Unlike many mansions that were built with their owner’s intention later to become museums (like the fabulous Frick Collection in New York City), the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery (now known as the Phillips Collection) was opened for viewing to the public by Duncan Phillips while he and his family were living there. Because this was Phillips’ home, there still remains within the “feeling of being a guest in someone’s house.”
Based on the principle that beauty is in the way artists see the world, the museum takes one to another time, sometimes to the past when Phillips first collected modern art and sometimes to the future, where subsequent acquisitions to the collection have followed his intent.
The Phillips Collection—which has grown to over 6,000 works from the 19th century to the present, including paintings, works on paper, prints, photographs sculptures, quilts and videos—is celebrating its 100-year anniversary with the exhibit “Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century.” This spectacular show presents more than 200 works throughout the museum from the Sant Building, the Goh Annex and in the original building.
The flow of art is built around the themes of the senses, identity, history and place. Works are positioned by the connection they share with other works regardless of the demographics of their artists or the era in which they were created.
Alma Thomas’ acrylic on canvas “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers” (1976) sets the mood for a gallery filled with works of color, line, patterns and spatial rhythms, which evoke imagination through the senses. Memory of seasonal change of a holly tree—viewed through her window, casting patterns of light and shade—inspired her flickering brushstrokes. Nearby works employ complex materials to create geometric-patterned quilts, like Malissia Pettway’s “Housetop” (1960) or Leo Villareal’s light sculpture “Scramble” (2011) .
One of the earliest works acquired by Phillips, and one that is the envy of larger museums, is El Greco’s “The Repentant St. Peter” (1600-1605). Two centuries later Goya would pay tribute to El Greco in his painting of “The Repentant St. Peter” (1820-26). Positioned between these two works is “Peter 4” (2013). In exploration of identity through portraiture, Bernhard Hildebrandt created a short video and seven color photographs depicting St. Peter through digital media. “Peter 4” shows the saint past the guilt, regret and sorrow of El Greco and Goya to capture the Apostle’s spiritual transformation.
No exhibit with a theme of place would be complete without works by Edward Hopper. His “Sunday” (1926) and “Approaching a City” (1947) are placed nearby William Merritt Chase’s “Hide and Seek” (1988). What might these works share in common? Through an economy of objects and understatement of color, they exude the mystery in the everyday places. Nearby are Horace Pippin’s oil on composition board “Domino Players” (1943) and Bruce Davidson’s gelatin silver print “Large Family in Kitchen” (East 100th Street series) (1966 to 1968). One is a traditional domestic scene around a dining room table on a long afternoon, the other posed for the photographer in the kitchen.
History is filled with displacements. Benny Andrews’ “Trail of Tears” (2005) stretching over four canvases—using mixed media, painted fabric and string—tells a powerful story of migration within America, with the involuntary removal of Native Americans from the eastern seaboard in the 1830s. In contrast is “Journey to the Holy Land,” an undated small painting by Washington, D.C., artist James Lesesne Wells, showing the Biblical holy family’s migration.
Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” (1940-41) is one of the Phillips Collection’s noted pieces. The 30 tablets (which alternate with the 30 owned by Museum of Modern Art) tell in words and images the 20th-century migration of millions of African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North. In an adjacent gallery, Jeanine Michna–Bales has created a series of chromatic prints in 2013 that represent places that freedom seekers traveled from south to north decades before the Civil War. Retracing 1,400 miles of the Underground Railroad, the series starts with “Decision to Leave Magnolia Plantation on the Cane River, Louisiana.” Along with other images in Mississippi and Alabama, and on into Indiana, the story is told in the darkness of night. No human figures are visible in these secret moments. The last photo in this series is “Within Reach, Crossing the St. Clair River to Canada south of Port Huron, Michigan,” where morning sun is slowly rising over the water in what promises to be a bright future day.
From the powerful history of migration, the exhibit transitions to the original house, through a gallery of two works by Howard Hodgkin—“As Time Goes By (red)” and “As Time Goes By (blue).” These 8-by-20-feet works, possibly the largest intaglio prints ever undertaken, overwhelm the senses with the exuberance of colors.
One of the joys of the original collection is that the art is displayed as beloved works would be in a home, rather than the format of historical chronology along with artist biographies. Here is an array of works by Bonnard, van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne. A Richard Diebenkorn is placed among those that he studied in the years he was stationed at Quantico. He is one of many artists who were visitors and whose works are now in this exhibit, including noted Washington, D.C., artists Sam Gilliam, Lou Stovall and Morris Louis. Marjorie Acker Phillips was herself a patron of the arts, as well as an artist. Her oil painting “Night Baseball” (1951) is included in the exhibit.
Several themes in the centennial exhibit will continue in upcoming exhibits. In “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” his little-known, 30-panel series “Struggle” invites a new way of chronicling erased histories about America’s founding. The series, painted between 1954 and 1956, will be on display June 26 to Sept. 19.
Two future exhibits will highlight Washington, D.C., artists. “Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” (Oct. 30–Jan. 23, 2022) will feature 100 of her works, including rarely seen theatrical designs and beloved abstract paintings, and explore how her artistic practices affected her life from her 35 years of teaching in public schools to gardening and dressmaking. “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” (Oct. 16–Jan. 9, 2022) will be the first retrospective of the paintings, prints and drawings by the late internationally acclaimed artist, art historian and educator.
The way out is through “The Music Room,” the scene of a century of concerts and social gatherings. At one corner beyond the grand piano, Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-81)—the work most reproduced in print in the collection—evokes the sensory pleasures of sharing good food and drink in the company of friends. Like a gracious host, this painting directs the visitor to the exit, saying to take with you a memory of an art collection that is filled with color, light and the sense of experiencing the joy of art.
Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance–Star.