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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Summer Begins at The Phillips Collection

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

June 19, 2022

As COVID restrictions slacken, I am just as excited as many of you to travel again. If there were one thing I most eagerly anticipated, it would be to see some of the most notable art collections on the East Coast. I hoped to experience some of the more established and historical art museums after exhausting most in the vicinity of Los Angeles; in short, my expectations were wildly exceeded. To find out more, travel with me in the following articles as we cruise down the Atlantic Coast through eleven memorable yet unique art experiences.

Figure 1a: Photo taken by me of the entrance of the Phillips Collection

My first stop is Washington, D.C. Upon the first glimpse out my Uber window, the city's architectural style hits almost like a shock. The ornate pilasters, enormous Greek columns, the numerous public bronze sculptures, and even the fire escapes are a drastic change from the more functional style of Californian cities. You may also notice the frequent use of white sandstone or marble, especially in administrative buildings or museums. In reminiscence, I think this was one of the most defining characteristics of the appearance of D.C., as it gives the city a pristine feel different from the darker tones of most metropolises.


The first checkpoint of my museum marathon is the Phillips Collection, located in the midst of one of the most popular residential areas in the city. Suppose there were no banners outside advertising the museum's 100th anniversary; one might very well mistake the building for a private mansion (figure 1). With its red bricks, beige sandstone, and semi-circular entrance fronted by an intricate Japanese maple tree, this Georgian Revival-style building is undoubtedly luxurious. I admire the elegant, subtle opulence and the sense of home that this building emanates, which I later found was unique among all the museums I will visit.

The Phillip's Collection began as a private collection of Duncan Phillips and his mother. It was initially intended as a memorial in their family home for the former's late father and brother but was later repurposed as a public gallery with the vision of "an intimate museum combined with an experiment station." This history naturally creates the comfort and coziness of this museum.

Figure 1b: Photo taken by me of the entrance of the Phillips Collection

Figure 2: Photo taken by me of a staircase in The Phillips Collection building

Figure 3: Photos taken by me of various locations in the interior of the Phillips Collection

Favorite Works

Through the spiraling staircases and winding halls (figure 2), one of the first pieces that struck me was Ladder and Chair by Lowell Nesbitt (figure 4). Emerging from the corner of a turn in the hallway, the first quality that stands out is the abrupt color contrast between the black-and-white picture with the heather-colored wall. Dramatic would be my one-word description of this work. The photorealistic style emphasized structure, nearly in a mathematical sense, with interlacing linear and curvilinear forms. Its atmosphere, created by the eerie shadows and the unsettling composition of a canvas, ladder, and lacquered chair, is akin to a black-and-white thriller film. It attracts attention like a paused frame of a movie projected on a screen, and I find it quite impressive how commonplace props can inspire such an effect.

Figure 4: Ladder and Chair, 1967, Lowell Nesbitt

The Migration Series (figure 5) is one of the main attractions of the Phillips Collection. The half collected here, along with its counterpart in the MoMA in New York City, forms a 60-piece narrative painted by the African American artist Jacob Lawrence to depict the human condition during the Great Migration (1910-1970). The obvious significance is the sociopolitical appeal. Lawrence offers contemporary viewers personal insight into the lives of African Americans at that time, from fleeing racism to seeking better opportunities, only to be met by discrimination again.

Figure 5a: Selected odd panels from The Migration Series, 1940-41, Jacob Lawrence (read captions here)

Many artistic choices make the Migration Series stand out. Simplified scenes and two-dimensional figures create a cartoonish style that engages audiences of all ages. Reoccurring colors are used throughout his panels: dark teal, honey yellow, dull red, etc., creating an illustrational effect that unites individual pieces as one work. Each piece is also uniquely labeled with a brief explanation of the scene depicted, like a children's book. Perhaps Lawrence's style appears at first as naive. However, the execution is perfectly fitting to spread awareness about a historical subject to audiences of any age because it is easy to understand yet can leave someone with much to think about. I think it is an excellent example of a modern revival of the traditional art form of narrative painting.

Figure 5b: Selected odd panels from The Migration Series, 1940-41, Jacob Lawrence (read captions here)

Coincidentally, I have an art book on Diebenkorn at home, so I was very excited to recognize his work for the first time. Interior with View of the Ocean (figure 6) instantly reminded me of California. The clear, cloudless sky, an undecorated room, and the large glass-less windows with an open view give a very Hotel California feel. The empty room evokes the solitude of Edward Hopper's interiors, and the cherry red and lemon yellow touch produce the lighthearted, Tupperware colors of a summer picnic. Diebenkorn seamlessly mixes figurative and abstract representations. Fragments of light and shadow on the bottom half of the canvas could be an abstract geometry painting. Yet, the view to the ocean reads so familiarly like an impressionist landscape.

Figure 6: Interior with View of the Ocean, 1957, Richard Diebenkorn

The Road to the Citadel (figure 7) is an enigmatic piece. In a way, it has many common characteristics associated with Klee's style, such as the use of earthy tones and its guise of simplicity. The non-tessellating geometric tiling reminds me of an aerial view of a crowded, unkempt Medieval city, like a view that the dragon Drogon would see as he flys over King's Landing in Game of Thrones (see 0:03 of this clip). This interpretation matches the title as if the painting was a map through the city that led to the stronghold, a place of safety and refuge. However, unlike most maps that point one to their destination, this map is directed by a mere six arrows, forming a zigzagging path that seems to lead off the canvas to nowhere. Given that Klee often experiments with poetry, music, and dreams through his work, The Road to the Citadel is open to philosophical and possibly political interpretations. From a different perspective, the piece could also be a mathematical graph. If we were to simplify every individual shape into a point, then the red arrows are the directed edges on this irregular lattice, which could offer a glimpse into a potential problem to be solved. Klee was known to have incorporated scientific elements in his paintings –– this work was an excellent example of such a technique.

Figure 7: The Way to the Citadel, 1937, Paul Klee

The use of "X" in "Xpect," like how "Christmas" is sometimes modernized as "Xmas," indicates that this is a contemporary work (figure 8). Specifically, it is a contemporary response to Cubism, a male-dominated movement, from a woman's perspective, both visually and conceptually. Ahuja evokes the cubist style by rendering her dress in a polyhedral manner. The background picture involving African masks and a fantastical ritual further elude the African influence on Cubism. However, the artist elaborates on this theme in many ways. First, Ahuja recasts the classic reclining female figure into a self-portrait birth announcement, a trend popular on social media. Instead of portraying the sexuality of the female figure, she shows her baby bump as a symbol of motherhood and the dangers of giving birth. The fear of death or complications is further echoed in her background painting, as many African spiritual practices deal with death. More unexpectedly, this background painting is a satirical play on Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, whose sexual charge contrasts sharply with Xpect. As the artist explains perfectly, "By recasting the figures in Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon with my own body, a woman of color as both subject and artist, I reclaim the territory Picasso borrowed from the Black body and from Black creative production." This work is not only a heartfelt expression of a personal story but also a thoughtful and critical commentary on art history.

Figure 8: Xpect, study, 2018, Mequitta Ahuja


Duncan Phillips, the founder of this collection, was a published art critic and a key proponent of Modern Art in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. When American taste in art remained largely conservative, the Phillips Collection stood out as the first Modern Art institution. I admire Phillips's philosophy of openness towards new and radical ideas in art, and I think it is still very much relevant today. His collection is a selective representation of the exemplary and iconic bits of modern art and holds cultural and historical significance. The vision of inclusion and diversity in art lives on through the endless novel temporary exhibitions that the Phillips hosts, like Tobi Kahn's spiritual, zen canvases (read more here) and Marta Pérez García's mutilated female humanoids (read more here) on view during my visit.

An additional bonus is that this museum is relatively small –– looking thoroughly through the entire collection takes about 2-3 hours. This left much time for me to visit the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Vietnam Memorial (a valuable work of art in its own right), all within walking distance. In overview, the Phillips Collection was a quality art experience and a highlight of a day touring in Washington, D.C.

Works Cited

BestClips4U. "Game of Thrones Season 8x05 | A bloody massacre in King's Landings." YouTube, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

Burney, Sarah. "One Piece by Mequitta Ahuja, Xpect." Kajal Magazine, 22 Aug. 2020, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

"Duncan Phillips (art Collector)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 20 Feb. 2022, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

"History." Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop | The Phillips Collection, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

"Paul Klee." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 8 Sept. 2022, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

"The Phillips Collection." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 25 Apr. 2022, Accessed 9 Sept. 2022.

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