Happy Birthday Duncan Phillips

Works by Milton Avery, Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder, and Karl Knaths

Clockwise from top left: Milton Avery, Black Sea, 1959. Oil on canvas, 50 x 67 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1965. Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1965. Alexander Calder, Only, Only Bird, 1951. Tin cans and wire, 11 x 17 x 39 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1966. Karl Knaths, The Blue Heron at the Tide Wash, 1956. Oil on canvas; 24 x 30 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1965.

I had the pleasure of speaking last night to Alice Phillips Swistel, great-niece of Duncan Phillips who was born today in 1886. It’s not surprising that the conversation came around to her memories of him. Though I’ve worked here for over five years and handled many of Phillips’s belongings–his journals, book collection, letters–I always welcome more insight. Above are images of five works Phillips purchased in the last months of his life. I think the selection is telling, featuring his devoted friendship and support of artists (Knaths), and his appreciation for complexity (Motherwell). These works display many of the hallmarks of Phillips as a collector: his patronage and loyalty, the joy of discovering, a passion for seeking the new.

Summer Heat and Gardens

Karl Knaths, Green Squash, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 27 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1948.

Summer solstice isn’t until June 21, but it has certainly felt like summer already. Late spring of 1943 was also hot. Letters from Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s assistant, to Alfred Stieglitz sound much like conversation you would hear around our Dupont Circle neighborhood today. On June 29, 1943, she writes, “I trust [my letter] finds you well and able to stand this heat. I am tiring a little of one topic of conversation but no one seems able to avoid it.” In a letter a few weeks before, she lovingly described her gardening:

At the moment we are having a nice summer shower which will be fine for the brockely[sic] I set out last night. My dream for a small house and a large garden is still only the stuff dreams are made of but I have the use of a garden where I have put cabbages among my roses and tomatoes with my violets so weather has become very important to me. I’ll report on the crops later.

Ms. Bier started working for The Phillips Collection in 1923 and retired in 1972.