Duncan Phillips had an instinct for great American art that shines in Tampa exhibition

Duncan Phillips' instinct for great American art shines in rare Tampa exhibition

Photos courtesy the Phillips collection
"The Migration Series, Panel No. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,"  by Jacob Lawrence, 1940-41, casein tempera on hardboard

Photos courtesy the Phillips collection "The Migration Series, Panel No. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north," by Jacob Lawrence, 1940-41, casein tempera on hardboard

TAMPA — He wanted to call his museum "the experiment station."

Today, it's known as a pilgrimage spot for people who love modern art.

Art collector Duncan Phillips, co-founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., had a wide-open playing field when he began to collect modern American art in the years after World War I.

"Girl with Plant,"  Richard Diebenkorn, 1960, oil on canvas.
The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

"Girl with Plant," Richard Diebenkorn, 1960, oil on canvas. The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

"There was not much prestige in collecting modern art in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s," said Todd Smith, executive director of the Tampa Museum of Art.

"American paintings were inexpensive at the time," added Dr. Susan Frank, associate research curator at the Phillips Collection, who led a tour of its traveling exhibit in Tampa at the beginning of February. "He took a leap of faith with these guys."

For instance, she noted, Phillips paid $600 in 1926 for "Sunday," an Edward Hopper oil that depicts a man seated alone on a sun-baked curb in Hoboken, N.J. At the time, the price was the most ever paid for a canvas by Hopper, "who was just starting to gain traction with the critics," Frank said. "Sunday" contains all the elements that make Hopper an American master — the light, the architectural setting, and the sense of psychological isolation.

If you go

‘To See As Artists See’

What: American Art from the Phillips Collection

When: Through April 28; hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Where: Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W. Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa

Admission: Adults, $12; seniors, Florida educators and military, $10; students, $5; children 6 and younger, free. Pay-what-you-will every Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Information: 813-274-8130 or www.tampamuseum.org

Something else: Parking is available in the Poe Garage adjacent to the museum.

By comparison, a not-so-great Hopper oil, "October on Cape Cod," 1946, sold at auction in November 2012 for $9.6 million. Hopper has become an icon of American art; an exhibit of his work in Paris that closed at the beginning of February drew so many visitors that it went to round-the-clock viewing hours for its final weekend.

As a collector, Frank said, Phillips's approach was about "being in the moment, seeing what's happening in the New York galleries, and relying on his own eyes" for judgment.

That's apparent in his choices. Each painting in "To See As Artists See" feels considered. One doesn't get the sense that Phillips collected simply to have an example of a given artist's work. He chose a specific canvas that spoke to him individually.

In contrast, his contemporary, Baltimore collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, tended to acquire in bulk.

There is a story that Phillips and Barnes stood in front of the Renoir masterpiece "Luncheon of the Boating Party" that Phillips had purchased.

"That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" asked Barnes, who by 1942 had amassed 181 paintings by the French artist.

Phillips answered, "It's the only one I need."

Enchantment of art

"To See As Artists See" contains 100 paintings from the Phillips Collection. The entire collection numbers approximately 3,000 works of art and is housed in an 1897 residence in Washington, D.C., that has been expanded several times. The Phillips Collection is renowned for its concentration of great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist European paintings, especially the work of Pierre Bonnard. Its modern American holdings aren't too shabby, either.

The estate of Arthur G. Dove, courtesy of terry dintenfass Inc.
"Red Sun" by Arthur G. Dove, 1935, oil on canvas

The estate of Arthur G. Dove, courtesy of terry dintenfass Inc. "Red Sun" by Arthur G. Dove, 1935, oil on canvas

The traveling exhibit fills most of the Tampa Museum of Art. Six of its eight galleries are devoted to the show, Smith noted. The newly rebuilt Tampa museum is casting itself as "the place in the region that really embraces modern and contemporary art," he said.

Organized both chronologically and thematically, "To See As Artists See" begins with "old masters" of American modernism, 19th-century painters such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Thomas Eakins. Younger artists looked to Ryder's moody, nocturnal landscapes and Eakins's somber realism as important precedents for their own efforts.

Phillips also collected the work of untrained artists such as Edward Hicks and Grandma Moses because their "primitive" styles were inspirational for the early modernists.

Glancing at American Impressionists, who tend to be more decorative and mannered than their French counterparts, the show offers excellent examples of work by Maurice Prendergast, Childe Hassam and Julian Alden Weir — painters whose work is best seen sparingly, in my mind. Ernest Lawson's "Spring Night, Harlem River," circa 1913, stands out as a delicately textured landscape that takes a musical approach to color.

Nature of Things

His open, visually perceptive approach served him well. He acquired works by artists such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove, who all expressed the driving forces of nature in different ways.

"American painting is completely involved with nature," Frank noted. "The land we live in has inspired the American artist in so many ways."

Photos courtesy the Phillips collection (2)
"Sunday," by Edward Hopper, 1926, oil on canvas.

Photos courtesy the Phillips collection (2) "Sunday," by Edward Hopper, 1926, oil on canvas.

American artists also captured views that resonate today. John Sloan's "Six O'Clock, Winter," 1912, communicates the bustling energy of workers heading home in the early evening dark, while an elevated train rushes by overhead. His combination of artificial and natural lighting superbly evokes the moment as daylight fades and electric lamps come on.

The glory years of midcentury American painting are also well represented, albeit with the absence of a major painting by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. In his final years — Phillips died in 1966 — he was still looking for the right Pollock to add to his collection, Frank said.

However, much of what Phillips did find is fabulous. There's a small but lovely Rothko, a solid and entrancing painting of a woman in an armchair by Guy Pène du Bois and a luscious abstraction by Philip Guston that explains why critics fussed when he changed his style a decade or so later.

Phillips managed to acquire a Clifford Still, a rare thing to have nowadays. Most of Still's monumental, craggy abstractions were retained by the artist's estate. Now, more than 90 percent of his lifetime output resides in Denver's Clifford Still Museum.

Just as good is a large canvas by Richard Diebenkorn. "Girl with Plant," 1960, echoes Matisse and Bonnard in subject matter. The California artist uses blocks of highly charged color to build his composition. The girl is seen from behind, so viewers can only imagine her emotional state.

"His work is completely at home in the Phillips Collection," Frank said. During World War II, Diebenkorn was stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., not far from Washington, D.C. Guess where he spent his weekends looking at art?

"This is the vision Duncan Phillips had for the Phillips Collection," she continued, "that it would be the American Prado, where artists could come to learn from other artists.

A monument to grief

Duncan Phillips, the man behind his famous collection, was born in 1886 in Pittsburgh, Penn., and moved with his family to Washington, D.C., in 1895. The family fortune derived from banking and the steel industry.

"Aspiration," by August Vincent Tack, 1931, oil  on canvas

"Aspiration," by August Vincent Tack, 1931, oil on canvas

Duncan graduated from Yale in 1908; he and his brother, Jim, received a "collecting allowance" from their parents to purchase art beginning in 1916. His father died in 1917 and his brother in 1918. The blow of these losses caused Duncan and his mother to found the museum as a memorial.

"Sorrow all but overwhelmed me," he wrote. "Then I turned to my love of painting for my will to live."

He married artist Marjorie Acker in 1921, and the couple worked closely together to build the collection over their lifetimes. He is particularly noted for his support of struggling artists. In times of need, he helped painters such as Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove by purchasing their work or providing a stipend.

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