Over the summer, I presented a gallery talk on a series of 12 works by Augustus Vincent Tack, commissioned by Duncan Phillips in 1928. It is currently reinstalled in the wood-paneled Music Room, for which it was originally created. Below are excerpts from the discussion. Join me on December 15 at 6:30 pm for the next in our series of Director’s Perspectives, this time on work by Joseph Marioni.
Duncan Phillips and Augustus Vincent Tack met in 1914 and developed a deep and enduring friendship. Painter and patron had a lot in common: both were born in Pittsburgh and both had deep ties to Yale. Tack played an important role in fostering Duncan Phillips’s appreciation of the power and beauty of modern art.
The Phillips Collection owns seventy-five Tack paintings. “Tack” never became a household name. Whether Tack was fashionable was not the point. Duncan Phillips was passionately engaged in supporting emerging American artists alongside Europeans. The project was never about a suite of trophies, but about getting to know the artist and collecting his work in depth.
We’ve installed this cycle in the Music Room as part of the museum’s year-long 90th anniversary celebration. I’ve never seen this room look better. It seems bright and fresh. One senses the intentionality of these works that were commissioned just for this space. The shapes of the works–lunettes and arches surrounded by gold and silver leaf–emphasize the sense of harmony with the architecture of the room.
Tack’s titles for the installation read like a poetic stream. The vocabulary reveals his lofty, spiritual, and musical themes: Andante, Allegro, Balance, Ecstasy, Far Reaches, Flight (Fugue), Largo, Liberation, Order, Outposts of Time I, Outposts of Time II, and Rhythm. These are themes popular with 19th century symbolists and early abstract artists.
There is something elegiac that he aspires to; great exaltation. The notion of going beyond the easel to create a total work of art was also part of this generation of artists’ philosophy, including Bonnard and Vuillard, who were painting decorative cycles toward the end of their careers.
I recently had a conversation with one of the guards in this room, and she asked me if these paintings were unfinished. They are, indeed, finished. Tack was, however, an experimental painter who used sponges and rollers on his canvases. He would apply paint and then scrape it off, creating a veiled effect, somehow resembling ancient murals.
There is a tension in these works between figuration and an exciting new, abstract vocabulary. You can still see remnants of figures–Tack never really lets go of figuration and allusions to landscapes–yet the most powerful impression is of overall fields of color, light, and forms. (Are we looking forward towards the Rothko Room?)
For me, to have this beautiful, obscure cycle on view is absolutely joyous.
Dorothy Kosinski, Director