At The Phillips Collection: “Made in the USA”
American art before 1950 is all but omitted from the Western canon. Frequently perceived as an obscure assortment of simple colonial landscape painters, would-be impressionist yokels and winsome expatriates of voracious appetite and meager consequence, there was little recognition for American artists until after the migration of European progressives fleeing the Second World War. It reads in the history books as if one day a roiling storm of artistic breakthroughs blew across the Atlantic Ocean and began raining artistic innovation along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Undergirding the breakout of Abstract Expressionism and America's ensuing artistic prominence is a clear debt to centuries of European progress. However, frequently misunderstood and typically neglected are the regional artists and styles that helped mould and prepare the American artistic landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the major champions of America's early artistic identity was Duncan Phillips (1886 - 1966), founder of the eponymous Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle. When he opened his museum in 1921 in the old family mansion, it was the country's first institution dedicated to modern art, and from the outset Phillips intended it as a bastion for the country's artists. Over the course of 50 years he made it his legacy to find, foster, and preserve works by living American artists, ultimately amassing some 1,400 paintings and sculptures that have helped define the cultural landscape of 20th century America.
After touring the world for the past four years, the full breadth of Phillips' American collection is back on display with Made in the USA, the most comprehensive installation of these works in the museum's history. Consuming the main building's three floors, the history of American art billows to life. It begins with the unsung masters of the late 19th century whose work set the course for modernism in the United States, and it evolves into the new visual language of Abstract Expressionism, which catapulted American art onto the center of the international stage. The collection uncovers a breadth and diversity of American artistic heritage unbeknownst to most audiences and welcomes home some of our city's most beloved masterworks.
“Phillips was determined to lift American art out of obscurity,” says Sue Frank, associate curator of The Phillips Collection and editor of the exhibit catalog.
“And how did he get to this diverse view of American art? As he also collected European art, he believed artists in this country were connected to continuing identities and traditions that reach back into the 19th century. He was interested in how the present is connected to the past. He was interested in finding man's place in nature and the cosmos, color and light, that you can trace from the end of the 19th century through to the 20th.”
From the offset, Phillips' evolution as a collector is determinedly progressive. (Be advised: Now would be a good time to have Google at hand). The first floor exhibits his early acquisitions from around 1920, American Impressionist and regionalist painters such as Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast and John Henry Twachtman, as well as the revered early American masters William Merrit Chase, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and James McNeill Whistler.
These works, while quite fine, reflect more typically fashionable American tastes of the time: atmospheric landscapes and impressive portraiture, provincial city scenes and windswept Americana.
However even among these early acquisitions, Phillips foreshadowed his keenly developing interest in experimental and conceptually challenging artworks. In Albert Pinkham Ryder's Moonlit Cove (ca. 1880) and Rockwell Kent's Burial of a Young Man (ca. 1910), a taste for transcendent mysticism pervades his sensibilities.
The most astonishing works in this part of the exhibit are perhaps two landscape paintings: Marsden Hartley's “Mountain Lake—Autumn” (ca. 1910), and John Marin's “Weehawken Sequence, No. 30” (ca. 1916). These wild terrains of explosive shape and color border on pure abstraction, each exuding a euphoric wildness of environment that give themselves almost entirely to the arena of paint.
On the second floor, all proverbial hell breaks loose in the form of a seismic shift into early American abstraction. Consuming a number of walls are the expansive, crackling landscapes of Augustus Vincent Tack, who Phillips saw as the first American to incorporate Far Eastern artistic influence. Sunset and floral paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe accompany explosive watercolors by Marin and the proto-Surrealist forest scenes of Charles Burchfield, which all reveal a sheer creative force beyond any straight-lined observational painting. There are even a handful of obscured, sun-flecked photographs by Alfred Stieglitz.
The artist who dominates this floor, however, is Arthur Dove. Increasingly revered today as an Artist's artist, it is clear that Phillips anticipated something in Dove ahead of his time.
“For the first few years from World War I through the early 20s, Phillips was still struggling to educate himself about contemporary painting,” says Frank. “He’d initially set out to be an art critic, and he always said it was the work of Arthur Dove that really flung open the doors for him. He could understand, looking at Dove's work, how paintings didn't need narrative or metaphor to be successful.”
Dove's weightless, unhinged landscapes and glowing skies defy previous notions of representation. The paintings “Golden Storm” (1925) and “Me and the Moon” (1937) are as haunting and ethereal of any 20th century masterpieces one could hope to see in a single exhibit.
On the third floor, this parade of artistic development fulminates. From Pollock and Mark Rothko to Alexander Calder and Willem de Kooning, from a rare Philip Guston to a pair of remarkable Richard Diebenkorns, the congregation of jaw-dropping masterworks is dizzying. Here one can glimpse how Phillips' vision of a great American artistic legacy was vaulted into the cultural stratosphere.
Yet balanced among the works of these international heavy-hitters, the visitor still finds in the surrounding galleries the triumphs of those who are usually overlooked: paintings by minority and immigrant artists such as Bernard Karfiol, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Jacob Lawrence – accomplished painters who underscore our country's vexing cultural heritage of racial, ancestral and social tension.
What emerges from all of this is a renewed sense of the value of a truly American regionalism, boasting a long and storied lineage.
Even up until his death, Phillips pursued this mission. “In 1954,” says Frank, “Phillips wrote that he was still excited about what was happening in contemporary art, that he still had enthusiasm for going to New York galleries. He was in his mid-seventies, and that's when he decides to build the first addition to this museum to house his ever-growing collection. He remained engaged until the very end.”
This is simply one of the great collections of American art, and Made in America is simply an exhibition that revels in its grandeur. Washington has its prized collection back within its borders. What more could we ask for? Go see the work and reclaim it as our own.
“Made in the USA” is on view at the Phillips Collection through Aug. 31. For more information, visit www.PhillipsCollection.org.