For Augustus Vincent Tack, perhaps more than any other artist, The Phillips Collection is both spiritual home and permanent memorial. Tack's personal history is inextricably linked with that of the museum and its founder. He counseled Duncan Phillips on purchases and participated in the administration and decoration of the collector’s fledgling museum. With characteristic independence, Phillips purchased and commissioned many works by Tack, quickly becoming his foremost patron; Phillips provided the artist with a commission that became the culminating statement of his career: a series of abstract paintings for the museum's North Library, now known as the Music Room.
Even before the Phillips opened to the public in 1921, Duncan Phillips knew and admired Tack. At the time of the museum’s opening, Phillips owned more paintings by Tack than any other artist. The Tack unit today spans his entire career, comprising seventy-nine works in the permanent collection. In addition, Phillips hosted more than fifteen one-person exhibitions of Tack's work between 1924 and 1958, and his paintings were displayed continuously with the permanent collection.
Duncan Phillips and Tack saw eye to eye on many accounts. Sixteen years Phillips's senior, Tack held the role of close friend and seasoned aesthetic mentor. Furthermore, Tack, in his art, endeavored to give pictorial form to their mutual faith in the renewing and ennobling powers of art. In 1920, at the inaugural meeting of the first board of trustees, Phillips appointed Tack vice president of his nascent institution, proving his esteem for Tack as advisor as well as creative genius. Phillips sought Tack's support in building the collection as he purchased works by diverse artists such as Ménard, Fuller, Ryder, Kent, and Twachtman.
The two men apparently first met either in the artist's studio or at the Century Association. In 1914, Phillips recorded in his journal his first reaction to Tack’s work when he stated, "my earliest acquaintance with the landscapes of Augustus Tack was one of those experiences which mark an epoch in one's own mental development.... some small panel-shaped canvasses--made me more or less catch my breath with delight." Phillips felt an affinity for Tack's subjective explorations of nature—country fields in twilight, misty skies, and roseate mountaintops—and for his quiet and poetic view of art that suggested a longing for transport into imaginary realms. In his first published writing on Tack in 1916, Phillips seemed awed by the artist's eclectic broad-mindedness, which had prompted his fascination with both Japanese prints and Gothic glass and even "the sensational performances of Picasso." Phillips added that Tack was responsive "to the most startling revolutionary disturbances in the realms of painting and music." Phillips admired Tack’s rare blending of “abstract mysticism and technical innovation,” his passion for color and decorative surface effects, his fascination with Asian art, and his sensitivity to the parallels between music and art, all of which entered into the artist’s abstractions.
Around 1920 Phillips purchased a heavily impastoed religious painting by Tack, but throughout the 1920s Phillips seems to have supported the artist’s shift into new territory with his sonorous, heavily veiled and quasi-abstract paintings of 1922-24. These more abstract works inaugurated the museum’s lower gallery, now the Music Room, and represented Tack's first one-person exhibition there.
The period of 1922 to 1934 saw the most fruitful era of collaboration between the artist and his patron, who wrote about Tack's "inspiring dignity, ...[Tack] will stand revealed as an important pioneer into new fields of emotional expression in color and as the one creative mural painters since Puvis de Chavannes." In preparation for the museum's 1922 inaugural exhibition, Tack undertook the decoration of the Main Gallery, devising works that were filled with an orange color scheme and designed for apricot walls muted with gray mesh.
By 1926 Phillips was weaving Tack into the fabric of American modernism as no other collector or critic was yet prepared to do: he exhibited Storm, one of Tack's new mystical panels based on natural forms, in a group dominated by the Stieglitz circle, including O'Keeffe, Dove, and Weber. Tack's abstract explorations of the early 1920s culminated in a suite of paintings for the Music Room, commissioned in 1928. Tack's sumptuous and progressively freer handling of color and his growing mystical expression in landscapes can be traced from the early Winter, ca. 1900, to a turning point in Tack's abstract technique, beginning with the seminal painting, The Crowd, 1921-22 and continuing with new complexity in Passacaglia, 1922-23, and The Voice of Many Waters, ca. 1923-24. These jewel-like paintings, progressing toward a glowing opalescence of color and ghostly earth and sky forms, led ultimately to vast panoramas inspired by the American West and by photography. In the West, Tack could infuse the natural grandeur with implications of a broader spiritual and philosophical meaning—an approach he adopted in the dematerialized shapes and fragmentary mountain forms of such pictures as Aspiration, 1931, his last painting for the Music Room. The crowning achievements of Tack's abstract oeuvre, the modestly scaled panels represented by Evening, between 1934 and 1936, and the last monumental painting, Time and Timelessness, 1943-44), represent Tack's final investigations of an abstract idiom. In the latter part of the thirties, Phillips acquired examples of Tack's large-scale, somber paintings as typified by Night, Amargosa Desert, 1935.
Phillips's advocacy of Tack took its boldest, most forceful form in 1930, when he threatened to resign from the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art if Tack's work were not represented in the 1930-31 exhibition of art by living Americans organized annually by Alfred Barr, the museum’s director. Barr gracefully acquiesced, accepting three of Tack's Music Room decorations. Furthermore, it was on Phillips's advice that in 1941 Tack moved to Washington, D.C., where, with his tireless backing, the artist secured several official portrait commissions.
Nevertheless, a shift in Phillips's attitude began to emerge. In 1930 he had defended Tack as more "genuine" a modernist than Picasso, able to "move men to ecstasy and vision through [his] divine control of the emotional potentialities of light and color." In 1932 he still saw Tack's art as the "portent of the coming of something epoch-making from the East...an acceptance of a Universe of unceasing flux." Yet the next year Phillips published an ambiguous statement that contained a note of disappointment:
“If Tack had been painting his unique maps of...color for the last twenty years he would now be reaping the reward in universal acclaim for having invented a new decorative language.... his other researches of earlier years have not been so successful and his conservative portraits and traditional mural paintings have made him a limited reputation as an…eclectic painter...rather than as one of America's most original painters."
Significantly, between 1933 and 1937, when Tack had eleven solo shows at museums and galleries throughout the northeast, Phillips held no one-person exhibitions. With the onset of World War II, he stressed Tack's affinity for Asian art: "In the midst of the most complete and terrible war of all time, at last Tack seems...of a prophetic timeliness," noting Tack’s ability to encompass “…the globe and never forget the sky which arches over all…."
In 1949, a few months prior to Tack's death, Phillips hosted a one-person exhibition, which the artist visited. Tack was apparently viewing his most important works, the Music Room series, in situ for the last time. He later wrote to Phillips: "I came away from your exhibition...in a state of fervor and exaltation.... I can only make a feeble effort to express to you my appreciation of your recognition.... You have been a very great friend."
Upon his death, Tack bequeathed the paintings in his possession to The Phillips Collection. In turn, Phillips duly made the rounds of galleries, museums, and collectors to promote Tack, placing several important abstractions in museums. Two years before his own death, Phillips wrote one of his last statements on Tack's career: "The Abstractions are now in retrospect very important and it is sad that they were not appreciated during the artist's lifetime.... Many admirers of the Abstract Expressionists of today have noted the resemblance to Clyfford Still, and it is obvious that he was feeling his way towards that large scale color symbolism.”