In 1927, Augustus Vincent Tack painted a suite of murals for the Nebraska state capitol. They are the sort of decoration for which he was to that point best-known, full of the right references to classical figures and to America’s aspirations for herself.
About a year later, in response to a commission from his friend, Washington collector Duncan Phillips, Tack did something completely different,. The suite was an important part of Tack’s emergence toward new territory: Abstraction.
Phillips Collection curator Susan Behrends Frank has recently installed that set of 12 paintings to Tack’s specifications in its Music Room for the first time since 1999. The mini-exhibition, at least the fourth time the suite has been on view at the Phillips, is a delightful opportunity to see Tack’s early experiments with semi-abstraction, some successful and some not. It will remain on view until Dec. 31.
Art historians have never quite known what to do with the New Yorker with the Roman name. While Tack was a a contemporary of the artists who made up the Stieglitz circle, his portraiture and decorative work was too traditional — too full of references to Europe — to gain him entre into that club. True, Tack (1870-1949) began to move toward a more avant-garde style in the early 1920s, but that seems to have been too late, especially because even as he inched toward abstraction, he kept on painting traditional portraits and maudlin murals. A 1993 retrospective at the Phillips elevated Tack’s profile so little that he didn’t merit a mention in the most thorough recent book on early American modernism, Wanda Corn’s 2001 “The Great American Thing.” Sculptor and Washington-native Martin Puryear put it best when he described Tack as “a painter who seems to not be very well-known outside of Washington.” (Among contemporary artists, Tack’s influence is clearest in Puryear, who seems to have learned much about positive and negative space from Tack. It could be argued that Tack’s abstractions also seem to anticipate Clyfford Still, but there’s no evidence that Still was familiar with Tack’s work.)
With the exception of the Phillips, Tack’s work has never even been popular with institutions that have owned it. For example, in 1944 Duncan Phillips gave a Tack portrait of then-Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone to the National Gallery of Art. [At left.] The NGA exhibited it once, in 1950, then buried it in storage until Stone’s fellow New Hampshirite David Souter borrowed it for his Supreme Court chambers. It hung there from 1991 until Souter retired in 2009.
To the extent that Puryear is right about Tack’s place in Washington, it’s entirely because of the interest Duncan Phillips (and later his museum) took in Tack and his art. Phillips was Tack’s primary patron, not only by acquiring and commissioning his work, but also because he steered Tack’s paintings into other significant collections, including to MoMA, the Whitney and Brooklyn. Phillips also donated Tacks to museums such as the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two were close friends: Tack advised Phillips on art purchases and in 1920, at the first board meeting for what would become The Phillips Collection, Tack was named vice-president. Today the Phillips owns 79 Tacks.
The 12 panels on view now are actually studies for murals that were never realized. Painted in 1929 and 1930, Tack considered them the apex of his career. When Phillips gave up his original idea for a permanent installation of Tack’s realized murals, Tack must have been crushed, especially because he did not see them installed in the intended space until 1949. (Phillips’ quick abandonment of his permanent-installation idea may have been part of the reason he browbeat MoMA director Alfred Barr into including Tack in a 1930-31 exhibit of living artists. Phillips was so adamant that Tack be included in Barr’s show that he threatened to resign from MoMA’s board. Barr acquiesced and included three of the Music Room paintings in his exhibition.)
In an essay, Frank notes that “the series of panels is, in essence, a visual color poem about the evolution from chaos to harmony.” Merge Tack’s interest in allegorical narrative with the national mood after America’s involvement in World War I turned the tide of that war, and it’s easy to imagine Tack being attracted to that theme. But that’s not why they’re interesting now. Today they’re interesting because they show a reluctant modernist pushing himself away from straightforward representation.
The landscape-derived abstractions are the most successful panels. They were apparently motivated by a trip Tack took to California’s Death Valley, where he (or possibly his son) took numerous photographs of the dramatic landscape. According to a studio assistant (and re-told in “The Eye of Duncan Phillips,” one of the best collection catalogues ever published), Tack returned to New York and enlarged those pictures to ten or fifteen times their original size. Then at Tack’s direction, an assistant punched holes in the pictures, which were then laid over canvas, where the assistant and Tack marked out the canvas before Tack painted in the ’spaces’ to make the paintings. The result is a series of process-driven abstractions, a breakthrough that wouldn’t become mainstream for several decades hence. [Image: Augustus Vincent Tack, Ecstasy, 1929.]
The best of the bunch is Liberation (1929, at top right), in which purple mountains’ majesty seems to be merging into or dissolving into a lightly clouded blue sky. Like its cousin Ecstasy, hung on the opposite side of the entrance to the Music Room, Liberation is both flat and it flickers. At first viewing, the dark colors in the lower right-hand corner seem to suggest depth, but the more a viewer looks at the painting, the less the depth seems to be there. I wonder if Tack had the lyrics from “America the Beautiful” on his mind as he painted the abstracted mountains in Liberation: The already-popular song would have been extra-popular in 1929 after the death of Katharine Lee Bates, the lesbian poet who wrote the verse eventually joined to Samuel A. Ward’s tune. Mountains in Death Valley don’t have the same purplish tone that, say, the Rockies do.
Less successful are the paintings that abstract away from the figure, paintings in which Tack didn’t use an extra step to encourage himself toward abstraction. Typical of that grouping is Allegro, which would appear to feature a circle of maidens in a meadow, or Order, a kind of workers-in-harmony allegory that was Tack’s comfort zone. Semi-abstracted, the painting looks like an Arthur Davies-on-acid.
I wonder if part of what Tack learned from the Phillips commission was that the semi-abstractions rooted in landscape were the ones that really worked. For the most part, in the ensuing years the figure-derived abstractions seemed to drop out of his work in favor of big, then bigger landscape-driven paintings. Late in his life Tack painted some of his masterpieces, most notably Time and Timelessness (The Spirit of Creation), a nearly eight-foot long painting that was itself a study for a fire curtain commissioned by George Washington University’s then-new Lisner Auditorium in 1944. (The Phillips says that Time and Timelessness is effectively an enlargement of a part of Liberation. It may be, but I can’t quite ‘fin’d it.) Frequently on view at the Phillips and one of the best American paintings in the museum’s collection, Time and Timelessness simultaneously recalls mountainscape, shimmering water and the edge of a forest. When Tack made it, he was 73 and was painting at the scale recently popularized by the abstract expressionists. Tack must have looked at the work of Pollock, Still and others and realized that back in 1929 he had indeed been on to something. Still, even as he took something of a victory lap with the Lisner Auditorium commission, he clung to his past by giving the painting a grand, allegorical title.