Sharon Lorenzo reports on Princeton University’s Phillips Collection show
Major Duncan Phillips served in the Civil War then married Eliza Laughlin whose family had founded the Laughlin Steelworks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With her son, Duncan, Eliza started an art collection when both her husband and second son James died in 1918, as a way to overcome her grief. Duncan married an artist, Marjorie Acker, in 1921 whom he met at the Century Club in New York.
They both had attended the infamous Armory Show of 1913 where the first wave of European Modernism was shown in New York. Duncan saw the show with Arthur Davies who had been an instructor at the Teachers College in New York, and Davies convinced him that modern art was something to seriously consider collecting. The artists in the Armory show were fed up with the paintings of the French Salon which had embraced mythology, religion and royal portraits for so many centuries. They were pushing the boundaries of art to a new aesthetic of making the ordinary appear extraordinary. These artists were isolating, distilling, and looking at objects of everyday life in a new way.
Duncan Phillips was someone who liked the stable world view of artists who were looking at objects with a new view of aesthetic sensitivity. He liked that they valued visual sensation over content, and that there was no moral message – just straight forward realism with a focus on space, color and design. In America at this time there was not a royal upper class to commission art works. There was no artistic hierarchy from the churches. Currier and Ives were publishing photos from the Civil War, and the invention of photography was making the public pause to look at the lives of their soldiers destroyed on the battlefields. The art of quiet contemplation was in vogue. Artists on both sides of the Atlantic became interested in the still life subject as one that displayed a humble truth and could make us all look at the peach, the pear, or the rose as a valid subject of contemplation.
The Phillips Collection opened in 1921 and today has 3,000 works of art and two wings added to the original home built in 1897 on Q Street near Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Thanks to a joint venture with the University of Maryland, the Phillips Collection sponsors classes, concerts and programs of many kinds organized by the current curator, Dorothy Kosinski. They occasionally allow pieces of the collection to travel, and thus these 38 works are on loan to the Princeton Art Museum. They represent the best of early modernism where artists made the simplest of subject matter the focus of the canvas. The most spectacular of the loans are early works from the Cubist School: Gris, Braque, and Picasso. Trying to depict 3 dimensional objects in a two-dimensional space, these works are the preparatory models for their later masterpieces of the Cubist movement.
Similarly, the best and brightest of the American modernist school are present in this show with artists like Avery, Dove, and O’Keefe. Collectors today would swoon at the chance to have these works in their private collections. All these masters make the simple a treasure: the works speak of the plain composition, the tilted picture plane, the transition from three dimensional to two dimensional space.
Princeton is lucky to have this loaned exhibition for students and local audiences alike to see the best of the early modernist tradition where more was less and a new artistic aesthetic was emerging. American industrial success established an era of collecting art for both private families and public use. The Phillips family was graced with both financial resources and aesthetic taste at the same time. Three generations of the Phillips family participated in building the collection as it exists today as a monument to our tradition in America of shared philanthropy.
Princeton University Art Museum: January 27, 2018- April 29, 2018