A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection will bring to the Kimbell more than seventy paintings and sculptures from one of the world’s greatest museums of modern art. The Phillips Collection, housed in the historic residence of a wealthy Pittsburgh family that moved to Washington, DC, in the 1890s, is in fact America’s first museum devoted exclusively to modern art. Duncan Phillips (1886–1966), the grandson of a prominent Pennsylvania steel magnate, built the museum’s extraordinary collection. When the museum opened in 1921 as the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, in honor of its founder’s father and brother, the collection included work by American Impressionists and their French counterparts. The collection’s original building will undergo a thorough restoration in 2017-18; during the renovation, A Modern Vision will allow audiences worldwide access to some of its greatest treasures.
After founding the museum, Phillips married the painter Marjorie Acker; through her, and through expanding friendships with living artists, his eyes were opened to new strains in painting and sculpture. He soon expanded the ambitions and the breadth of his collection, reaching out to acquire the works of such modern American painters as Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe, but also significant holdings of works by French, Swiss, German, and Austrian artists of the period 1850-1950. Phillips referred to the museum as an “experiment station,” and today it retains the founder’s personal stamp in a gathering of art that combines tradition, idiosyncrasy, and daring. Art, in Phillips’s opinion, was meant to inspire: “Pictures send us back to life and to other arts with the ability to see beauty all about us as we go on our accustomed ways,” Phillips wrote. “Such a quickening of perceptions is surely worth cultivating.”
Central to Phillips’s taste was a preference for intense color and design. He was the first person, for instance, to gather a group of paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko together as a unit—a move that anticipated and even inspired Rothko’s creation of decorative series. As Robert Hughes put it, “Phillips was in fact the complete optical collector. He craved color sensation, the delight and radiance and sensory intelligence that is broadcast by an art based on color. Color healed; it consoled, it gave access to Eden. He could not understand . . . why art should be expected to do anything else.”
Duncan Phillips was an iconoclast. He rejected old-fashioned art-historical ways of organizing a museum, believing that “the really good things of all ages and all periods could be brought together . . . with such delightful results that we recognize the special affinities of artists.” A Modern Vision begins with a spare and, in Phillips’s view, quintessentially “modern” still life painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in 1726 and concludes with a highly stylized bird painted by Georges Braque in 1956, purchased in the year of Phillips’s death. In between, viewers will encounter a stunning array from the nineteenth century that begins with such masters as Courbet, Ingres, and Manet and features such icons as Honoré Daumier’s The Uprising. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings include a superb still life by Cézanne and an intensely colored painting of dancers by Degas, in addition to landscapes by Monet, Sisley, and Van Gogh—notably the latter’s celebrated Road Menders of 1890.
Critical to the exhibition are important selections from the carefully formed “units” of works by Phillips’s twentieth-century favorites: Pierre Bonnard, including The Open Window and The Palm; Wassily Kandinsky, including a canvas added to the collection by Phillips’s friend Katherine Dreier, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow); Pablo Picasso; Oskar Kokoschka; and Georges Braque—with some seven works, among them the elegiac Shower.
A Modern Vision gathers, in the words of Duncan Phillips, “congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time” in an unprecedented array that will both inspire and delight, demonstrating that, as Phillips believed, “art is a universal language.”