Finding Peace, Solace, and Joy

Alice Phillips Swistel, grandniece of museum founder Duncan Phillips, reflects on the founding of The Phillips Collection.

I am named after my paternal grandmother, Alice Gifford Phillips. I have been thinking a lot about her lately, though I never knew her, especially as I have been sheltering separately from my husband, a surgeon, as this coronavirus rages on.

Duncan and James Phillips with their father, Major D.C. Phillips, c. 1900.

My grandmother, Alice, was married, had a baby, and suddenly became a widow all in the span of 14 months, from August 1917 to October 1918. Her husband, my grandfather, James Laughlin Phillips, Duncan’s older brother, died of the influenza pandemic of 1918. The baby, my father, was four months old. It was a tragedy that changed the lives of the family and of so many around the world. The so-called Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people.

Rockwell Kent, Burial of a Young Man, c. 1908-11, Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 52 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1918

Duncan and his brother, James, we very close, having been raised by older parents in a privileged home. Their father, a major in the union army during the Civil War, was a widower when he married 38-year-old Eliza Laughlin. The brothers, grandsons of the founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel, were schooled together, traveled to Asia together, and attended college at the same time. At Yale University, Duncan and James developed a fascination and love of contemporary art. They started collecting paintings, pooling their allowance and even asking their parents for an additional stipend so they could purchase more. After graduation, Duncan continued writing art history criticism for publications. James was interested in politics and became the assistant treasurer for the Republican Party. He met Alice in New York. The daughter of an architect, she had style, was lively, with a sense of humor and quite athletic, so I’ve heard. They married in the summer in Nantucket. Duncan was best man, clutching his top hat on his way to the wedding in a speeding boat. Sadly, just a month after their wedding, the Major died suddenly. James and Alice moved from New York to Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, to be closer to his mother.

Gustave Courbet, The Mediterranean, 1857, Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 33 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1924

When the United States entered World War I, both brothers enlisted but both were rejected due to health problems. Duncan was apparently 40 pounds underweight according to army regulations and James had bad lungs due to several bouts of pneumonia. Instead, James signed up for the American Red Cross, where he was an associate director of personnel, in charge of applications for overseas service. It was there that he contracted the flu virus. He died after a matter of days, at the family house on R and 21st St. His mother, already stunned by her husband’s sudden death, had a breakdown. She became an “invalid,“ moved to the top floor of the mansion, as my father recalled, and never left it again. Duncan was profoundly grief stricken, and fell into poor health and a lingering depression.

Somehow, remembering his and his brother’s love of art and collecting, Duncan seized on the idea of a memorial and that is how we came to have The Phillips Collection today. Duncan, along with his artist wife, Marjorie, in 1921, threw open the doors of the family house even though they all still lived upstairs. A home that had been a place of sorrow became a place to linger and reflect with color, line, and form, to be stimulated by bold ideas and intimate moments, both historical and contemporary, political and lyrical. Duncan, my great uncle, who impressed me as a little girl as bristling with enthusiasm, was passionate about sharing his experience. He wanted everyone to find peace, solace, and ultimately joy in art and music.

Maurice Prendergast, Ponte della Paglia, c. 1898/reworked 1922, Oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 23 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1922

As we approach our centennial next year in 2021, I hope our quarantine and social-distancing months have subsided, and we can find joy again in the collection that Marjorie and Duncan founded.

I personally thank you for supporting The Phillips Collection at this critical time. Thank you for visiting us virtually and we hope to see you again in the near future.

Stay well, wash your hands, and thank you for being art lovers.

Alice Phillips Swistel

Phillips Flashback: A Note From Georgia O’Keeffe

Every so often, routine messages from the past can provide new insights into historic connections and relationships. While preparing Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s correspondence for an ambitious three-year digitization project of the Phillips archives (generously funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services), Processing Archivist Juli Folk found a handwritten note from Georgia O’Keeffe from 1936 on the back of a Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then) envelope:

“Dear Mr. Phillips, I came in this afternoon with my friend Anita Pollitzer and was very sorry not to see you. When I asked this morning if the gallery would be open it did not occur to me to ask if you would be here. I enjoyed the paintings very much. My greetings to Mrs. Phillips. Sincerely, Georgia O’Keeffe.”

A note from Georgia O’Keeffe from the Phillips Collection archives

After a visit to the museum one day, O’Keeffe used the envelope to leave a note telling Duncan Phillips that she and her companion, Anita Pollitzer, enjoyed the paintings and to express disappointment that she had not been able to see him that day. By this time, Phillips and O’Keeffe had an established correspondence and Phillips already owned her painting Ranchos Church, No. II, NM (1929). Pollitzer was O’Keeffe’s best friend, with whom she also carried on a prodigious correspondence and to whom O’Keeffe often showed her work. In fact, it was Pollitzer who sent some of O’Keeffe’s early abstract charcoal drawings, which O’Keeffe called the “Specials,” to Alfred Stieglitz, gallery dealer and photographer, launching a lifelong relationship. Stieglitz went on to become a champion of O’Keeffe’s work, giving her many exhibitions in his New York gallery, and the two were married in 1924.

It is tantalizing to speculate which works of art O’Keeffe saw at the gallery that day. According to the museum’s installation records, in 1936 she could have seen paintings such as Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window, Paul Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Arthur Dove’s Morning Sun, Vincent van Gogh’s The Public Gardens at Arles, Ernest Lawson’s Spring Morning, Edouard Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room, and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Moonlit Cove, as well as her own Ranchos Church, inspired by a trip to Taos, New Mexico.

Phillips Flashback: Conceptual Artist Yuri Schwebler

Processing Archivist Juli Folk shares her findings in the Phillips Archives about Conceptual Artist Yuri Schwebler.

Since I began working as a processing archivist in The Phillips Collection Library and Archives this summer, one of the resources I access to learn more about the museum is our rich collection of oral histories, a documentation effort that began in 2004 and continues today. These transcripts are the result of hours of conversations between professional oral historians and The Phillips Collection directors, curators, exhibition designers, artists, and other staff. While reading the oral history with Bill Koberg, The Phillips Collection’s chief of installations who started as a museum assistant in 1971, I was struck by his passing mention of a familiar outdoor sculpture around the corner from the museum.

“Now that you’ve scratched my memory, there was a Yuri Schwebler [show at The Phillips Collection in 1973], and those were works that were designed for the space that were made out of slate and, I think, in some cases, glass on rails with pendulums. There’s an example of that, now,  on Q Street, around the corner, in front of a… house.”

If you’ve ever walked to The Phillips Collection from the Dupont Circle Metro station via Q Street NW, then you’ve probably seen it, too. The work, by conceptual artist Yuri Schwebler, sits in front of a muted green house on the north side of the street.

Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler. Photo: Juli Folk

Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler. Photo: Juli Folk

Schwebler, a well-known participant in the 1970s DC arts scene, was born on November 21, 1942, in Nazi-occupied Feketic, Yugoslavia. He immigrated to Delaware as a child, taking art lessons in high school and eventually attending Western Maryland College before being encouraged to pursue his art career in Maryland and DC. He is best known for ambitious works designed for specific sites and is associated with the Max Protetch gallery. The piece on Q Street NW is exemplary of the concepts Schwebler was exploring at this time, including geometry, balance, light, shadow, and natural processes.

Schwebler’s 1973 exhibit at The Phillips Collection, 2 as 3 sculptures, is an early exploration of themes that would pervade his career.

Exhibition Postcard Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection Archives

Exhibition Postcard. Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection Archives


The exhibition brochure shows that the five works emphasize pendulums, plumb bobs, materials, and spatial balance. As Koberg noted, the pieces were designed specifically for the courtyard space.

Henry Allen, writing for The Washington Post Arts in 1973, called the show “sculpture in the tradition of the pyramids, not the Pieta—of alchemy rather than esthetics.” Allen goes on to describe that, “The five new works comprise: 12 big sheets of 1⁄4-inch plate glass, 11 aluminum I-beams, each with a small hole drilled in the center to hold a carpenters’ spirit level, 11 plumb bobs that dangle from 11 golden strings, and 26 turnbuckles to tighten 13 silvery wires.”

The Washington Post Review

The Washington Post Review

A 1981 essay by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan for an exhibition organized by The Hudson River Museum, The Studio: Sculpture by Yuri Schwebler, describes Schwebler’s works as sometimes temporary and sometimes permanent, constructed both indoors and outdoors, and exploring “geometric precision and modules to magical transformations and theatrical engagement, from small wall-oriented objects to projects of monumental proportions”.

Spatial drawings of geometric figures based on numerical values (as in both mathematics and alchemy, according to Schwebler) were refined on increasingly larger scales between 1973 and 1978. In five sculptures made in 1973 specifically for the garden of The Phillips Collection, Schwebler arranged in each work two sheets of plate glass to suggest equilateral triangles (“2 as 3”) resting on or under aluminum I-beams. The measure of each piece for balance and precision was taken in effect by carpenter’s spirit levels and plumb bobs on golden threads, while taut silver wires both secured the constructions and extended the image of drawing between points and planes in space. Industrial hardware and pristine glass were combined to reveal both structure and process. Catching light and elements in the space around them, each transparent variation acquired a certain poetry in harmony with its environment—a foil to formal crispness.

Other popular local works included filling the atrium of the Corcoran School of Art with pyramids and a series of “Magnetic North” installations around the District. In the winter of 1974, after years of planning, Schwebler created a sundial using the Washington Monument as its gnomon shifting against the carefully calculated pattern shoveled into fresh snowfall. Walter Cronkite reported for the CBS Evening News that the project required $24, six feet of snow, and a permit and plow from the National Park Service. When asked about why he made it, Schwebler replied, “You can actually see the Earth move, or feel it move, by watching that shadow.”

Again, Hartigan quotes Schwebler’s take on his work around DC.:

“Relating [is] what I’ve done in those pieces over the years rather than sculptures… around this town [Washington, DC], looking at sculpture that exists—like a general here and a horse and general there—[it] is always imposing on the space but… dealing with the structure of the space, and somehow showing something that I saw in the place, rather than really imposing myself.”

Sadly, Schwebler died by suicide at his home in Marlborough, New York, on March 3, 1990, at age 47, and his obituary appeared in The Washington Post. He was survived by his partner, Enid Sanford, as well as his mother, Eva Schwebler, and two sisters. Because so much of his work was temporary by design, many installations are no longer in existence; the piece on Q St. NW is thus an even more poignant reminder of his artistic efforts and local legacy.

The Phillips Collection Archives was established in 2006 to organize, preserve, and make available the museum’s records of enduring value that document the history of the museum, including its origins, activities, and events. The Archives serves as the museum’s institutional memory, and is especially rich in documentation of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, the museum’s founders. The Archives also selectively acquires primary source material that relates to the history of the museum as well as collections that focus on artists whose work is in The Phillips Collection. The archives welcome staff as well as visiting researchers and scholars during public open hours as well as visits by appointment. Research conducted by staff and visiting scholars leads to exhibitions, exhibition catalogues, books, articles, theses, and doctoral dissertations.


Resources and Further Reading

Allen, Henry. “It Means Something But What?” The Washington Post, July 20, 1973.

Anderson, John. “The Missing Archive of Yuri Schwebler.” International Sculpture Center re:sculpt, January 25, 2017.

Caldwell, John. “Art; Thought-provoking Work At The Hudson.” The New York Times, November 15, 1981.

Frgey, Benjamin. “Phillips Collection: A Sculptural Side.” The Washington Star-News, July 20, 1973.

Hartigan, Linda. “The Studio: Sculpture.” Hudson River Museum Exhibition Catalog, 1981.

Meyer, Robinson. “On Google Maps, the Washington Monument Is a Sundial.” The Atlantic, May 23, 2014.

Meredith. “DC Art History: Yuri Schwebler and the Largest Sundial.” Brightest Young Things,

March 9. 2010.

Metcalfe, John. “Queen of Beverly Court.” Washington City Paper, July 2, 2004.

Moorhaus, Donita. Transcript of an oral history in The Phillips Collection Oral History Program: Interview with Bill Koberg, The Phillips Collection Library and Archives, 2010.

Pearson, Richard. “Yuri Schwebler, D.C. Artist in 1970s, Dies.” The Washington Post, March 5, 1990.

Richard, Paul. “Phillips: A Look at the Locals.” The Washington Post, September 15, 1973.

Seadler, Dee. “ART: Schwebler Through the Looking Glass.” Memo: Washington’s Comprehensive Entertainment Magazine. August 19-September 1, 1973, p. 14.