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Visions of America: The Phillips Comes to the Carter

by Jerome Weeks 8 Oct 2012 7:30 AM

The Phillips Collection may be a boutique operation in DC, but it pioneered modernism in America and collecting living American artists. One hundred artworks from Winslow Homer to Mark Rothko make up the largest touring show the Carter has hosted.


Six O’Clock, Winter by John Sloan, oil on canvas, 1912

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has opened the largest touring exhibition it’s ever hosted. To See as Artists See features 100 works from the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the show is also a rare event for the Phillips.

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That’s because the Phillips Collection is famous for its paintings by popular European masters: van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso. But the collection has nearly 2,000 art works, and three-fourths are actually by Americans. To See as Artists See showcases these American achievements.

Duncan Phillips was an art critic who happened to be an heir to two fortunes, one in steel, the other in glass. So he was able to start a public gallery in his family’s Washington mansion in 1921. Ultimately, the Phillips Collection became akin to the Frick in New York City: a connoisseur’s life’s work preserved in the family home (though the building has been much expanded). But what distinguishes the Phillips from other small museums is the role it played in advancing modernism. Duncan Phillips’ art collecting essentially picked up where Henry Clay Frick left off in the late 19th century. The Phillips would become the first American museum devoted to modern art, a full decade before the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York.

But Phillips also pioneered the collecting of American artists – at a time when museums were primarily interested in European Old Masters. Without any guidebooks for choosing which young painter might change the world, Phillips had to rely on his judgment as a critic, his tastes as a patron. It’s remarkable how often he turned out right and over a wide spectrum of styles – from the so-called Ashcan School of big-city painters in the teens and ’20s to the abstract expressionists of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Susan Frank, associate curator of the Phillips Collection, says Duncan Phillips believed supporting artists before they were established was essential: It’s when they need a patron the most. So Phillips was often a “first responder.” His ‘firsts’ include:

  • The first to acquire a painting by Grandma Moses for a museum
  • The first to install a gallery devoted solely to abstract paintings by Mark Rothko (below, Untitled, acrylic on paper, 1968)
  • The first to acquire an oil painting by Edward Hopper
  • The first to buy works by Milton Avery
  • The first to acquire a painting by Georgia O’Keefe

But Phillips didn’t believe in organizing his museum by whether a painting was American or European. He preferred showing the links between different artists, gathering them by influence and theme.

So Frank says the show at the Amon Carter is the first time these works have been extracted from the Phillips Collection and displayed like this in somewhat chronological fashion. Together with the Amon Carter’s holdings, they form the largest exhibition of American masterworks, ever, in North Texas. The two museums feature a degree of synchronicity as well. Signs on the walls in To See as Artists See are like footnotes for further research: They indicate when a particular artist is also featured in the Amon Carter’s galleries.

The show follows the  storyline of 20th-century American art, starting with leading realists such as Winslow Homer and impressionists like Childe Hassam. It moves through the ‘30s as Americans absorb the innovations of Cubism. And it ends in the ‘60s with the great abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence.

Over the course of To See as Artists See, American art doesn’t just change styles. It changes content. The traditional portrait and still-life quickly fade away, replaced by cityscapes and landscapes. Gallery after gallery is filled with jazzy skyscrapers and lonely street scenes by John Sloan and Edward Hopper (below, Sunday, oil on canvas, 1926). We also get the striking, stark, Western landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove as well as the New England coasts of John Marin. Human figures really only return, en masse, in the final gallery when such artists as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Rufino Tamayo fill the walls with immigrant influences and the racial-ethnic concerns raised in the ’60s.

As Susan Frank notes, American artists were engaged in the same changes the country as a whole was undergoing, changes in demography, changes in identity. And “Phillips is interested,” she says, “just like the artists are, in how you define that American experience.”

To see as American artists saw over the past century was to try to see what is ‘authentically’ American. As much as these paintings demonstrate the rise and spread of the entire modernist venture in this country — thanks, in part, to Phillips himself — they demonstrate that much of that venture during the first half of the 20th century was tied up with the issue of self-definition, an issue that in the 21st century doesn’t grip us or our painters as much anymore: What is American art?