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Famous American paintings on display at Tampa Museum of Art

Esther Hammer The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:15 AM

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The Tampa Museum of Art has lassoed another winner.

Following closely on the heels of the popular exhibit by the French modern photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the museum presents an exciting assemblage of important American paintings from roughly the same time period.

Called "To See as Artists See: American Art from the Phillips Collection," the 100 paintings and one sculpture in the show represent American art from the 1850s through the 1960s.

There is something for everyone here, including sports scenes, portraits, flowers, landscapes and cityscapes, in a plethora of styles and media.

"If you are even the least bit interested in American painting, you're going to love this show," predicted museum director Todd Smith.

In presenting this exhibit, the museum is continuing its mission to bring Tampa a high level of modern and contemporary art.

"Modernism starts with impressionism," Smith observed. "The majority of 19th century works in this exhibition are American impressionists."

You'll find many familiar names among the 75 artists in the group, including Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Arthur Dove, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Jacob Lawrence, John Marin, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Maurice Pendergast and John Sloan.

"Every major school of American painting is represented in this show," Smith said. "There are 10 themes around which we've installed the show, and sometimes the artist in a particular school is seen in several different themes."

It all depends on the subject of the painting. For example, paintings by Sloan, one of the eight early 20th century artists known as "The Ash Can School," show up in the "Modern Life" theme section as well as the section called "The City."

In the section themed "Memory and Identity," in which artists draw on their memory for inspiration, you'll find such influential painters as Grandma Moses and Lawrence. Four of O'Keeffe's paintings can be found in the "Nature and Abstraction" section.

"(Duncan) Phillips was one of the first to collect Georgia O'Keeffe in depth," Smith explained. "A lot of these artists were people he knew personally, so he would see work in progress and work completed. Because he knew them, he had a vested interest in their success. So when you see this exhibition, you're seeing one man's personal vision of what modern art was."

Duncan Phillips, (1886-1966) critic, writer and art historian, founded The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery" in Washington, D.C., in 1921 and continued collecting modern and contemporary art throughout his life. The title of this exhibit — "To See as Artists See" — is a reference to a phrase Phillips is credited with using to explain why he put this particular collection of works together.

"His was America's first museum of modern art," Smith noted. "It's really remarkable that he was able to put this together at that time and in that place. Washington wasn't exactly the center of art back then. There weren't many collectors then, so he was able to get superb examples of these artists and their styles. The collection is unrivaled in what it says about working American artists."

Phillips' wife, Marjorie, was an artist, and there is one painting by her in the exhibit, a scene of a baseball game.

The exhibition has been on tour in Europe and Asia since 2010. Tampa is the last stop before it goes back to Washington, D.C.

This is the sort of exhibition that the new museum was built to be able to show, Smith said.

"The Phillips Collection is a world-renowned collection," he said. "We are the smallest venue to be showing this size of an exhibition. It's a major coup for us. I think we're definitely hitting our stride."

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