The reputation of Augustus Vincent Tack ( 1870-1949)--or better said, his lack of one--has always puzzled me, since his work has for years been both recognized and ignored. Thanks to his great patron and good friend, Duncan Phillips, there has always been a mini- Tack show on view at the Phillips Collection; and in fact, it turns out from the 1985 summary catalogue that Mr. Phillips owned more works by Tack (seventy-eight) than by any other artist. ( Arthur Dove is runner-up with forty-eight.) Decade after decade, countless art pilgrims in Washington have trekked from the famous museums on or near the Mall to see the Phillips Collection, installed in the family home at 1600 Twenty-first Street N.W. and officially opened to the public in 1921 as a domestic shrine of modern art. And there, almost any alert visitor, wandering through the Bonnards, the Braques, the Klees, must have sat up and taken notice of Tack's paintings, whose quivering explorations of nuanced shapes and colors were totally in tune with Mr. Phillips's own penchant for an anti-realist art of quiet and sensuous refinement. On checking the dates of these crystalline images (the 1920s and 1930s), the paintings seemed clearly to belong to the avant-garde of American art between the wars, pushing their landscape origins to the brink of a translucent abstraction; and on thinking ahead to the pantheon of painters after 1945, one hears them as voices in the art-historical wilderness, heralding everything from the geologic and cartographic patterns of Clyfford Still to the weightless color fantasies of Rothko, Louis, or Frankenthaler.
But as quickly as Tack's unique look and historical precocity were recognized in the intimate ambience of the Phillips Collection, they were no less quickly forgotten as soon as the gallery doors were shut. Somehow Tack remained inside as a kind of effete, hermetic master who might be jostled too much by being forced onto the well-trodden paths of the histories of modern art in America. And despite the fact that, in the Phillips, Tack shares the walls with other pioneers of American modernism--Dove, Marin, O'Keeffe, Hartley, Burchfield--and often goes far beyond them in abstract audacity--he has been denied assimilation in all the standard histories and exhibition catalogues that recount the triumph of the American avant-garde. A search through the familiar texts, old and new--from the days of Brown, Baur, and Ritchie to more recent surveys by Hunter, Rose, Wilmerding, Baigell, Davidson--never turns up even a mention of Tack's name.
Beginning in the late 1960s, however, Tack's oblivion outside the walls of the Phillips Collection became somewhat less total. In 1968, an American Studies group at the Deerfield