David Driskell, “Gate Leg Table” (1966) (all photos by the author)

WASHINGTON, DC — A remarkable run for the Phillips Collection — or for any museum in the nation’s capital — is coming to a close. The modern art museum celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and while the pandemic prevented a proper birthday bash, it finished the year with a bang.

With two stellar retrospectives, one time-based installation, and several commissions by local artists, the Phillips Collection has dedicated its galleries over the past few months to highlighting abstract work by Black artists. This is unlike anything else the museum has done in at least the last two decades.

The anchor for this presentation is Everything Is Beautiful, an incandescent retrospective of paintings by Alma Thomas. The show is a homecoming for Thomas, a Washington artist who was overlooked in her time but who has enjoyed a major revival since the Studio Museum in Harlem mounted an exhibition of her works in 2016. Her resplendent paintings reflect the city’s natural beauty and urban rhythms.

Installation view of Alma Thomas, “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music” (1976)

Organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia and the Columbus Museum in Georgia, Everything Is Beautiful has special significance in DC, where Thomas lived and worked for most of her career. Indeed, the show provides abundant details about the artist, her life, and her work in Washington, surveying her early career as a set designer and providing a map for viewers to explore the city in her day. The show is almost too packed — an exhaustive painting exhibition that also strives to be an authoritative biography.

Rooms at the Phillips Collection sing with Thomas’s effortless approach to abstraction. For Washingtonians, Everything Is Beautiful is a primer on ideas about color and brushstrokes that have echoed through D.C. studios and galleries over the decades. Among other works, Thomas’s triumphant triptych “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music” (1976) is a core piece of local art history. This much of her work has not been shown together in the city in 40 years. (The show continued through through January 23.)

The Thomas show was just one of two powerful surveys at the Phillips this winter. Icons of Nature and History brought another Washington artist home to the District: David Driskell. 

Installation view of work by Victor Ekpuk 

Driskell, who succumbed to COVID-19 in April 2020, was well known in D.C. as an art historian and longtime professor at the University of Maryland whose work with students and artists extended beyond the classroom. Organized by the Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the exhibition (which closed earlier this month) showcased Driskell’s cerebral engagement with modernist ideas across Europe, America, and the African Diaspora.

At least in DC, Driskell’s status as a painter has often taken a back seat to his work in pedagogy. Icons of Nature and History is an effort to correct the record. “Gate Leg Table” (1966), for example, is a sensational assemblage-painting with a unique historical context. It draws on craft work by Black folk artists who Driskell encountered growing up in rural Georgia and western North Carolina. As one non-Phillips curator noted to me, “Gate Leg Table” belongs on the cover of a 20th century art history textbook.

To complement these tentpole exhibitions, the Phillips Collection commissioned special projects by Black artists who are making work in the District today. The vestibule at the museum’s entrance has been taken over by Victor Ekpuk, a Nigerian-born painter who has based his mark making on the ancient Nigerian proto-writing system Nsibidi. In addition, the museum invited Nekisha Durrett to visually transform the bridges that connect the its two buildings. Durrett applied colored film to the windows in the bridges so they resemble stained glass — the artist’s tribute to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. (The museum also tapped Wesley Clark for an installation at its satellite campus, Phillips@THEARC, but it’s currently closed.)

Installation view of work by Nekisha Durrett 

Between these exhibitions and an installation by Sanford Biggers, the Phillips Collection has culminated its anniversary with a celebration of Black abstraction. These efforts go further than the shows. The permanent collection highlights works by Washington artists such as Sam Gilliam and Renée Stout, for example. A 1951 painting by Marjorie Phillips, “Night Baseball,” includes a wall text written by E. Ethelbert Miller, a prominent Black poet and activist in D.C. This wide-ranging presentation is a testament to the work of Vesela Sretenović, Nehemiah Dixon III, and others at the museum. 

In recent years the Phillips Collection has challenged the presentation of modernism as a game of telephone between white artists from Europe and the United States. The first-ever museum survey for the Cuban-born, Puerto Rico–based painter and sculptor Zilia Sánchez at the Phillips in 2019 — a ground-breaking and overdue exhibition — demonstrated the role that this museum can and should play in expanding notions of modernisms to more accurately reflect its many forms and artists. 

Installation view of Sanford Biggers, Mosaic (2021) 

With the Driskell and Thomas shows on view, paintings that normally hold pride of place at the museum had to be relocated. To find Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-81) — a work that normally gets a lot of elbow room — placed almost as an afterthought in the music room seemed to be a quiet statement about the museum’s revised priorities. 

A single round of exhibitions celebrating Black abstract art can’t correct the canon alone, or reorient the museum as one that better serves its city. Whether the Phillips Collection will sustain this trajectory is a question for the next year and the next century.

Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab, the urbanism site for Bloomberg News. He is based in Washington, D.C.