, and they’d both be flying around at the same moment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Phillips didn’t care if a work was impressionist, abstractionist, any kind of “ist” at all, only that it struck him as unique. He was among the first, for instance, to collect the Swiss fabulist, Paul Klee, writing that he’d built a “self-enclosed little universe with the whimsy and humor of childhood.” Phillips was also an early fan of France’s George Rouault, whose black outlines and spiritual themes reflect his early work in stained glass windows. We asked Laughlin Phillips to read his father’s description of Rouault’s “Afterglow, Galilee.”

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: “There is a thrilling upward movement of symbolical, sacrificial reds. From the dark earth tones they mount in ever-increasing ecstasy to a glorious afterglow in the sky over Galilee. The lake is transfigured. We feel that the glow will never die.”

PAUL SOLMAN: One of his favorites was this Pierre Bonnard. Laughlin Phillips identified with the boy in white in this one. But when Bonnard visited the family home where the painting hung, he told Mrs. Phillips, also an artist, that he wanted to repaint it.

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: When he saw this old painting of his, he wanted some paints. He said, “I’ve got to touch up this section up here.” And my mother, who told this story years later, he knew she was a painter and might have paints, but she pretended they were totally unavailable in the country.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like Bonnard, Phillips was never finished. He bought “Portrait of Murray” by Joseph Solman, who happens to be my father, in the early ’40s, gave my dad a one-man show in 1949, followed by a letter offering into buy three more works, one of which he’d swap for an earlier purchase. He ended with an art tip:

JOSEPH SOLMAN: “I hope you will from time to time go back to a style of your earlier pictures, and keep two styles going on together the way Karl Knaths varies his still lives with landscapes and near abstractions.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Hanging next to you at the Phillips is a Karl Knaths near-abstraction. How did you respond when you got that last thought in the letter?

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I said, “What the hell is he talking about?”

PAUL SOLMAN: Were you offended that he would presume?

JOSEPH SOLMAN: No, no, I wasn’t offended. I was so delighted he’d buy pictures of mine and give me a show, why should I be offended? How could you be offended when one of the great collectors of American art, or even some European art that he has, is taking you under his wing?

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you follow his advice?

JOSEPH SOLMAN: No, I respected it. Like all good artists, they paint what they want.

PAUL SOLMAN: If Phillips was close to his artists, he was an arms-length dad.

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: From a kid’s point of view, he was pretty distant. He had his huge interests — namely art. He didn’t have a whole lot of small talk, especially for kids.

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet this solemn, aristocratic man wound up in a vibrant, ongoing dialogue with modern art, collecting Nicholas De Stael, Jackson Pollock, and finally, Mark Rothko, to whom he gave a room of his own, writing:

LAUGHLIN PHILLIPS: “It is the color, of course. These canvases, which have been called empty by the resistant skeptics, are a vibrant, life-enhancing experience to those who make themselves ready. They cast a spell.”

PAUL SOLMAN: To cast a spell: That, finally, was the goal of Duncan Phillips, and his museum achieved it — at least for artist Richard Diebenkorn, stationed at a marine base near Washington in the 1940s and a frequent visitor, as he recounted years ago.

RICHARD DIEBENKORN: One could sit. And I can’t believe this, but one could smoke. There were ashtrays. And one could look, and there was plenty to look at.

PAUL SOLMAN: Diebenkorn looked, especially at this Henri Matisse, the artist Phillips had initially found “poisonous.”

RICHARD DIEBENKORN: There is a figure on a couch, and a view across the Seine. The painting has stuck in my head ever since I first laid eyes on it there. I have discovered pieces of that painting coming out in my own over the years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Paintings of Richard Diebenkorn that Duncan Phillips would himself collect to inspire, perhaps, generations to come. “The Eye of Duncan Phillips” closes January 23, the year 2000.