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"The Perfect Place"

Duncan Phillips incorporated his modern gallery in the midst of a personal family tragedy—the deaths of his father in 1917 and his brother from influenza in 1918—and a national tragedy overseas—the deaths of thousands of young soldiers following America’s entry into World War I in spring 1917. Shortly after the war ended, Phillips helped to organize the Allied War Salon, an exhibition devoted to military images and soldiers’ art, as he was making initial preparations that would lead to the opening of the Phillips Memorial Gallery in 1921.[1] A little over two decades later, and following the death of his own father in 1937, Paul Mellon would see the National Gallery of Art come to completion in 1941 in the midst of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, the Gallery’s activities were dominated by the war effort. There were nightly blackouts. The most important works of art were evacuated to George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate in the mountains of North Carolina. Exhibitions were devoted to war posters and the works of war artists. And in 1943, the Gallery became the headquarters for the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.

In the context of the existential threat of World War II, the effort to build collections of American modernism or of any kind was of secondary importance as the Gallery became part of the much larger and much more daunting mission of trying to restore the great repositories of Western culture that had been ransacked and looted by Nazi Germany. During the war, the West Building served as a peaceful retreat for visiting servicemen to contemplate the beauty and serenity they were hoping to return to the world. At the same time, its empty galleries and walls also would have brought to mind the denuded walls of museums in Europe and uncertain fate of the artistic legacy of Western civilization. The Gallery was a place to quietly contemplate not only beauty, but the terrible cultural voids opened by the conflict and the many lives that would never be recovered or mended. If one understands the Gallery to be a site that from its very beginning has been confronting the unsettling paradoxes of presence and absence, triumph and tragedy unleashed by the cultural and political forces of modernism, as a place to both celebrate and enjoy the “amazing continuity” and to acknowledge rupture and loss, then its early identification with American modernism is less surprising. The Gallery was an institution where the modernist dilemma of how to reconcile a present that was constantly being torn from its past was always at play. This unique and essential reality of the museum’s identity eventually found fuller expression when the East Building opened in 1978, and it continues to define the institution to this day.

As Georgia O’Keeffe was making decisions about where to deposit the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, she seemed to intuit that the Gallery was a fitting home for American modernism, a truly modern gallery whose voids resonated with the abstract spaces of her paintings and the vast expanses of her beloved New Mexico landscape. She called it “the perfect place” because of the beautiful abstract quality of its freshly painted walls, brand new pristine galleries, and empty closed off rooms, not despite them. A two-way dialogue and alternating circuit between connections and disconnections, solids and voids, what is seen and not seen, occurs every day back and forth across the cobblestone plaza and underground concourse that link the Gallery’s East and West Buildings. The Gallery has become a place where the many contradictions and paradoxes contained within the wide ranging eclecticism of American modernism can be experienced, its conservatism and radicalism, its search for a past and alienation from the past, its bodily realism and timeless formalist abstraction. The Gallery continues to strive to recognize every significant phase of American modernism, while being keenly aware of the practical limitations and intellectual dilemmas that make it a daunting task, a goal to which we can constantly aspire but never fully achieve. Old persistent questions still resonate through the many rooms of the Pope and Pei buildings. What is American? What is modernism? Only time will tell.[2]


[1] Duncan Phillips, “The Allied War Salon,” The American Magazine of Art 10, no. 4 (Feb. 1919): 115–123.

[2] The Gallery has recently acquired The Judgment Day [fig. 1] by Aaron Douglas and A Black Bird with Snow-Covered Red Hills (1946, promised gift) by O’Keeffe. Many other important American modernists are also represented in the Gallery’s Corcoran Collection, including George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop (American, 1902 - 1988), Oscar F. Bluemner (American, 1867 - 1938), Patrick Henry Bruce (American, 1881 - 1936), Arthur Beecher Carles (American, 1882 - 1952), Arthur B. Davies, Stuart Davis, Manierre Dawson (American, 1887 - 1969), Edward Dickinson, Douglas, Arthur Dove, William Glackens, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Bernard Karfiol, Rockwell Kent, Leon Kroll (American, 1884 - 1974), Yasuo Kuniyoshi (American, born Japan, 1889 - 1953), Reginald Marsh (American, born France, 1898 - 1954), Alfred H. Maurer (American, 1868 - 1932), George Lovett Kingsland Morris (American, 1905 - 1975), Jerome Myers (American, 1867 - 1940), Guy Pène du Bois, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, John Sloan, Raphael Soyer (American, born Russia, 1899 - 1987), John Storrs (American, 1885 - 1956), Max Weber, and Hale Woodruff (American, 1900 - 1980).