From the Archives: A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists

Associate Curator Renée Maurer on the 1971 exhibition at the Phillips featuring local artists, which included Alma Thomas. See Thomas’s work alongside many of the same artists in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, on view through January 23, 2022.

Cover of “A Small Loan Exhibition” brochure

The Phillips Collection was one of the first major museums in Washington, DC, to exhibit the work of living artists, and since its opening, it has been considered a resource for modern art, an incubator for new ideas, and a nexus for creative circles. In the 1950s, Alma Thomas’s teachers at American University (AU)—Robert Franklin Gates, Ben “Joe” Summerford, and Jacob Kainen—had strong ties to the museum and its collection. In the 1960s, the members and associates of the Washington Color School—Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, and Sam Gilliam—who all exhibited with Thomas at galleries throughout this city, were also connected to the museum; the color-filled canvases by Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Mark Rothko at the Phillips inspired them all. Summerford explained that at the time: “Washington was barren except for the Phillips and AU.” Davis spent weekend afternoons at the Phillips, and he attributed his mastery of color to the collection, saying “what constituted color in painting came directly from the French painting that Mr. [Duncan] Phillips seemed to be fond of.”

To celebrate the Phillips’s 50th anniversary, Museum Director Marjorie Phillips organized a local art exhibition. Thomas’s acrylic watercolor Atmosphere was on view with examples by Noland, Davis, Gilliam and others in A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists from December 4–31, 1971. Thomas kept the announcement and the brochure from the show in her personal papers. In her writings, Marjorie Phillips noted Thomas’s work as “very nice” and that the galleries had “a feeling of color and excitement . . . just what I hoped for in this show!” In The Sunday Star, Benjamin Forgey reflected, all these “[artists] were nurtured on the paintings [at the Phillips].” Gilliam later observed that Thomas “responded to the Rothkos, Louises, and Nolands” in the collection.

List of artists and artworks in the 1971 exhibition

Thomas’s works are once again on view at the Phillips alongside works by Gilliam, Davis, Noland, and others in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.

Installation view of Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful with works by (left to right) Alma Thomas, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam, and Gene Davis. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Marjorie Phillips: Artist and Executive

The Phillips Collection is excited to share the recent publication of “Duncan and Marjorie Phillips and America’s First Museum of Modern Art” (Vernon Press, 2021) by Pamela Carter-Birken. Here is an excerpt from the book, which reveals the stories of the people who worked to make The Phillips Collection both an experience and a home.

The Gilded Age had waned when Marjorie Acker attended the Art Students League of New York. She took the train into the city from Ossining, New York, where she lived with her parents and six siblings. Her routine was to disembark at Grand Central Station on 42nd Street then walk up Fifth Avenue to reach the renowned art school on 57th Street. The Indiana-born painter loved New York City. She would pop into art galleries to see the latest works on display whenever time allowed.  . . .

Please don’t disturb read the sign Marjorie put on the door to her studio, a dedicated space first located within the Phillips’s Dupont Circle property and later at their Foxhall Road home. She had always been a disciplined creator, even painting on her honeymoon. The newlyweds’ get-away would not be the only time she packed palette and easel. During her years with Duncan, she made the most of their summers in the Alleghenies. “It was a wonderful place for painting,” she said of rural Ebensburg, Pennsylvania. “Social life didn’t follow you there. You could walk, paint. I’d work in my studio, from the car or in a field on the spot.” Back in Washington, Marjorie set aside mornings for painting. On those afternoons when she was tempted to return to a work-in-progress, the duties of being a museum executive usually prevented her from opening the studio door again until the next day. While Marjorie did not become director of The Phillips Collection until after Duncan’s death in 1966, she served as its associate director for 41 years and bore responsibility for the minutiae of organizing temporary exhibitions in the museum’s Prints and Drawings Room.  . . .

Marjorie Phillips, Self-Portrait, c. 1940, Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist, 1985

No matter the task at hand, Marjorie saw the world as an artist. Duncan admired her for it, and throughout her career he cheered her on. In 1948, Duncan composed the foreword for an exhibition brochure about works by Marjorie. The exhibit was first mounted at the Bignou Gallery and then shown at the Phillips Gallery. In his description of her art, Duncan wrote: “What we need today is not just another group movement but a few individuals who love that real light, which is the life of everything it touches. Such an artist is Marjorie Phillips who, in spite of keen understanding and appreciation of many [artistic] techniques is never distracted from her course. She is a luminist with a truly classic feeling for composition of pictorial space.” In the context of art history, Luminism was a term coined a half-dozen years after Duncan wrote the foreword. It referred to a group of artists who could use light to turn sky or sea ethereal. With pervading light came a feeling for the universality of nature. As an art movement, Luminism encompassed painters in the 19th century’s Hudson River School, among them Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. Marjorie would have been familiar with Church’s interpretation of Niagara Falls and Bierstadt’s of the Rocky Mountains, among other sweeping renditions. When Duncan called Marjorie a luminist he was not comparing her to the great American landscape artists. Rather, he was referring to how she used light to enhance what he saw as her individualism.

Phillips Flashback: Americans in Paris

In preparation for an exciting tribute on June 23 to art collector Roz Jacobs, Associate Curator Wendy Grossman recently dug up a film produced for the 1996 exhibition Americans in Paris held at The Phillips Collection. The exhibition featured the work of four prominent American artists: Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and Gerald Murphy. The exhibition focused on the artistic output of these artists during the 1920s while they spent time in Paris, frequenting the famous cafes, theaters, and boulevards. Roz Jacobs owned a work by Man Ray that was featured in the exhibition. 

The 18-minute video features remarks by former Phillips curator Dr. Elizabeth Hutton Turner, now of the University of Virginia, emphasizing the innovative nature of the works included in the exhibition, highlighting technological advancements post WWI and the emergence of mass-produced items and advertisements. Man Ray created his “rayographs” by placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light without the use of a camera. Calder, an engineer by training created three-dimensional sculptures of prominent figures in Paris including Josephine Baker. Stuart Davis envisioned boxy linear streets in his compositions, modernizing the city of Paris in his artistic imagination of it. Gerald Murphy created compositions of popular goods advertised for men including razors, matches, and ballpoint pens.  

This video allows the museum to further contextualize past exhibitions and learn from past practices. Mining and finding stories in the museum archive allows us to also share our history with a new generation of museum goers, especially during the celebration of the museum’s 100-year history. We look forward to sharing more of these great memories with you!