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THE HOUSE THAT DUNCAN PHILLIPS BUILT

WASHINGTON -- Imagine one of Delaware Avenue's stately mansions housing the world's first museum of modern art, where visitors spend Sunday afternoons strolling from one cozy room to the next, idly admiring the Bonnards, the Cezannes, the Picassos.

Washingtonians don't have to imagine it. One of the world's most respected small museums, the Phillips Collection, is housed in a red limestone mansion tucked amid the shady streets of Dupont Circle, not far from Embassy Row.

And for the next three months, Buffalonians won't have to imagine it, either, as the Phillips sends 55 of its European masterworks to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery while their Washington home undergoes an expansion.

It's expected to be one of the biggest shows the Albright-Knox has ever seen -- and maybe even bigger than the typical year at the Phillips itself. When the same show visited the Phoenix Art Museum earlier this year, it attracted 200,000 people. Jay Gates, the Phillips' director, said that's more than his museum draws in a typical year.

Ironically, bigness is exactly the opposite of what the Phillips is all about. In keeping with the vision of its founder, the Phillips still feels more like a home than it does a museum, albeit a home brimming with the works of Matisse and Degas and O'Keefe. And that intimacy probably explains why the Phillips inspires such affection among those who know it.

"Everyone who loves early modern art loves the Phillips Collection and envies Washington for having it," art critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1989. "The Phillips has never lost its . . . gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art."

Those are the gifts of Duncan Phillips, who used his inherited fortune to build one of the world's first, and still most formidable, collections of modern art.

Phillips filled his home with the paintings he loved, and it still feels like his place. It's a feel that will be hard to replicate in Buffalo. After all, the stairs at the Albright-Knox don't creak, and the museum tends not to hang great masterpieces in odd overlooked corners.

Yet that's all part of the charm of the house that Duncan Phillips built.

The son of a steel baron, Duncan Phillips might be seen as the typical fortunate son -- until tragedy struck. Within months in 1917 and 1918, his father and brother died suddenly and unexpectedly. Phillips, then a 32-year-old art critic, was left to decide what to do with his life and the family fortune.

"Sorrow all but overwhelmed me," he wrote in 1926. "Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live."

And he turned his fortune into a small public gallery, which opened in 1921 on the bottom floor of the family mansion.

"I saw a chance to create a beneficent force in the community where I live a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."

Frankly, though, Phillips built a museum that showcased the art that he wanted to see. By no means did he try to make it comprehensive. He eschewed the old masters and focused instead on the contemporary painting he liked best.

It was nothing if not audacious.

"Think of the world Duncan Phillips was living in," Gates, the current Phillips director, said. "There was no Museum of Modern Art. There was no National Gallery. There were no histories of modern art. There were no university departments of art history . . . So when Duncan Phillips decided to start this museum, it was a genuinely original idea."

After marrying an aspiring artist named Marjorie Acker in 1921, Phillips and his wife went on a 40-year buying binge that made the Phillips what it is today. By the end of the 1920s, the collection boasted its first Monet and its first Picasso. And in 1923 he bought Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" -- the Phillips' most famous painting -- for $125,000, a fraction of what it would be worth today.

By his death in 1966, Phillips' collection included works by most of the modern masters. Yet by no means was Phillips a lover of everything modern. You won't see anything by Dali or his artistic soul mates at the Phillips.

"Duncan Phillips didn't respond to surrealism," Gates said. "He didn't like early cubism. What he liked tended to be more painterly, more emotional."

And very colorful. If there is one thing that appears to tie the paintings at the Phillips together, it is that most burst forth with bright color.

Yet there isn't really any one philosophy tying them all together. Phillips wanted to create a museum of modern art and its origins -- and wanted to get beyond the trends that always sweep the art world, to get to something simpler yet deeper.

"We are hostile to the faddists of the latest cults in art who squander their time and energy on propaganda and denounce as plagiarism everything that is not revolutionary," Phillips wrote. "We stand sponsor especially for the lonely artist in quest of beauty."

In keeping with that spirit, the touring exhibit is called "Art Beyond Isms."

"The 'isms' of the 20th century? He didn't care about them," Gates said. What he did care about was creating a growing institution dedicated to the best modern art.

And that, in fact, is why the Phillips' masterworks are now on tour. The museum is in the midst of a $25 million expansion that includes construction of an auditorium and a new center for studies in modern art.

With more than half of the Phillips' gallery space to be closed during the renovation, the Phillips was faced with a choice.

"Do we put these works in storage, or do we take them out on the road?" Gates said. "That was an easy question to answer."

Of course, plenty of art lovers criticize the so-called "blockbuster exhibit" phenomenon, saying that it endangers the artwork being shipped, that it draws attention away from every museum's permanent collection.

But Gates noted that countless people are able to see great works of art that they otherwise would never see if not for exhibits such as "Art Beyond Isms."

And perhaps that's just the way Duncan Phillips would have wanted it.

Calling himself "interpreter and navigator between the public and the picture," Phillips wrote: "I cannot stress too much the eagerness of my desire to hasten the day when there will be in this country a public opinion more enlightened as to the significance and importance of beauty, the meaning and purpose of art and the special view of the artist."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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