The Artist Sees Differently: Alec MacKaye
Alec MacKaye, preparator
How did you learn about the Phillips?
This is a funny question [for a Washington, D.C. native]! Like asking how did one first hear about the White House or the cherry blossoms or Neil Armstrong. I heard about The Phillips Collection because it holds a place in United States cultural history, in D.C. history, and in the art world. It may not be among the loudest of voices in the museum-iverse, but some things don’t need a brass band or sky writing to announce their presence.
Not to mention, being a fifth generation Washingtonian, I suppose I learned of the Phillips before I was born – my mother’s next-door neighbor and sometimes painting instructor was a man named Edgar Hewitt Nye. Two of his paintings are held in The Phillips Collection (and many more in the MacKaye Collection!), and his wife, Elizabeth Quackenbush Nye, was my parents’ English teacher at Sidwell Friends. So you see, it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when I first heard of The Phillips Collection – it was part of me before I knew it.
You’re a musician, a writer, and an artist – do you feel you are inspired by the Phillips art?
Yes – and then more broadly, through it. There are a few certain objects that float before me when I am thinking of something, usually a Alfred Pinkham Ryder or a Philip Guston or a John Marin, and more than that, working here affords me the opportunity to see more than just what we hold. The small Hiroshige show we had a few years back changed the way I dream.
What do you listen to as you’re making art?
Silence, unless I want or need something to force my hand – then its Library of Congress field recordings or punk rock or dub reggae.
Who’s your favorite artist in the collection?
I won’t tell which ones I usually say I like most, names that most people recognize – instead I will give a couple of names that should send folks to the “search” function on our website, since they likely haven’t seen them on our walls: Henry Gershwin, Joseph Solman. I like these two not necessarily for their high finish or classic theme but more for their direct delivery.
Do you collect other artwork – or anything?
I am a casual collector. I have artwork from people I know, or have met, or have some sort of personal connection to. My wife, Lely Constantinople, is more active in the art scene than I am, and between the two of us, we have some excellent things in our house. Paul “The Glassman” Darmafall, Sally Mann, Edward Janney, Rachel Waldron, Bill Koberg, John Falls, Shelly Wischhusen, Edgar Nye, Daniel Higgs, Cynthia Connolly, Tim Kerr, Sean Greene, etc.
I have other collections too, assembled in the same manner – perhaps they should be called accretions rather than collections. Books, motorcycles, records, and a fine assortment of seemingly unrelated “ephemera” (okay, junk) that are only connected by the fact that I enjoy it all in some way (bonsai trees, model cars, stopped clocks, and old padlocks and other metal things, ruined paint brushes, hardware clad in naturally acquired patination . . . ) – generally things, that like much art in the world, have a hard-to-quantify worthiness that becomes simultaneously more precious and more powerful with time; objects that barely make it through the culling time of obsolescence or being outmoded, to where they become something of inspiration.
I think it should be stated that art and *collecting art* are different pursuits.
What is your favorite Marjorie Phillips painting?
That’s a tough one – I like Nuns on the Roof for its composition and the title, I like The Big Pear for the same reasons. Nasturtiums for the blue. I like Breakfast Room because it shows gallery D as it once was. And I like seeing her early and late self-portraits together – I think there could be an essay between them!