- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Phillips Collection are exhibiting new art in their collections and show the different — and often highly imaginative — ways they bring in spoils from their hunts for new treasures.
The Sackler displays 19 dazzling art objects from West and East Asia in its "Honoring Friends: Recent Gifts by Members of the Freer and Sackler Galleries." They include a shimmering, molded, blue-and-white Iranian plate of the Timurid period; a hanging scroll depicting Prince Shotoku, who ruled Japan from 593 until his death in 622; and visually piercing calligraphy by Zen monk Obaku Kosen.
The Friends of the Freer and Sackler Gallery, the museums' benefactor group, collected 38 works in the years since its inception. The exhibit celebrates the friends' 10th anniversary. The 19 objects given additionally to "Honoring Friends" are on permanent exhibition throughout the galleries or in storage for conservation.
"Though the display may seem like a cacophony of different kinds of art, it has the unifying theme that each object reinforces an area of strength in the museum's holdings," says James Ulak, exhibit curator and curator of Japanese art at the two galleries.
The Phillips, in its "New Acquisitions" exhibit, shows 13 images. The acquisitions add works by abstract-expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, surprisingly the first of hers to join the Phillips' collection; English artist Howard Hodgkin; and British-born painter John Walker. William Scharf, Mark Rothko and Wayne Thiebaud also are represented in the new works.
All reflect founder Duncan Phillips' love of color and mastery of handling paint. Funds for acquisitions are more limited than at the Sackler-Freer. But exhibit curator and Phillips chief curator Eliza Rathbone says, "We know what we want and then find the opportunity to get it."
The focus is on modern and contemporary art from Europe and the United States. For example, a painting by Miss Frankenthaler recently came up at auction. The Phillips didn't move fast enough on that one but was able to buy the artist's "Canyon" (1965) from Knoedler & Co. in New York.
"Her works from the '60s are difficult to get," Miss Rathbone says. "'Canyon' is a fine illustration of her 'stain' technique that influenced the Washington Color-Field painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. It had been in only one collection before the resale at Knoedler's and was in wonderful condition."
She points to the unprimed canvas showing through the intensely colored acrylic paint that the artist soaked directly into the support.
Like most of Miss Frankenthaler's work, "Canyon" creates a dialogue between nature and abstraction that links it to the American landscape tradition so prevalent in the Phillips Collection. "It is perfect for us," Miss Frankenthaler says.
The Phillips can draw on two capital sources for acquisitions, the Katherine Dreier Fund and the Hereward Lester Cooke Fund. The museum purchased the Frankenthaler and Hodgkin works with Dreier money earned from selling the de-accessioned Georges Braque "Le Violon."
Mr. Hodgkin admires the paintings of the late French artist Edouard Vuillard and brilliantly reinvents Mr. Vuillard's carefully planned brushwork, lush color and strong patterning.
Mr. Phillips believed in acquiring "units" of works by artists, and painter Mr. Walker was one. The Phillips already owned six Walker paintings and "October Low Tide, Maine," painted last year, is the seventh.
The museum purchased it with Cooke Fund money. Mr. Cooke's friends put together a fund when the beloved Washington painter and curator at the National Gallery of Art died in 1973. They specified financial help be given to artists older than 40.
Mr. Walker's landscape abstraction, with its gestural brushwork, jarring colors and strong structure fits right in with other works at the Phillips.
The museum acquired the Thiebaud, Scharf and Rothko pieces through gifts. Rebecca and Julius Allen of Silver Spring donated the unusual, early Rothko "Aubade," a surrealist work on paper.
The late Mrs. Allen was the daughter of the prominent New York art dealer Bertha Schaeffer. The donation joins several Rothko paintings in the adjacent Rothko Room, just back from exhibition in Basel, Switzerland.
Milo Beach, director of the Sackler-Freer galleries, came up with an unusual and glamorous way for the friends to buy art. He held an auction and black-tie dinner every spring. Mr. Beach, who is retiring in October, directed the curators to find objects within a certain price range to present to the friends.
"There was friendly competition between the curators," Mr. Ulak says with a laugh.
The museums sent out small brochures describing the works before the dinner-auction. The curators explained their objects to the friends during an allotted time before the dinner. Then the voting took place.
"We've been aggressively collecting for some time. From January 1991 to July of this year, we acquired 2,900 works of art," Mr. Ulak says.
Certain works didn't make the cut at the auctions but were deemed too important to lose. Money usually was found to buy them, too.
One was the 13th-century hanging scroll "Prince Shotoku and Attendants" by an anonymous Japanese artist. Mr. Ulak made the presentation at the auction. A Japanese dealer who thought the scroll was appropriate for the Freer had contacted him.
Visitors learn through the exhibition label that Prince Shotoku made Buddhism his state religion and tried to unify the country. The painter depicted the 16-year-old prince, representative of the new order, as he paid his respects to his dying father, Emperor Yomei, symbolic of the old order.
"It's very strong and has an interesting story. A private dealer showed Charles Freer the painting in 1906. Mr. Freer didn't buy it. It resurfaced about four years ago. The dealer felt we should have it because of Mr. Freer's original interest. It's now found a permanent home," Mr. Ulak says.
The scroll joins several other Shotoku paintings at the museums, but this is the strongest.
The curator concedes that the scroll is not in first-rate condition, but he says it will be restored. "It's a bit like spotting high-quality real estate that to the untrained eye seems in disrepair. We look beyond the present to the future in works like this," Mr. Ulak says..
Walking through the exhibit, Mr. Ulak points to a graceful, large blue-and-white plate from Iran. He praises its beauty and mentions that it is the first blue-and-white ceramic from Iran to enter the Freer.
The museum chose it also for its cross-cultural connections with China and as an example of Iranians adopting the Chinese lilting "cloud-collar" motif.
Across the room is an energetic, almost violent piece of calligraphy written vertically by the Zen monk Obaku Kosen (1633-1695). The three cursive Chinese characters read "one" at the top; "sash" stretches almost the entire length of the scroll; and "cloud" loops the end in a wavelike stroke translated as "A Sash of Clouds."
When the Manchus invaded north China in 1644 and toppled the Ming dynasty, Kosen relocated to Japan with his fellow monks of the Huangbo Zen Buddhist school. Mr. Ulak regards the acquisition as a particularly strong work by Kosen and a valuable addition to the Sackler's growing calligraphy collection.
Ceramics by contemporary Asian potters may come as a surprise to visitors but are part of the Sackler's strong interest in modern and contemporary ceramics.
Taiwanese potter Ah Leon, who made the room-size, all-ceramic "Bridge" exhibit at the Sackler in 1992, is represented by "Branch Teapot." Mr. Ulak says he mimics the Yixing tradition of making ceramics look like wood and sprouting trees.
The Sackler purchased Miura Koheiji's "Covered Jar, Oxcart," a stunning translation by a Japanese artist of Chinese crackled celadon glaze. Susuki Osamu's almost abstract "Clay Image: Cellist" looks to earlier reddish Japanese earthenware vessels. Takiguchi Kazuo fashions single sheets of clay into organic gray shapes.
The Phillips and Sackler-Freer shows illustrate some of the ins and outs of the hunt for new works of art. More important, they focus our eyes on exceptionally beautiful works of art.

WHAT: "New Acquisitions"
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8:30 Thursdays, noon until 7 p.m. Sundays, indefinite closing
TICKETS: $7.50 adults weekends, by contribution weekdays
PHONE: 202/387-2151

WHAT: "Honoring Friends: Recent Gifts by Members of the Freer and Sackler Galleries"
WHAT: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Nov. 25
PHONE: 202/357-4880
New acquisitions at the Freer and Sackler galleries are the 13th-century "Prince Shotoku and Attendants" (clockwise from top left) by an unknown artist and Obaku Kosen's 17th-century "A Sash of Clouds." The Phillips Collection has added John Walker's "October Low Tide, Maine, 2000" and Howard Hodgkin's "The Torso" to its modern and contemporary art holdings.

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