WASHINGTON - Following an acclaimed four-year world tour, more than 200 works by some of America’s finest artists are back on the walls of The Phillips Collection in Washington. The exhibit curator talks about these special masterworks, and reveals how the museum founder helped American art become a significant global force after World War II.
Red Sun by Arthur Dove. Egg Beater No. 4 by Stuart Davis and John Graham's Blue Still Life. These are just a few of the works of American art on display in a new exhibit called Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection.
The works by more than 100 American artists spanning over a century, from 1850 to about 1970, were collected by the museum's founder, Duncan Phillips, from the end of World War l to his death in 1966.
Curator Susan Frank says one focus of the show is to highlight the fact that 80 percent of the works in the museum are by American artists, acquired by Phillips at a time when European artists were more in favor.
“He was determined,” said Frank, “that he would dedicate this museum to living American artists and lift up American art out of obscurity and give it the same presence that European works were given by his contemporary collectors and other museums.”
The exhibit is organized by theme, beginning in the late 19th century with work from artists like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and George Inness, who were considered heroes of American Modernism.
It ends with an extraordinary display of Post-War Abstract Expressionism by such artists as Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Bradley Walker Tomlin.
Art with heart
Frank said Phillips was often drawn to art that represented human emotion, as depicted in a series of cityscapes.
John Sloan’s Clown Making Up provides an intimate behind-the-scenes look that suggests a sense of isolation of modern life during the first decade of the 20th century. And Walt Kuhn’s Plumes depicts the sad expression of a showgirl, which evokes that same feeling of loneliness.
“Phillips was so predisposed to these universal ideas of finding humanity in these subjects and having a kind of personal engagement with the object and the subject and understanding that the artist brought something very personal to that painting,” said Frank.
“The same can be said for Edward Hopper’s Sunday that Phillips acquired in 1926,” added Frank; “This really extraordinary early work by Hopper of a single figure sitting on a lonely sidewalk, and Phillips understanding this tension between a beautiful composition and the loneliness of modern life that Hopper had captured.”
Duncan Phillips had an appreciation for these artists who were not being collected by other museums but who Phillips was eager to add to the museum’s collection, according to Frank.
Throughout his directorship, Phillips often developed a personal relationship with the artists whose work he collected.
That included a few pioneers of American impressionism such as Childe Hassam, Julian Alden Weir and Maurice Prendergast, among others.
Sometimes those relationships even extended to financial support.
“Most well-known of course is his engagement with the abstract American artist Arthur Dove,” Frank added, whose work Phillips discovered in the mid-1920s.
“At the end of Dove’s life,” she said,” just a few months before his death, he wrote a thank-you note to Duncan Phillips about that support, telling him that it had meant everything to him.”
Phillips also lent his support to many immigrant artists.
“Phillips always believed and championed American art as including all of the world because so many artists were immigrants who came here from being foreign-born, who brought their cultural aesthetics with them and synthesized them with their American experience and produced something that was unique," she said.
Japanese-born immigrant artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Maine Family, and Political Exiles by Peppino Mangravite, who is of Italian descent, are just a couple of examples in the exhibit that reflect the immigrant experience which Phillips was so drawn to.
“We are a country of immigrants,” Frank added, “and Phillips really embraced this idea very early on in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“He celebrated their approach to their American experience as being something that enriched us,” said Frank.
The museum is hoping that the exhibit will not only enrich, but excite people about the breadth and diversity of American art in the first half of the 20th century, and publicize the important role Phillips played in elevating American modern art to the same level as European masterworks of the time.