The first big new gallery at the Phillips is the first big gallery at the Phillips. It’s just to the right as you enter the museum’s latest addition and it’s clearly built for big paintings. But the first installation in this gallery provides a reminder that the strength of the Phillips’ collection isn’t mid-century massive.
A Joan Mitchell painting here looks good. So too an Adolph Gottlieb. But the Stella is one of those confused 70s monstrosities. A Motherwell (not online for a reason, perhaps) looks like something a giant-bird did doo-dooed on canvas. And why oh why is British abstractionist John Walker here?
Just outside this gallery is this fantastic Morris Louis. Unfortunately it’s next to a door and behind plexi. Between the glare and the plexi it’s unviewable. The best look you’ll get of it is there, on the left.
The installation stays clunky in a small gallery just off of a new staircase. Why are several awful William Christenberry sculptures competing with three quietly strong August Sander photographs? And John Walker is also installed upstairs, as are uniteresting paintings by Jake Berthot and Bill Jensen. Why has the Phillips hung so many third-rate painters when it has a collection stuffed with good work by top-shelf artists?
After these false starts — to be fair, it always takes curators a while to figure out new buildings and spaces — a few new spaces and hangings begin to work. The Phillips has a smart little 1951 Pollock collage and it looks great with four Aaron Siskind photogrpahs of granite boulders.
The museum’s famous Rothko Room is back (below) and it’s still a hit. The Phillips’ Rothkos aren’t the kinds of color clouds in which a viewer immediately loses himself. They’re a slower burn — and ultimately just as rewarding.
And in one of the best constructed spaces in town, plenty of natural light illuminates an upstairs gallery where Diebenkorn, Diebenkorn, Guston, Guston, de Stael and Calder also benefit from a high ceiling.
So yeah, I have quibbles. Instead of some of the lesser lights I would have preferred seeing Wayne Thiebaud, Clyfford Still, an Edward Hopper Santa Fe watercolor, or one of the museum’s surprising Gene Davises. And if the Phillips was intent on showing some lesser-known painters, Jacob Kainen or Thomas Downing would have been better picks. But mostly it’s nice to see the Phillips add space for its permanent collection. I’m hoping for regular rotations.