In Renoir to Rothko Show, Art, Not Hype, Is First

For anyone with a keen interest in modern painting for the esthetic and intellectual pleasures it affords-rather than, say, for the political and cultural battles that have sometimes marked its history-the exhibition that is not to be missed this fall is Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips , which is currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Everyone who has ever visited the Phillips Collection seems to have fallen in love with the place on first encounter. For the Phillips isn’t like other museums of modern art. It’s smaller, more personal in its esthetic taste, and less concerned to represent every twist and turn in the sometimes stormy history of European and American modernism. Quality is the primary concern at the Phillips Collection, both the quality of the objects on view and the quality of the visitor’s experience in looking at them. For that purpose, everything-both the size of the pictures and the size of the rooms in which they are exhibited-is kept as close to a domestic scale as it is possible for a public museum to maintain without discomfort or pretension.

Yet even for regular visitors to the Phillips Collection-and I have myself been going there for nearly half a century-the current exhibition contains a great many surprises. With some 350 works on view, it is the biggest exhibition the Phillips has ever mounted. It fills the entire museum, taking us into rooms we have never before visited and showing us things we have never before seen-among them, three works by John Graham from the 1920′s, including a portrait drawing of Dr. Claribel Cone (circa 1927), whose own collection of modern painting can be seen at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

At the same time, we are reminded at every turn in this exhibition of the special character of Duncan Phillips’ connoisseurship. In Phillips’ own generation-his dates are 1886 to 1966-critical opinion was deeply divided in its views of the modernist movement. Established opinion looked upon modernism as a repudiation of the Western pictorial tradition. Yet there were a few critics and collectors who understood early on that, far from rejecting the Western pictorial tradition, some of the greatest achievements of modernist art represented a triumphant renewal of that tradition. This was certainly the view of Albert C. Barnes, founder of the great Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., and of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. It was also the view of Duncan Phillips, who, in founding the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in 1921, created the first public museum of modern art in the United States.

It was owing to this view of the relation that obtained between modernist painting and the Western pictorial tradition that Phillips set out to create a public collection devoted to modern art and its sources in premodernist European painting. Which is why the little painting called The Hour Glass , that is attributed to the Venetian master Giorgione, has occupied a place of honor in the Phillips Collection since its acquisition in 1939. Phillips had the esthetic acumen to understand that there was an artistic continuity that descended from the Venetian masters to the work of such modern greats as Renoir and Bonnard, and he built a sizable part of his collection on the basis of that understanding.

What did not interest him was what we might call the incendiary aspects of modernist art. Bonnard and Braque interested him more than Picasso-though there are, of course, a few minor Picassos in the collection. There is but one Jackson Pollock in the collection-the minor Collage and Oil (circa 1951)-but an entire room devoted to the paintings of Mark Rothko. And as George Heard Hamilton observes in one of the essays in the mammoth book that accompanies The Eye of Duncan Phillips , the “most telling example” of Phillips’ views on modernist art is “the absence of Marcel Duchamp.” And it follows from that significant absence that there is nothing here, either, by Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg. Phillips was nothing if not independent in his esthetic judgments.

It is not for his negative judgments, however, that Phillips achieved a special distinction as a collector and connoisseur. His devotion to the paintings of Bonnard, about which I will say more in a moment, may not seem remarkable in 1999. But it was highly unusual at the time.

So was Phillips’ policy of according to American modernist painting an attention equal-and sometimes more than equal-to that accorded to the European modernists. For many years, Phillips was the sole supporter of the career of Arthur Dove, for example; there are 11 examples of Dove’s work in the current exhibition that amply vindicate that support. Also strongly represented in the collection is the work of the only American painter Jackson Pollack ever had a good word for: Albert Pinkham Ryder. But it would be futile to attempt to cite every treasure or every surprise in this exhibition. Or, for that matter, every disappointment. Phillips’ devotion to the American painter Augustus Vincent Tack, who is represented in the show by 13 pictures, is something of a mystery for some of us. But mysteries of this sort are inevitable in a collection on this scale.

About Phillips’ devotion to Bonnard, I have a personal recollection that may throw some light on the kind of man Duncan Phillips was. It was around 1955, when I was editing Arts Magazine , that I got interested in Bonnard for the first time. In those days, the only painting by Bonnard on public view in a New York museum was The Breakfast Room (1930-31) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. You could see more of his work in some of the galleries that featured School of Paris painting, but only for short periods. Then someone told me that you had to go to the Phillips Collection in Washington to really see Bonnard at full strength.

So off to Washington I went, taking the train down in the evening, staying overnight in a hotel, so that I could be at the door when the museum opened the next morning. As I walked through the galleries, however, I couldn’t find a single painting by Bonnard. There were plenty of other wonderful pictures to be seen, of course, but no Bonnard. You can imagine my disappointment.

So I went to the woman at the front desk and asked if it might be possible to see the Bonnards in the storerooms. She got very upset and more than a little flustered, and told me I would have to wait an hour or so for an answer. It was no hardship, to say the least, to spend an hour in the collection, but it was nonetheless an anxious hour as I had gone to some trouble and expense in order to see the Bonnards.

When I finally did return to the front desk an hour later, I could see a big black limousine pulling up in front of the museum, and out of it came this tall, handsome elderly gentleman in a long black coat. When he entered the museum, the woman minding the desk rushed up to him and whispered a few words. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, Duncan Phillips approached me with a benevolent smile, introduced himself, and said: “Well, young man, I understand you’ve come to see our Bonnards.” I agreed that that was indeed my mission. “In that case,” he said, “you’ll have to come home to lunch with Mrs. Phillips and me, for our favorite Bonnards are hanging in our own home at the moment.”

An hour or so later, I found myself in that same limo on my way to the Phillips’ home in Georgetown. There were 10 paintings by Bonnard hanging in the very large living room. Before I had a chance to have a good look at them, I was ushered into a small dining room, where I was seated opposite the 1929 Braque still life called The Round Table that is one of the seven paintings by the artist in the current show. I had never lunched with a Braque painting before, and it was all I could do to keep the food on my fork without making a mess.

Both Phillips and his wife, Marjorie, herself a painter, were delightful and did everything they could to put me at ease. Phillips told me I could spend as much time as I liked with the Bonnards in the living room, and that his driver would take me back to my hotel when I had concluded my visit.

He did tell me one story about Bonnard that has remained something of a conundrum for me. Bonnard came to America only once, I believe, in the early 1930′s when he won a prize-I think it was second prize-at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. During that trip, the Phillipses invited him to Washington, and when Bonnard was settled into their house he was asked about his impressions of the United States. According to Phillips, Bonnard mentioned only one thing: the club sandwich. He had spent most of his time on the train from Pittsburgh to Washington, he said, in the dining car, making drawings of club sandwiches in a little sketchbook. One could see why, of course. Seen in cross section, with its horizontal striations of color, the American club sandwich was the perfect Bonnardesque form.

Alas, for years I made inquiries in New York, London and Paris about the existence of that sketchbook with the club sandwich drawings, but as far as I know, it has never turned up. It would be nice to think that it might still be discovered somewhere.

Matisse also came to visit the Phillips Collection in the 1930′s, and he especially commended Phillips for his devotion to Bonnard. “He is the greatest of us all,” Matisse said of Bonnard-long, long before the New York art world discovered just how great an artist Bonnard is. Phillips acquired 16 paintings by Bonnard for his collection, and there are 11 of them in The Eye of Duncan Phillips exhibition, which remains on view in Washington through Jan. 23, and will not travel.