One of the great art patrons of the 20th century, who built the nation's first modern art museum in Washington, is offering a broad new look at the evolution of American art through a collector's eye beginning 100 years ago.
"Made in the U.S.A." has taken over most of the Phillips Collection for the next six months after returning home from a tour in Europe, Japan and several U.S. cities. It draws from the extensive collection Duncan Phillips amassed during his life and includes 202 works by more than 100 artists, ranging from Winslow Homer to Mark Rothko.
The show also offers a glimpse at how Phillips methodically invested in art for the nation's capital to help lift American artists out of obscurity in the early 20th century. His acquisitions seemed to follow the defining movements of American art through two world wars and beyond.
Curators selected works from 1850 to 1970, ranging from realism and impressionism to modern life and abstract expressionism. Works by Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper are shown among their contemporaries.
"If you step back 100 years, there were no textbooks of modern art," said curator Susan Behrends Frank. "There wasn't anything that said this artist is more important than this artist. (Phillips) was trying to understand each of these artists on their own, knowing that … he might be proven wrong."
So the group of more than 200 pieces includes both familiar names and less-recognized artists.
Phillips sought out emerging artists, those who were self-taught, women and artists of color who were reflecting the nation's changing identity, including Jacob Lawrence, Grandma Moses and Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. He was also one of the first museum directors to seek out and celebrate gritty everyday scenes of urban America, curators said.
From the founding of his museum in 1921, Phillips was uniquely engaged with the art and artists of his time, and the exhibit reflects his tastes for a range of styles.
"You feel this sense of Phillips' own learning, a sense of adventure and risk-taking — and how it's not about a formula sequence of trophy objects," said museum director Dorothy Kosinski.
"Made in the U.S.A." was originally envisioned as a four-year traveling show for a growing interest in American art abroad where the work of U.S. artists, especially in Europe, was long dismissed. It drew large crowds at galleries in Madrid and Tokyo and was well-received. So museum leaders decided to stage a much larger version back home in Washington through Aug. 31.
"We were all just blown away and really saw it as an opportunity to show the strength of the American collection in a way that perhaps isn't always visible," she said.