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Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks

James N. Carder

The year 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary at Dumbarton Oaks of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of Philip Johnson’s museum pavilion, the architectural masterpiece In the American Institute of Architects guide to architecture in Washington, D.C., Gerard Martin Moeller, Jr., writes: “Philip Johnson has produced a few masterpieces. The Pre-Columbian Museum is among them.” G. Martin Moeller, Jr., AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. 4th edition (Washington, D.C., 2006), 238. that he designed to showcase this collection (fig. 1). Both opened to the public on December 10, 1963: the Bliss Collection to widespread acclaim; the Johnson wing to generally positive, although somewhat mixed reviews. Both are now internationally famous. The Bliss Collection is revered for its high quality and its early promotion of the aesthetic importance of ancient American art. The Johnson wing is now seen as a seminal building in Johnson’s late 1950s sea-change in architectural thinking from International Style modernism to Postmodern classicism. Since its opening in 1963, the Bliss Collection has been thoroughly researched and published in several impressive catalogues. Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, introduction by Michael D. Coe (Washington, D.C., 1963); Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art (Washington, D.C., 1969); Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed., Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, D.C., 1996); Karl A. Taube, Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, D.C., 2004); Susan Toby Evans, ed., Ancient Mexican Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Central Highlands, Southwestern Highlands, Gulf Lowlands (Washington, D.C., 2010); Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, eds., Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, D.C., 2011). The Johnson pavilion, on the other hand, has been little discussed or studied. See Bibliography. The architect Mark Wigley, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, provocatively offered a psychological interpretation for the lack of scholarly interest in the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, as the building is usually named in the literature. He wrote: “Our fear of this work, and I believe it is a fear, is a fear of seduction by that which lies just outside the rules, outside the law.” Mark Wigley, “Reaction Design,” in Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change, ed. Emmanuel Petit, with foreword by Robert A. M. Stern, (New Haven, 2009), 217. Wigley’s comments are quoted more fully at the end of this publication. This anniversary year provides an excellent opportunity to commemorate the Collection’s impressive housing—arguably a work of art in its own right.

Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks: Figure 1
Figure 1. Philip Johnson, Museum Pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 1959–1963. (AR.DP.MW.PC.001)