Brandywine's visiting paintings from the Phillips Collection give fresh insight on the man who collected them – and on America

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"Red Sun" (1935), by Arthur Dove.

The great art collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips supported and advocated American artists and art throughout his career. But he deplored what he called "adolescent nationalism" that insisted on the separation of work done by Americans from that done by their peers and predecessors in Europe and throughout the world.

From the time he opened his museum in Washington, in 1921 - an isolationist moment in our politics - Phillips aggressively mixed works by well-known European artists with those by American "old masters," such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, and with the works of a younger generation of American artists, many of whom he collected in quantity. It was said to be shocking at the time and is still quite different from what most museums do.

From Homer to Hopper: Experiment and Ingenuity in American Art at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through May 21 is a traveling show of 54 of the works by Americans from the Phillips Collection. By unmaking Phillips' international omelet, it spotlights his taste and influence on American art, especially during the years between the World Wars.

But by dividing the show into nine major themes, each introduced by a long wall text, its organizers have done something Phillips never wanted to do – get in the way of the art. This problem is worsened by the show's layout; it is never quite clear which works are part of each theme. The only sensible response is to ignore it all and just look at the pictures.

Its title, by the way, is something of an overpromise. There is only one Winslow Homer in the show. (The current watercolor exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has two dozen.) There are two Edward Hoppers, one of which Phillips bought in 1926 for the then-record price of $600.

There are many other famous names in the show - Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, and Grandma Moses, among others. Almost equally interesting are artists like Harold Weston, Augustus Tack, and John Kane, who won Phillips' enthusiastic support but are less known today. Perhaps we can see what Phillips saw in them.

Indeed, the best way to see the show is as a glimpse at the sensibility of Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), heir to two wealthy Pittsburgh industrial families. He was a collector and scholar of art from his youth, and after his older brother, James, died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic, he and his mother established the Phillips Collection as a memorial. The Dupont Circle building where the collection is housed today was originally their home. They moved out and let the collection take over.

I suppose I had always thought of Phillips as a kinder, gentler Albert Barnes. Both were Renoir enthusiasts, and Phillips acquired what is, in America at least, his most familiar work, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Both saw themselves as mavericks of sorts, and they both thought and talked about art in terms of abstract form, though Barnes' approach was more rigid. Both organized their galleries without regard to the date or place where the work had been made. Both collected and encouraged American artists, though Phillips acquired their work in more depth and with more discernment. It would be difficult to extract a show similar to this from the Barnes Foundation - even if Barnes' will allowed it.

Phillips really seems to have liked artists and was enthralled by their ability to shape our visions of the world. He was a bit of a romantic, who said he was drawn to artists who can capture "the cosmic, unconsciously."

Presumably, one such artist was Dove, to whom Phillips paid a monthly stipend for 16 years, in exchange for the first chance to buy his work. Dove's Red Sun (1935) in which an immense sun, its energy dramatized by a black spiral, is setting behind a couple of ridges, one of them striped, is this show's signature work. You can't not look at it.

I was even more engaged, though, by another Dove, Sun Drawing Water (1933), apparently a diagram of the hydrologic cycle, but also mystical and even sexy. Above a green, rather furry hill rise two great shafts reaching into the sky.

Phillips acquired Davis' Egg Beater No. 4 (1928) because the artist needed money to rent a studio. Davis told Phillips it was his best work, a sales pitch that might have been true. Its way of seeing is vastly different from Dove's but equally distinctive. Davis opened out the crystalline structure of cubism by spinning it into space, which seems a very American approach.

Perhaps Phillips' single greatest act of patronage of American art was his acquisition of half of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (1940-41), which fused journalistic immediacy with a distinctive abstract visual language. None of that is in the show, but two 1993 Lawrence silk screens based on panels from his late-1930s Toussaint L'Ouverture Series are included.

Phillips was cosmopolitan, both temperamentally and as a matter of principle. "All the world contributed to our spiritual and creative resources since all the world is contained in our United States," he wrote in 1944. He seems to have been particularly drawn to work that is truly hybrid. Maine Family (1922-23) by the Japanese-born artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi shows an unmistakable but subtle Asian sensibility, though its mother, girl, and baby might be figures in a creepy Stephen King story.

August Still Life (1952) by Morris Graves is a very different sort of hybrid. Graves had spent time in Japan and was influenced by Zen and Japanese art, though this is not an imitation. At the near left corner of the table is a box of brightly colored berries so solid and distinct they seem to be visiting from another painting. Everything else is ambiguous. The pears might be on the table or they might be falling toward it. A branch in a vase seems in danger of tipping over. Even the table seems to be in the midst of disappearing.

What a wonderful and unexpected painting! It defies classification. But it embodies an idea of America as a land that receives influences from everywhere and transforms them into something nobody has seen before.

tom@thomashine.com


AT THE BRANDYWINE

From Homer to Hopper: Experiment and Ingenuity in American Art

Through May 21 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, U.S. Route 1 and Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily.

Admission: Adults, $15; seniors, $10; youths (6-18) and students, $6; children (5 and under).

Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywine.org/museum