- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

The ghost of Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) continues to haunt the museum bearing his name. The founder’s artistic preferences still determine the choice of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs added to the Phillips Collection, even those most recently acquired. An exhibit devoted to 120 of the more than 400 purchases and gifts amassed over the past decade reflects an all-too-faithful adherence to Mr. Phillips’ collecting practices, even in the selections of contemporary works.

“Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects,” opening today, offers few surprises — some of these acquisitions have been displayed in previous shows — and, predictably, there is nary a daring piece to shake up the mix. Still, the exhibit satisfies in displaying a variety of gems all in one place to reveal the museum’s consistency in expanding its holdings.

Among the treasures, which date from 1811 to 2006, is a landscape by French historical painter Antoine-Felix Boisselier, four delicate watercolors by German expressionist Lyonel Feininger and riotous abstractions by Hans Hofmann and Howard Hodgkin. Photography is particularly well represented with pictures by Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston and his son Brett Weston as well as other well-known pioneers of the medium.

The exhibit presents the first opportunity to evaluate the museum’s recent acquisitions as a group in the comparative way Mr. Phillips preferred. “I avoid the chron- ological sequence … My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy,” he wrote. In his house-turned-museum, Mr. Phillips placed paintings by Americans and Europeans side by side to reveal a lineage of ideas and influences.

The new show is similarly well choreographed to emphasize affinities between works by different artists. Most pieces are grouped to expose relationships among talents of the same period in the same gallery. On one wall, prints by Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, who were married to each other for 13 years, are paired to evidence kindred spirits in color and line. Look across the room, and a larger version of Mr. Motherwell’s stalky strokes appears at the bottom of “Birds Over Sea,” an earlier painting by Milton Avery, while Miss Frankenthaler’s saturated blots of paint turn up in William Scharf’s more recently created whorls of color.

The juxtapositions also work to reinforce Mr. Phillips’ interest in contrasts. A richly colored painting of sunglasses by Wayne Thiebaud hangs near Jasper Johns’ all-white “The Critic Sees” to reveal opposite sensibilities expressed through the same subject. Thomas Hart Benton’s “Moonlight on the Osage” and Jacob Lawrence’s “Going Home” are closely situated to present two Americas — those of rural whites and urban blacks — during the mid-20th century.

Less interesting are the galleries where several works by the same artist are grouped together. District artist William Christenberry is overrepresented in the exhibit by 11 works, more than any other talent in the show. The space could have been better used to showcase pieces by lesser-known artists in the collection because Mr. Christenberry’s photographs and sculptures are shown regularly by local museums and galleries.

Of the 67 artists represented in the exhibit, 28 are new to the collection. They include photographers William Eggleston, Harry Callahan and Ansel Adams, whose pictures round out the museum’s growing collection of photography. Sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly and Barbara Hepworth also have been added, including large pieces now in the courtyard behind the museum’s Sant wing.

European acquisitions play to the strengths of the museum, including French impressionism and its offspring. Edouard Vuillard’s stunning “Interior With a Red Bed or the Bridal Chamber” is the fourth interior scene by the artist to enter the collection. Another new addition is a tree-lined view of the Seine by lesser-known impressionist Gustave Caillebotte, whose likeness appears in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” the most beloved picture in the Phillips Collection. Two preparatory sketches by Pierre Bonnard reveal early ideas for his dazzling 1921 painting “Open Window,” which Mr. Phillips purchased in 1930.

Other selections extend the founder’s interest in contemporary art to the present day. “Contemporary” in this case doesn’t mean “edgy,” as in message-driven installations, videos and conceptual pieces. It may mean emulating the past as reflected in “The Gulf of Mexico” by Texas-born artist David Bates, whose works also are represented in Smithsonian collections. Mr. Bates paints in a style reminiscent of Marsden Hartley’s early 1900s oils.

The newest acquisitions are by two New York artists who have remained loyal to the tradition of painting. Elizabeth Murray’s garish, cartoonish constructions, created before her recent death from cancer, are reminiscent of Keith Haring’s childlike doodles. Susan Rothenberg, who cites Ms. Murray’s work as inspiration, is represented by the enigmatic “Three Masks,” a 2006 canvas completely in sync with Mr. Phillips’ preference for gestural brush strokes. Curiously missing are paintings by their European contemporaries who are investigating some of the same formal issues.

Reaffirmed throughout the show is Mr. Phillips’ idea of art as expressive of beauty through color and composition. By upholding its founder’s vision, the museum has cemented a clear but safe identity for its collection, focused on the visual language of art. It will be interesting to watch how the Phillips’ recently appointed director, Dorothy Kosinski, shifts this perspective through future acquisitions.

“Duncan Phillips had a very identifiable taste, but who is to say that he wouldn’t have loved video, performance or installation art?” Ms. Kosinski pondered during a recent interview. “I want to leave the possibilities for that open.”

WHAT: “Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Today through May 25

ADMISSION: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students

PHONE: 202/387-2151

WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org

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