Photo Essays

Visual Treats at DC’s Phillips Collection

Washington, DC is a great museum town. During my dozen or so trips over the years I have yet to see all the Smithsonian institutions so I never felt the need to venture far from The Mall for my art fix. This time I decided to avoid all the Smithsonian institutions for one situated in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the city, The Phillips Collection.

This jewel box of modern art — and not soo modern works — avoids -isms so you ended up encountering art from 19th C. America, 20th C. France and 17th C. Spain in just a few steps.

There are rooms devoted to individual artist, Mark Rothko, Pierre Bonnard (who I will discuss in a future post) and Augustus Vincent Tack, and prominent displays by names that normally play second fiddle play to bold-faced artists in more prominent art institutions.

This is my visual journey through The Phillips Collection.

The entrance of the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle.

/ hv

A view of the old Phillips mansion, which sits next door to the newer addition where you enter the museum.

/ hv

To the right of the entrance is a bas-relief by Georges Braques that had a more prominent place above the entrance of the 1960 annex designed by Wyeth & King. Today, the annex is no longer there but the sculpture remains.

/ hv

Alexander Calder’s “The Hollow Egg” (1939) sits on a ledge in the midst of the dramatic staircase in the main entrance gallery.

/ hv

The following text accompanied these paintings (3 of 4 on display) by Peter Doig. “In conjunction with his Duncan Phillips Lecture on March 17, the Scottish painter Peter Doig created four new paintings of black ravens, some depicted in front of tropical Poui trees, which are native to Trinidad, where the artist has been living and working since 2002. The paintings are in reponse to a work of his choice selected from The Phillips Collection, Georges Braque’s ‘Bird’ (1956), which is installed on the opposite wall.” I didn’t find these works very successful as a dialogue with Braque and they seemed to be more in dialogue with the large Arthur Dove collection at the Phillips. Left to right, “Corbeaux (Yellow Poui),” “Corbeaux (Negmaroon)” and “Corbeaux (Cave)” (all 2011). Check out the museum’s Flickrstream for images of the installation.

/ hv

George Braque, “Bird” (1956), the work Peter Doig chose to respond to with his distemper on linen works in the previous image.

/ hv

Elizabeth Murrays like this one make me think of Frank Stella’s art from the 1980s, which is not a good thing.

/ hv

This may be the oddest work by Arthur Dove, “Goin’ Fishin'” (1925), I’ve ever encountered. It is one of only 25 collages and assemblages made by the early 20th C American artist. While there are many theories about the meaning of this work, Dove said “his starting point was simply an African-American man sitting on the pier.”

/ hv

One of the unexpected delights at The Phillips Collection is the compact sculpture gallery, which is a quiet place dominated by two large sculptures, Barbara Hepworth’s “Dual Form” (1965, cast 1966) in the foreground and Ellsworth Kelly’s “Untitled (EK927)” (2004) on the far right.

/ hv

Another delight of The Phillips is the fact that many of the works by lesser known masters like Honore Daumier, Adolphe Monticelli and Odilon Redon are given quite a bit of promience. Here Daumier’s “The Uprising (L’Emeute)” (1848 or later) dominates a gallery that also contains works by Cezanne, El Greco and others.

/ hv

Unlike other museums, The Phillips freely mingles its collection so that you can make visual associations, like the obvious connection between the El Greco of the left, “The Repetent St. Peter” (1600), and the much smaller work on cardboard by Eugène Delacroix, “Paganini” (1831), on the right.

/ hv

Every museum has its “masterpiece” that crowds gather around in an act of reverence. At The Phillips it is without a doubt Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-81). In this image you see it in the center and to the left is Paul Cézanne’s lovely “Self-portrait”(1878-80).

/ hv

One of the peculiaries of the museum is the limitations it places on the number of people in certain rooms. Their renowned Rothko room was the first of its kind when it was unveiled in 1960. At the time it was on the main floor but today it has been recreated on the second floor.

/ hv

The works inside are dimly lit to evoke a pseudo-spiritual air. I was itching to see these work in much brighter light to enjoy the inevitable dark spots and nuances of Rothko’s color. Left to right, “Green and Tangerine on Red” (1956), “Ochre and Red on Red” (1954) and “Green and Maroon” (1953).

/ hv

Henri Matisse’s “Studio, Quai St. Michel” (1916) is a painting that rewards extensive looking.

/ hv

If every museum shows Kenneth Noland’s signature work from the 1960s, rare is the institution that devotes space to the artist’s earlier paintings . Here we see “Inside” (1950), which is an oil painting on masonite, that reveals Noland’s early experiments in Abstract Expressionism.

/ hv

This Kenneth Noland, “In the Garden” (1952), suggests the American artist, who eventually became associated with Color Field painting, was looking closely at the work of Paul Klee.

/ hv

A luscious detail of Paul Cézanne’s “The Garden at Les Lauves” (c.1906).

/ hv

The galleries in the Phillips mansion feel more domestic and fireplaces dominate the rooms that are hung with more modest sized work. Gustave Courbet’s “Rocks at Mouthier” (c.1855) hands in the center of this scene and it is flanked by John Sloan’s “The Wake of the Ferry II” (1907) on the left and John Henry Twachtman’s “My Summer Studio” (c.1900) on the right. You can also spot Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Dead Bird” on the far left.

/ hv

A close-up of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Dead Bird” (1890s). The small work is an obvious precedent for the work of a number of 20th C. artists, like the American Morris Graves.

/ hv

A vibrant yellow fireplace visually competes with two equally colorful works by John Graham, “Bird Cage” (1931) on the left and Stuart Davis, “Boats” (1930). I’d never seen Graham looks soo Davis-esque.

/ hv

One of two five-panel etchings by Howard Hodgkins that were being touted as the largest etchings ever, they are titled “As Time Goes By,” which is a title inspired by a song in the 1942 film Casablanca. The borders are hand-painted but each panel is printed from one plate made up of three sheets of copper placed vertically.

/ hv

A quiet wall by the elevator is given to these two early 1950s still lifes by Giorgio Morandi.

/ hv

It was refreshing to see very modern works in a domestic setting, rather than the white box of most modern art museums. Surely this was the way most people during the era enjoyed these works. Left to right is Wassily Kandinksy’s entralling “Succession” (1935), Piet Mondrian’s “Painting, No.9” (1939-42) and a work by someone I don’t remember encountering, Louis Marcoussis’s “Painting on Glass, No. 17” (1920).

/ hv

A detail of Amedeo Modigliani’s “Elena Povolozky” (1917).

/ hv

The Phillip’s music room is decorated with panels by Augustus Vincent Tack (1870-1949). Tack describes his paintings of the 1920s as “color-music” and these works were painting in 1928. The museum’s wall text explains that Tack’s work at The Phillips influenced many DC-based artists of the late 20th C, including Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

/ hv

Half of Jacob Lawrence’s world-renowned Migration series (1940-41) is housed at The Phillips. The institution has all the odd-numbered panels in the series of 60 narrative paintings, while MoMA has all the even-numbered works. In 1993, the artists renamed the series, which was originally titled The Migration of the Negro, to simply The Migration Series.

/ hv

In the basement of the museum, there are some fascinating photos of past installations at The Phillips Collection. I wish more institutions would devote space to these types of displays, which gives the visitor insight into how a collection evolves and reflects the ideas and concerns of the era.

/ hv


The Phillips Collection is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, with extended evening hours on Thursdays until 8:30pm, and on Sundays from 11am to 6pm.

comments (0)