TAMPA — Duncan Phillips spent almost half a century assembling one of the great collections of modern American and European art for the Phillips Collection, the Washington, D.C., museum he founded in 1921. Its greatness lies in the brilliant eye he had and, of course, the personal fortune he could access. But even more, he had a prescient and generous vision.
That vision shines through in "To See as Artists See: American Art From the Phillips Collection" at the Tampa Museum of Art. The 100 paintings dating from the 1850s to the 1960s represent both a general survey of American art and a personal statement about Phillips' aesthetic.
Phillips (1886-1966) inherited his wealth and began collecting art as a young man. The intense grief he felt after the unexpected deaths of his father and brother in 1917 and 1918 was the catalyst for a nascent museum that began in galleries repurposed from rooms in the home he shared with his mother.
He described the project as "a memorial . . . a beneficent force in the community where I live — a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."
Mother and son moved out as the collection grew, and the house became a museum in 1921, the same year Phillips married Marjorie Acker, a painter who would be his partner in purchasing art and running the Phillips Collection for the rest of his life.
The personal nature of the museum's origin endured as it grew. Phillips, like another great collecting contemporary, Albert Barnes, was drawn to works by impressionists, post-impressionists and modernists. Unlike Barnes, who favored French examples of those movements, Phillips also collected American artists in large numbers, which could be risky business. American art wasn't taken seriously internationally until the 1950s, when abstract expressionism shifted the balance of art-world power from Paris to New York.
In Phillips' youth, there were few art schools in the United States, and the assumption was that serious artists needed to go to France to study — and copy — their European betters. Most did if they could afford it. The best, though, fostered a renegade spirit of independence that marked their work both in technique and subject matter and inspired later generations of artists who were even more independent of the judgments of Paris.
Phillips believed in American artists and nurtured their talent. Though he amassed plenty of French masterpieces — Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) is considered the museum's greatest work — he gave equal prominence to underappreciated painters such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove. So this group of American art culled from the Phillips Collection is especially fitting.
• Allow a lot of time for this show. It's sumptuously installed, taking up more gallery space than any previous exhibition, and deserves a lot of pleasurable perusal.
• And try to see not only as artists see (to borrow from Phillips and the exhibition title) but also as Phillips saw. Compare his experience to your own when you look at contemporary art and sometimes feel perplexed. Remember that much of the art he bought that we now consider classic was contemporary for him and those who visited his museum. It might help you appreciate how daring he could be and how much he loved what many viewers could not at the time.
The earliest work is The Peaceable Kingdom (1845-46) by Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister and self-taught artist. The self-taught component was important to the collector; throughout his life, he championed contemporary artists who did not have conventional training or were part of a minority.
But he wasn't formulaic in his purchases. He bought art he believed to be the best examples and most representative of new currents. Jacob Lawrence, for example, was already getting a lot of attention when he completed the great Migration series of 60 paintings in 1941, and Phillips competed with the Museum of Modern Art to acquire it; they wound up splitting it in half.
The show is arranged mostly chronologically and along broad thematic lines. Through the decades and the cavalcade of American art history — from the early realists to abstract expressionism — we see Phillips' admiration for composition, technique and color.
Compare Thomas Eakins' Miss Amelia Van Buren, painted in 1891 and acquired in 1927, to Richard Diebenkorn's Girl With Plant, painted in 1960 and acquired in 1961, which are two of my favorite works in the show. They were painted about 70 years apart and with different sensibilities. Eakins was a realist with a genius for revealing nuanced personalities in his finely wrought portraits, and this one is considered his best. His subject sits in a pensive slouch, her seriousness seemingly at odds with her lovely dress and fan in her lap. In contrast, Diebenkorn's young woman sits with her back to us and seems to meld into the foreground with inanimate objects. The window, not the girl, dominates the canvas. Eakins evokes emotion with his minute, telling and perfectly rendered details of a specific person. Diebenkorn does so by subsuming his figure, giving her anonymity. Colors glow in both. Composition underpins everything. Nothing important separates the two works.
Phillips had a great eye, but it wasn't infallible. Though there is nothing mediocre in the group, there are works that suffer in their proximity to others. Edward Bruce is an obscure artist whose Power is a sweeping view of lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Hudson River are in the foreground. Skyscrapers are bathed in a gauzy light created by an ethereal cloud suffusing the sun's rays. It's the kind of cloud certain religious painters use in conjunction with the hand of God. It's not in any way a bad painting, but it has nothing of the power contained in Hopper's Approaching the City. It, too, is an unpeopled landscape starring the industrial grids of trains rather than ships. The painter's vantage point is that of the conductor who has a view of the tracks as they disappear into a tunnel. A tall concrete wall separates it from a row of buildings. It's classic Hopper, as is another of his works in the show, Sunday. Phillips wanted art that reflected life at the time it was created, and Hopper better than anyone knew how to convey the sense of isolation that began defining modern urban life. Bruce, on the other hand, hearkens back to the stirring monumentality of Albert Bierstadt that idealized the American landscape in an earlier century.
But this exhibition is, in every way, as Phillips wanted his museum to be: "joy-giving." It has such plenitude and variety that if you can't find works to love, then you don't love art.
The museum has continued to collect art with new generations of contemporary artists, making old masters out of the ones once considered impudent upstarts. Phillips was sure enough of himself to need no outside validation, but he certainly has gained it.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.