Modern Art Stories in the OC
American Mosaic: Picturing Modern Art through the Eye of Duncan Phillips
By Evan Senn
Through December 4
As an art historian, the most interesting aspect of a work of art from a time before my own is the story it tells. Defining ideas, cultural time stamps, relationships, emotions, timelines and narratives—either behind the canvas or on it—these are fascinating and fun puzzles pieces we move around and put together in our minds when we study historical works of art. Duncan Phillips was a prestigious critic and collector who was partially responsible for America’s introduction to modern art. His collection continues to be one of the best modern art collections in the world, and is currently on view in “American Mosaic: Picturing Modern Art through the Eye of Duncan Phillips” until December 4, at the Orange County Museum of Art.
The exhibition features 65 historic works by 53 artists, with a focus on paintings created between 1870 and 1965, telling many stories through this art that have never been told in person on the West Coast before. “American Mosaic” takes visitors on a journey through time and emotion, through culture and identity, and through multiple movements in our art historical timeline. The exhibition is divided into 10 chronological and thematic sections, starting with Romanticism and Realism, swirls around and through American Impressionism, as well as content-themed sections such as Nature, Modern Life and Memory and Identity, Cubism, and ends with Abstract Expressionism. Much like a college level course in art history, you can see and feel the stories of the work and the progression of time and culture as you move through the galleries, providing many different definitions of what modernism is and was.
Phillips founded The Phillips Memorial Gallery, later known as the Phillips Collection in 1921—America’s first major modern art museum. His passion for collecting amazing art helped support many struggling American artists without which we may never have had the opportunity to love. Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Richard Diebenkorn, Stuart Davis and Clifford Still have become masters in their art, and are well-known all over the world, as great American painters of the modernist tradition. Phillips also collected self-taught and international artists, maintaining the importance of diversity in any collection of art, especially for melting-pot America.
Among the masters in the collection are the French Realist Gustave Courbet, the Impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, the French Cubist Georges Braque, the German-Swiss individualist Paul Klee, the American Realist subject painter Winslow Homer, the American symbolist James McNeill Whistler, the European “interiors” painters Edouard Vuillard and Peter Ilsted, and the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Although Phillips collected amazing work by European artists, the “American Mosaic” naturally focuses solely on American art.
When you first begin your journey into the Phillips collection in “American Mosaic,” an art history nerd would be wowed upon recognizing such big names and works as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keefe and Alexander Calder. However, wandering through the galleries of this exhibit helps you understand modernism as a whole and the changing culture and life of artists during this time period as well. Wrapping up the exhibit in front of masters like Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Diebenkorn, Louis Morris and Mark Rothko was humbling and heart-wrenching—these works have a visual power that is difficult to describe, but so satisfying and evocative—as if modern art history was simplified yet thoroughly examined in one building, in one exhibit, and offered to me personally. This art historian left feeling grateful and fulfilled.
“American Mosaic: Picturing Modern Art Through the Eye of Duncan Phillips” is on view until December 4, 2016 at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Gallery hours are 11AM – 5PM Wednesdays through Sundays, and 11AM – 8PM Fridays.