A few days ago, I wrote about my first encounter with the undated drawing Metropolis by an artist of whom I had zero awareness, Ralph Flint. On a trip to The Phillips Collection library, I discovered through light research that Flint was a critic as well as an artist, but it wasn’t until Librarian Karen Schneider came to me with an exciting find that a portrait of Flint began to emerge.
In a thin file of ephemera related to Flint, Schneider found a letter sent directly by Flint to Duncan Phillips describing his progress on a review of the current art season for Phillips’s magazine, Art and Understanding, as well as some amusing personal anecdotes.
This letter, in addition to his essay in Art and Understanding, convincingly casts Flint as a writer who ran with Alfred Stieglitz’s circle and apparently was close and personable with Duncan Phillips. It seems the “French show” to which he refers in the letter is Painting in Paris, the third exhibition mounted at the Museum of Modern Art to which Phillips loaned artwork. Based on the images reproduced in Flint’s essay in Art and Understanding, it seems that he wanted Phillips’s input as to which artworks to include. As for his fixation on John Marin in the letter, Flint likely references a solo show of Marin watercolors at Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, that was up from December 1929 through January 1930. Phillips first introduced Marin’s art into his collection in 1926 and gave the artist his first solo museum show in 1929. The museum now owns 31 works by the artist. Flint’s article in Art and Understanding also references Pierre Bonnard’s The Palm, and a series of “one-third-scale murals” by Augustus Vincent Tack “destined for the Phillips Memorial Gallery.”
As they were numerous, picking out references and connections to The Phillips Collection side-tracked me from my initial intention of finding out more about Ralph Flint himself. I wasn’t able to uncover when he died–but I’m guessing that as Phillips experts can’t either, it’s an elusive date. And though I find Metropolis to be a compelling drawing, I’m not heartbroken that I was unable to find any critical material discussing Flint as an artist.
I was truly surprised and satisfied that the clues sprinkled throughout Ralph Flint’s article in Art and Understanding and his letter to Duncan Phillips began to build an idea of who Flint was, in relation to the art world of his time and to the legacy of The Phillips Collection. His writing is lively and opinionated, and it is interesting to see how that spirited prose translates to a personal missive of the kind he sent to Phillips. Learning from the letter that Flint was friends with Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, and Marin makes it fun to read his favorable reviews of their work in Phillips’s magazine, like I’m in on a joke.
The time frame of these documents too, I think, makes them especially exciting to examine in context. Duncan Phillips, somewhat infamously, reacted with strong opposition to the modernism to which he was exposed at the Armory Show in 1913. In his1914 publication Enchantment of Art, Phillips lambastes many of the artists he went on to collect in later years. He calls Cézanne and van Gogh “unbalanced fanatics” for their subjective interpretations of nature, Gauguin a “half savage,” and describes Matisse’s work as “detestable.” In an essay in The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making, David W. Scott points out that for Phillips’s 1927 edition of Enchantment of Art under the revised title Enchantment of Art: As Part of the Enchantment of Experience Fifteen Years Later, Phillips significantly revised the book to reflect his evolving taste. In 1927, Phillips writes that “to the charge of inconsistency I plead guilty, but it does not trouble my conscience. Consistency from youth to middle age is at best a stiff-necked virtue.” It was around 1926 that Phillips met and began a friendship with Stieglitz, the influence of whom, Scott suggests, allowed Phillips to embrace contemporary art and reconsider artists he had previously dismissed. In this context, to have uncovered the relationship between Flint and Phillips through my initial attraction to Flint’s wholly modern drawing seems wonderfully fitting.
Piper Grosswendt, Museum Assistant/Marketing Intern