Matters of Taste
Better Living Through Chemistry


If ever there was an argument to be made for a museum being a living, breathing, growing work of art in itself, it's the current show at the Phillips Collection.   Thursdays they have extended hours, so I stopped in after my PNAS meeting.

The Phillips Collects: Degas to Diebenkorn is a selection of new works added to the collection over the past decade.  It includes significant pieces by artists that have been well represented in the past, such as Degas, Avery, Calder, and Klee, as well as many pieces by artists entering the collection for the first time -- photographs by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans being particularly noteworthy.  I was especially pleased to see the selection of Christenberry photographs, sculptures and drawings -- I've become very fond of Christenberry, who was born in Tuscaloosa and whose work is deeply rooted in the terrain and modern history of Alabama. 

The show effectively makes the case that the spirit that led Duncan Phillips to start his museum with a marvelously eclectic approach to collecting is alive and well in the current leadership.  One gets the impression that every single piece brings with it a joy and delight in the appreciation of the work.  No matter how serious or tumultuous the emotions that the piece itself may draw forth, its presence in the collection comes about because it is loved and the people who are in a position to do so are determined to share it with the world.

The eclecticism is one of the hallmarks of the Phillips.  MoMA, in New York, has suffered nearly half a century of identity crisis, trying to figure out what its purpose is as a museum of "modern art" when the era so defined is now decades in the past.  They continue to have spectacular collections and wonderful shows, but they carry the heavy weight of being MoMA, so there is a ponderousness and solemnity that is simply absent at the Phillips.  One goes to MoMA to be edified; one goes to the Phillips to feel more alive.

I rarely use the audioguides that are so popular in museums now.  I really don't want someone chattering in my ear, telling me what I'm supposed to be seeing.  Whether it's work by someone I'm familiar with, or work that is completely new to me, I'd just as soon trust my own experience of it.  If I want to find out more about it, I'll do that later.  But I was intrigued by the way the Phillips handled it -- instead of handing out audioguides (or renting them for five or ten bucks), several of the pieces had a note for "cell phone guides".  Call this number, and then punch in the number of the piece and you get a recording about it -- sometimes by Jay Gates, the director of the museum, sometimes by the collector who donated the piece, sometimes by the artist (Susan Rothenberg, for example, whose 60-second description of how some works lead to other works was absolutely delightful).   I only listened to a couple but it seemed to me a marvelously innovative and unobtrusive way to deal with the issue.

I don't really do collecting myself.  I believe that I have everything that Jim Harrison has published, and everything by Seamus Heaney.  I've got most of Coltrane and Jarrett and Charles Lloyd.  But I don't need every edition and every new compilation.  All of the artwork that we have scattered around the house we have because we fell in love with certain things,  so that the juxtaposition of  the Whistler etchings with the drawings of the relatively unknown Wisconsin painter Joann Kindt simply delights.

I lack the collector's temperament.  Some years ago, I was at a conference reception at a small museum and upon entering the reception, everyone was asked to fill out a name tag describing what they collected.  I guess the assumption was that being librarians we all must have a collection of something.  I was stumped for a bit, and then I wrote down, "Museums".

So today, since I'm taking a vacation day, I'm going to spend time with my collection -- I'll check out the new Kogod Courtyard at NMAA, and stop in to see the Whistlers at the Freer.   The spectacular exhibit of Japanese paintings that I saw last December has one more week at the Sackler, so I want to take another stroll through that, and then I'll continue up the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian and then walk through the National Gallery.

By that point, I'll be as full of emotion and wonder as I can handle, so I'll do what I always do after a museum day in DC, and stop at the Old Ebbitt Grill for oysters.  I'll sit at the bar, thinking about what I've seen, knowing that once again I've been changed a little, and I'll be grateful to live in a place and a time where there is magic all around me.


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