I’d feel deeply irresponsible if I let the 100th anniversary of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., pass without recognition. The Phillips is one of America’s finest small museums and a citadel of good taste in a squalid, parasitical swamp. In 1921, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, a rich husband-and-wife team with deep roots in Washington and an unusual eye for collecting, opened a gallery in their stately townhouse showing their art.
Theirs was an idiosyncratic collection. Its heart and soul was and is modern and American, yet the Phillipses bought and showed those Old Masters, such as El Greco and Goya, who informed contemporary art. Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, and Renoir gave a French context. The couple saw modern French art and Picasso as foundational to the best in American avant-garde art.
Displaying it “in full view of the public,” as the Phillipses said, has two dimensions. First, in selecting their home, mansion though it is, as their exhibition space, they made a visit to the Phillips Collection feel like going to an open house. If not cozy, the place is domestic; if not exactly intimate, its human-scale rooms promote close looking and contemplation. The National Gallery, which, by the way, opened 20 years after the Phillips, is a temple of art and has the imprimatur of officialdom. The Smithsonian now has, and always had, the feel of a packed, eclectic, national attic.
Second, Duncan and Marjorie not only showed their collection but expanded and developed it “in full view of the public.” Regular visitors seeing new additions were treated to the latest American styles and newest artists, filtered by what was mostly Duncan’s distinct eye. They bought great, new things while the paint was still wet.
Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century is the museum’s anchor anniversary show. It occupies the entire museum, now much expanded from the Phillipses’ time, but the townhouse, as the core space, sets the tone. We’re treated to galleries expertly arranged to let us breathe and think, to luxuriate and linger, and to question ourselves. Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, from 1880, is the museum’s calling card, but there’s much else to see.
I like the show a lot and would recommend it and anything the Phillips does. Seeing Differently, some 200 objects, highlights art that’s joined the collection over the last 20 years or so. The show’s distorted in places by the theme of “systemic racism,” an amorphous but false value since America is the most successful multiracial, multiethnic society in history. It’s a cliché, or something heard through the grapevine, or the raw material of a racket. It’s out there, everywhere, but only the spiritualists, exorcists, and hypnotists can define it.
Duncan Phillips himself foregrounded the senses and sensuality, not party lines, outrage pimps, and crises du jour. If our rulers in Washington have any core competency, it’s in privileging these three and honing them into a fine art. Seeing Differently, not always but at times, is a creature of Washington. Too often it plays the Washington game.
At least the place looks fantastic, and there’s so much beauty and moments of emotional power in Seeing Differently. We’re living through a time when the roost’s misruled by imbeciles young and old, loaded with war ribbons or suited in black, furtive, anxious, masked, and mediocre. In that environment, the Phillips is an oasis of aesthetic intelligence.
The exhibition starts with Alexander Calder’s Hollow Egg, from 1939. It’s a sculpture that doesn’t fill space and is radical because of it. Calder’s brilliance is in both marking space and in transporting the art of drawing into space. Alma Thomas’s Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, from 1968, is a big, abstract take on the artist’s Washington garden. She paints parallel, vertical stripes of bold colors. Contours are ragged. The look isn’t wild, since it’s a city garden. Her point is that even in a city, nature’s a dynamic player.
Sensuality was Phillips’s mantra, but color was first among equals. Gee’s Bend quilts (created by quiltmakers in Gee’s Bend, Ala., in the early 20th century); two massive, exuberant Howard Hodgkin aquatints, one red and one blue; Ellsworth Kelly prints; and paintings by Morris Louis and Richard Diebenkorn are celebrations of color leading us to the Renoir, the buoyant zenith of color. These are all great things and beautifully juxtaposed.
The Renoir tells us life’s beautiful. Too many in Washington — the thought-controllers, snoopers, sycophants, and crisis-mongers — propose that life sucks. They’re bores who never get invited to boating-party luncheons.
Luncheon of the Boating Party is zaftig painting, lush, dense, and insistent. Rich, lovely color and a tactile surface stimulate all the senses. The viewer feels happy and free and nourished. It’s everything the administrative state abhors.
The Phillips enlisted a small army, including high-school students, to write wall labels. Although I like hearing the different voices, which include curators at the Phillips and the librarian, artists, community leaders (who tend to render soapbox fare), musicians, and a minister (who touts forgiveness, as most do), overall, different voices and different styles in expressing opinions wear. Again, there’s too much text. Not so in the case of Luncheon of the Boating Party, though. It’s interpreted by chefs. They write about romantic flair, joy, togetherness, belonging, and, of course, food. One writer wishes he were doing the cooking. The best chefs love giving pleasure.
A big section called “Identity” has some good art in it. Visitors can skim the labels but won’t miss anything if they don’t read them at all. I think they’re better off ignoring the underlying concept, too. “Identity” is, I suppose, relevant to Duncan Phillips’s philosophy that art — what we see — enlists and sharpens all the senses. We see skin color, so race is sense-based, but what other senses does race enlist and sharpen? “How might these works,” the introduction to this section asks, “speak to your sense of self?” It’s more accurate to say “sense of group.” The senses belong to individuals.
Reading the labels, I think the museum suggests we skip the other senses and jump to a morose state of grievance and guilt, to, as it says, “our own implicit biases and stereotypes.” Ugh, I thought. I look at good art as soul food. Here comes the castor oil.
I’m not against provocative or even incendiary or insurrectionist gallery interpretation. I like tossing a lit squib or two or three. My guidelines are simple. Don’t bore, please make sense, and respect the object, and, please, please, please, don’t inflict predictable PC pieties on us. Laura Gilpin’s Navajo Family, a photograph from 1950, is “an indictment of the nation for its treatment of its Navajo citizens.” Maybe, maybe not. Flor Garduño’s 1988 On the Way to the Cemetery, Ecuador, a burial procession for a child, is haunting, and I suppose it’s true that “the theme of death and loss resonates with so many today in the dark days of the pandemic.” But that’s too easy. This gorgeous photograph suggests so much more and, by the by, has nothing to do with identity.
The British sculptor Antony Gormley packs enough PC crap in his label for Walker Evans’s Portrait of James Agee not only to ruin a boating-party luncheon but to sink the boat. I read all of these labels so you don’t have to.
A twelve-year-old girl named Elana wrote a thoughtful poem accompanying John Edmonds’s 2016 photograph Untitled (Hood 2) depicting the back of a head wearing a hoodie. I don’t think Edmonds is a very good artist, as much as I’ve tried to like his work. The Phillips has been adding lots of work by African-American artists, and that’s great, but it’s uneven stuff. Simone Leigh is another example of an artist who’s hyped to the ends of the earth, but there’s a sameness to her. Mequitta Ahuja’s big Xpect, Study (2018) is a riff on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). She replaces Picasso’s figures with her own, “reclaiming territory that Picasso borrowed from black creative production.” Yawn.
Edmonds was selected for the Whitney Biennial two or three years ago. He makes a good first impression. Giddy curators at the Whitney took a group of his photographs. The curators, I think, learned as they hung the show that Edmonds’s work fizzles. They stuck them in a corner by the fire escape where, unless there’s a fire, no one would see them, and, even in that event, they’d get a very quick look indeed.
Elana’s poem is a stack of one- or two-word lines suggesting hoods as a place to retreat, to “shield up, hood up, zip up, shut up.” It’s a good poem. Beneath it, and I don’t know why Edmonds’s photograph gets two labels, is a take from the Sherman Fairchild Fellow at the Phillips, an equity-and-diversity fellowship for art-history majors. “I immediately think of Trayvon Martin,” it begins. “I looked into John Edmonds’s work, and he is Black culture.”
Since I’ve taught lots of college students, I feel free to say that this and too many of the Phillips labels written by young people in the art-history field are trite and programmed. This isn’t a problem confined to the Phillips but to art history overall. Elana’s an original thinker at twelve. I hope she doesn’t lose this. Someone needed to tell the art historians in training to write about aesthetics, not what the Daily Beast or Vox are crying about. It’s good practice.
McArthur Binion’s DNA: Black Painting: 1, from 2015, is a large work (84 by 84 inches) on board, composed of four vertical stacks imbedded in which are small boxes with rows of five boxes, each box composed of either horizontal or vertical lines. Each stack plays with different shades of gray. It’s a handsome thing, not very original, though Binion faintly paints his birth certificate and names from his address book so the picture’s a different kind of self-portrait. I like this.
Binion says “this is not about race,” but a label by Makeba Clay, the Phillips’s chief diversity officer, says it is. “The Gee’s Bend community’s and McArthur Binion’s works speak to a universal experience of Black people in the United States,” she writes, “stressing the ways racial boundaries were enforced and understood, the ways people survived and even thrived despite that system.”
I don’t think the Gee’s Bend quilts are, to use another cliché, racially tinged. The artists have a snazzy color sense and do improvisation well. It’s outsider art that’s rural and developed in isolation, as is true of most folk art regardless of race.
I cringe whenever I read “universal experiences,” a dodgy generalization. Prior to joining the Phillips, Clay was an unconscious-bias training consultant in Washington, and she is now deeply involved with the Phillips as a senior staff member. I looked at her website. I don’t know how involved she is in curatorial work at the museum. If I were a curator, I’d steer clear of her since she might meddle in my program. Binion says his work isn’t about race. She says it is, possibly because, in her business, everything is about race. This is the biggest problem with people in this multibillion-dollar business.
I don’t know why Clay’s featured in the press release announcing and describing the show. I don’t think she knows anything about art. Clay says in the press release that “museums are not neutral spaces” and the Phillips needs to “confront systemic inequities” and “address the ways we have benefitted from the status quo and marginalized others in the process.” These are, in my opinion, big distractions.
Museums aren’t neutral spaces, of course, but they’re not community centers, either. They are partisan only in terms of art history and aesthetics, which are their expertise. Insofar as the Phillips mission is qualified, it is, as Duncan Phillips said, to serve as a “joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.” I don’t see “confront system inequities” in this charge.
Aimé Mpane’s big Maman Calcule, from 2013, is a star. It’s a large mural tapestry made of pieces of wood depicting the head of a young Congolese girl looking directly at the viewer. It has a place of pride in the museum, as it should. It’s exceptional in so many respects: size, media, subject, and the sense of being crafted by hand. Mpane is Congolese and lives in Belgium, and this combination is new to the Phillips. It’s very beautiful, so I don’t care.
There’s a big section called “History” that tells us “the Covid-19 health crisis and persistent deadly violence against Black, indigenous, and other people of color in the United States have vividly exposed the marked disparities and racism entrenched in our institutions.” This section gathers artists who treat “revolution, war, and its aftermath, the legacy of slavery and systemic racism, and the ongoing waves of migration and displacement around the world.”
I’d ignore the hot rhetoric. The sound of a grinding ax distracts me when I look at art. Sam Gilliam’s April, from 1971, is an abstract, melancholic tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and reinforces Deer in a Forest, by Franz Marc, a genius painter killed in World War I. The pairing works. Small things by Kurt Schwitters, Karel Appel, and Kandinsky seem like window dressing to the section’s main event.
That’s Struggle: From the History of the American People, by Jacob Lawrence, on display as a special loan show that’s part of the 100th anniversary. Struggle is a group of 30 small paintings Lawrence did in the mid-1950s to complement his Migration Series, from 1942, which is owned by the Phillips and also on view.
The Migration Series is one of the great works of American art and alone makes it worthwhile to visit the museum. Struggle was broken up and sold soon after its single public display in 1958. The Phillips, the Met, and the Peabody Essex Museum reassembled almost all the paintings. What an achievement — impressive, overdue, and certainly not easy since so many owners are involved.
Struggle is a retelling and recasting of America’s founding and early years. It emphasizes figures that have been peripheral or unheard of, and that’s fine with me. One picture is an inversion of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, with Washington as a tiny figure. The grunts get the spotlight, stretched to the limit, heroic in their own way as they row in a frenzy. Panels showing the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution evoke tension, anger, and disagreement.
It all has the ring of truth and is the antidote to the lie-packed 1619 Project, the grievance industry, and faculty-lounge bloviators. Putting a new country together is sausage-making, taken to the max. Hard work, passion, sacrifice, and leadership make good things happen. Lawrence is a master of color, and in Struggle we see swords and other slashing rectangles and lots of edges.
A permanent collection show is, by its own terms, limited to what the museum owns. The Phillips is in an acquisition mode, clearly, and I would suggest it look for art treating black-on-black violence in our big cities, a human-rights crisis if there ever was one, and art tackling rural poverty, the opioid crisis, and the trashed industrial base in our small cities. These are intractable, meaty problems, the kinds avant-garde artists used to want to explore. Alas, these aren’t easily reduced to clichés and, besides, rich white liberals don’t feel guilty about these subjects. Clay, the diversity consultant, might visit with the staff to talk about whether art of this kind suffers from an unconscious bias.
One of the best new additions to the Phillips is Benny Andrews’s 2005 mixed-media painting Trail of Tears. It’s brilliant and should be an exhibition in itself. The forced displacement of about 60,000 Native Americans and their slaves from their homes in the Southeast between 1830 and 1850 was government malfeasance in the extreme. It’s not that people-and-place specific, though, so I saw in it the tragedy and misery of a dozen refugee migrations, Pol Pot’s trail of tears in Cambodia, and savage evictions of people in China, Cuba, and Africa, all happening in my lifetime. Trail of Tears has wall power. This work and Lawrence’s are some of the best in American history painting.
The last section of Seeing Differently is called “Place” and concerns refuges, whether our homes or, really, anyplace that gives us solace and permanence.
Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire is there, purchased by Phillips in 1924, soon after the gallery opened. Richard Diebenkorn was stationed at Quantico in 1944 and visited the Phillips often. His Interior with View of the Ocean, from 1957, which the Phillips bought the next year, hangs with work by Matisse, Sisley, and John Twachtman. The Phillips’s two superlative Bonnards are there, too.
All of these are, of course, thrilling and, since they’re great art, are always relevant, regardless of the times. They’re refuges since they’re heavenly but also because they define the Phillips as, from its founding, a place of contemplation, sometimes quiet, sometimes intense.
Here and there, in the rest of Seeing Differently, we see what I call the big hits like the museum’s El Greco or its blue-period Picasso. Overall, though, most of the museum’s great French things, the two paintings by Hopper, John Marin’s late Tunk Mountains, Autumn, Maine and Arthur Dove’s Red Sun, are off on their own as are many of the best things the Phillipses bought. They don’t have a home in an exhibition that focuses as often as this one does on systemic racism and the equally false proposition that we’re all either victims or oppressors. The museum has the good sense not to force a dialogue that isn’t right.