Billing itself as “America’s First Museum of Modern Art,” the Phillips Collection is a worthwhile visit for anyone interested in the roots of modern art. It’s located in Washington, DC but its many New York connections include free admission to members of the Whitney Museum. The Music Room, where musicians from Glenn Gould to Philip Glass have performed, will make any New Yorker feel at home looking at paintings of the Washington Square Arch, and the skyscrapers, subways, roof tops, and jazz clubs of Manhattan. Edward Hopper’s Approaching A City from 1946 is a favorite of mine. I’m reminded of it every day on the Metro North to Grand Central, as the train goes under East 97th Street.
The permanent collection of 3,000 pieces includes works by Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Mondrian, van Gogh, Kandinsky, O’Keeffe, and Monet. In addition to paintings, sculpture, and video exhibits there are two rooms that are artworks of their own. The Rothko Room contains four of Mark Rothko’s painting in a room that displays them, to use the artist’s words, “in a scale of normal living.” The Laib Wax Room, four walls and a ceiling coated with 440 pounds of beeswax installed by the artist Wolfgang Laib under a bare light bulb, can only accommodate two visitors at a time. But it smells great once you’re in it.
The jewel in the collection’s crown is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1881 painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. The painting, purchase by Duncan Phillips for $125,000 in 1923, is a combination of still life, landscape and portraits. There are fourteen portraits to be exact, including the woman in the lower left corner who is holding a dog and, presumably, the artist’s heart. They were married nine years after posing for this work.
The Phillips Collection is housed in three buildings at the corner of 21st and Q Streets in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington which is a great place to eat, drink, and shop. Anyone who appreciates modern art should carve a few hours out of a trip to DC to pay this special place a visit.
Writing by Mike Power