Famed collector Duncan Phillips was known for presenting artwork based on aesthetic temperament, rather than chronologically. Phillips believed art from across periods could live side by side with “delightful results.”
It’s in that spirit that 75 pieces from Phillips’ vast personal collection are displayed at The High Museum of Art.
“European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection” opens this weekend and will be on view until July 14.
The museum was flooded with visitors earlier this year with the whirlwind success of “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” Now, Kusama’s iconic dots have been swapped out for impressionist, post-impressionist and expressionist artwork from the likes of Degas, Monet, van Gogh and Picasso.
Presenting curator Claudia Einecke said the exhibit provides a “unique” and “unbelievable” opportunity for art lovers in the southeast to see the collection up close.
“I have been asked, ‘so what are the highlights of this collection?’ and my answer is and will be, there are 75 works in the exhibition and 75 highlights,” she said. “Each and every one is a masterwork, as the title of the exhibition promises. You will have to spend a lot of time looking at each and every piece.”
The High is the exclusive southeastern stop for these works. They have previously been on view in Texas and Japan.
Phillips redefined modern art when he began building his collection in the early 20th century. In 1921 he opened The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. – the first modern art museum in the country.
Phillips, the grandson of a prominent Pittsburgh industrialist, provided the first purchases to many acclaimed European artists and gave several their first solo shows. His museum was the first in the U.S. to acquire art by Pierre Bonnard and Georges Braque.
As the centennial anniversary of the opening of Phillips’ museum approaches, they are focused on providing cultural exchanges like the one at the High, Renée Maurer, associate curator at the Phillips Collection in D.C., said.
Phillips, who died in 1966, was known to buy work from various phases of an artists’ career – he called the grouping of these works “units.” The exhibition at the High features units from Picasso, Daumier, Bonnard and Braque.
Maurer noted that Phillips dared to buy what he liked, rather than basing his decisions solely on what may have been considered a sound investment. That sentiment is displayed prominently in the exhibit with this quote from Phillips:
“To collect works of art is good, to collect only what one particularly likes is better, and to collect only such works as mingle agreeably together is to make the best kind of collection.”
Einecke said Phillips’ nontraditional approach to art was top of mind when she was deciding how to display the work in the exhibit. Phillips liked to make “interesting juxtapositions” in his museum and Einecke said she took that page from his playbook for this exhibit.
“Most exhibitions have a narrative thread running through them, whether it’s a theme or the development of the artist,” she said, “but that’s not the case here because that’s not how Duncan Phillips collected.”