Published  10/11/2008

Two seekers of light - Ammi Phillips and Mark Rothko - meet in Manhattan

Two seekers of light - Ammi Phillips and Mark Rothko - meet in Manhattan

American Folk Art Museum, Manhattan
7 October 2008-29 March 2009

Pairing artists from different centuries who had, seemingly, diverse aims and ambitions - one a major force in the group of mid-20th-century American artists known as the abstract expressionists, the other a 19th-century regional portrait painter - cannot be high on a curator's list of guaranteed successes. As such, 'The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips/Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green and Red', running 7 October 2008-29 March 2009 at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, is a risky venture. However, due to her perceptive, nuanced approach, curator Stacy C. Hollander's risk has paid off, and the dividends are truly rewarding.

No doubt, the show will rank among the most unusual and affecting exhibits of the season. Clearly, Hollander has made Phillips's portraits part of her psyche. The correspondences that she sees in his portraits and certain paintings from Rothko's classical period, dating from 1949 until Rothko committed suicide in 1970, are as revelatory as the paintings that grace the walls of the exhibition space. Hollander also demonstrates that particular themes and concerns Rothko dealt with during his earlier periods have echoes in Phillips's paintings.

Little is known of Phillips's background, training and aesthetic philosophy, but describing his portraits and process, and considering the period in which he worked, Hollander fills in gaps to forge links between the two artists. A revival of interest in Phillips's portraits occurred in the 1920s, when his status as a master was established, and again during the 1960s. In 1994, the American Folk Art Museum held an exhibit of Phillips's works, featuring one of his pivotal portraits, 'Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog' (1830-35).1 Part of the permanent collection, the painting has been displayed for the public since December 2001, when the museum moved to its current location next to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown. Of course, scholarly and popular books and articles on Rothko abound. Although Rothko vehemently maintained that talk about his art would distance observers from a direct experience of it, he articulated his thoughts in a series of essays written in the 1930s and 1940s. Rothko's son, Christopher, edited them for publication in The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art, which was released in 2004 by Yale University Press. These writings may not give a direct experience of Rothko's paintings, but they do provide some access to the mind of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Yet even if more were known about Phillips, it is unlikely that years of studying details of the artists' lives would join them, as Hollander has done, from the inside out. Just as Phillips and Rothko drew viewers into a deeper dimension of the soul through physical entities - paintings - Hollander has excavated deeper ground to prove these artists kindred spirits who released the light inside their subjects.

Phillips (1788-1856) came from a family of farmers and landowners who settled in Colebrook, Connecticut, and later moved to Colebrook, Ohio. He earned his living as a travelling portrait painter with a clientele of middle and upper class families in Connecticut, upstate New York and Massachusetts. Between 1811 and 1865, Phillips painted more than 700 works. He is known to have advertised his services, subscribed to the artistic conventions and fashions of the day and, apparently, gratified his patrons with a sensitive awareness of their desires. He understood their view of themselves and the lifestyle they hoped to achieve. Unlike other itinerant portrait painters, Phillips settled his family in communities where prospective clients lived and established a singular style that also catered to prevailing tastes.2 Most travelling portrait painters at the time did not consider themselves to be fine artists. As craftsmen dependent on a continuous flow of work, they developed strategies and formats that helped them to work fast. Phillips had his own repertoire of formulas but experimented within his format. The ways in which light passed through canvas and layers of paint was a primary concern for him.

In her exhibition catalogue text, Hollander comments that his earliest surviving canvases, painted in 1811, are '... awkward and immature. The portraits that came from his brush just a few years later are miraculous and ethereal visions filled with transcendent light and beauty, as though Phillips had been touched by God in the intervening years.'3 In his mature work, he painted deep, velvety backgrounds from which his figures emerge, lit by their own interior light source. Influenced by the dominant neoclassical style in architecture and furnishings, he drew his palette and imagery from ancient sources. The 19th-century American aesthetic rejected European decoration and favoured a simpler style in keeping with values of democracy, honesty, responsibility and thrift. While it is true that many portrait painters had little formal training, lack of detail in their paintings reflected national and cultural aspirations rather than lack of skill. Phillips took simplicity deeper and further. In his classic paintings, his sitters' bodies are abstracted into forms that are part of a dramatic dance between colour, shape, texture, shadow and, most of all, light. The result is a perfect harmony.

Born in 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko came from a Jewish family headed by a liberal pharmacist who returned to his religion after witnessing the brutal treatment of Jews in his country. When Rothko was seven years old, his father emigrated to Portland, Oregon, to escape persecution of Jews by the Czarist police. The next year, Rothko's brothers travelled to Portland, leaving him behind in Russia with his mother. At age 10, he left Russia with his mother to join the rest of the family in America. A few years later, his father died and the family became dependent on meagre incomes earned by manual labour.

In Russia, Rothko had received a strict religious education. (His brothers were given liberal educations.) In Portland, he enrolled in public school, worked hard and did well. A scholarship to Yale University brought him east; after two years he left Yale, but continued to study philosophy, mythology, literature and music on his own. He took a few courses at the Art Students League and the New School of Design in New York City. Still, as Rothko scholar Bonnie Clearwater says in her catalogue essay, 'Rothko's most intensive art education came from studying works in New York's museums and galleries, consulting books on art history and archaeology and conversing with other artists, including Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.' Most of his associates were Jewish émigrés from Europe. Max Weber, with whom Rothko studied at the Art Students League, had the strongest impact on his vision of making art a conduit for divine spirit. Avery's handling of colour and form also affected Rothko's developing philosophy. Clearwater notes that, in addition to examples from antiquity and the middle ages, Cézanne's paintings served as a model for spatial effects that could produce a believable third dimension on a two-dimensional canvas.

The group circulating in New York during the post-World War II years that eventually became the abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Gottlieb among them) developed very different styles, yet they concurred that inherited forms could not express current reality or, more importantly for Rothko, inner experience.4 Rothko's works have been categorised into four distinct periods: realistic street and subway scenes (1924-40); surrealist renderings of mythological and archetypal themes (1940-46); transitional years when he moved to abstraction through 'multiforms' (1946-49); and classical works exploring the effects of light through such elements as colour, form and texture (1949-70). Rothko taught art to children and appreciated their direct, untutored expressions. His desire to remove all obstacles (including, eventually, titles of works) between artist, work and viewer led to a regard for their drawings and paintings and then, completely rejecting figuration, towards abstraction.

The roads taken by Phillips and Rothko as they travelled towards their mature works may have coincided at certain junctures. Rothko's progress has been clearly mapped, while Phillips's leaps cannot be so easily traced. Behind the 'awkward and immature' early works, the large, vertical and rectangular paintings of children painted in golden pinks and taupes of his middle period, and the more modestly sized but profoundly evocative works in his mature style, Phillips the man remains obscured. The smooth surfaces of many portraits retain no traces of the artist's hand and brush strokes. The revelatory nature of the paintings tells us far more about humanity and divinity than they do about Phillips or his individual sitters. His later works are dramas of the human spirit. Phillips used deep, pure colours (notably vermilion, symbolic of purity and divinity and one of the most opaque pigments) derived from a palette rooted in the Middle Ages, and applied them to flat, abstracted forms. Remaining true to representation, Phillips nevertheless remade the nature of representation to suit his vision.

Evoking the medieval science of alchemy, Hollander suggests that Phillips and Rothko manipulated their materials to provoke a profound reaction in viewers. Their techniques include: pure colours which the artist's hand mixed (Phillips by necessity, Rothko by choice) applied as washes and in layers with areas of canvas left free of pigment; primitive use of pictorial space; and dynamic contrasts between opaque and brush-marked surfaces, colour saturation, weight and shape, and light and shadow.5 The forms in their paintings, realistic in Phillips's case and abstract in Rothko's, seem suspended in a palpable atmosphere, with areas resting or floating, receding or emerging, as if the paintings are alive and breathing. In fact, Rothko stated that he aimed for two effects in his paintings: either their surfaces would expand outward towards viewers, or they would contract, pulling viewers inward. The two movements suggest the movement of a bellows and the analogy of breathing.

The 'Seduction of Light' is a small, elegant and intimate show. Three sections (pink, green and red) each revolve around one of Rothko's large-scale canvases and portraits by Phillips from c. 1815 through the 1830s. The works in these sections engage in a dialogue between drama and intimacy. Phillips and Rothko understood the connection between drama and intimacy and how one force can be used to create the other. The drama of scale, for instance, figures in Rothko's monumental works and Phillips's large, mid-period portraits. Hollander says the large-scale works recall, '... the sensate effect of wall and ceiling frescoes from antiquity, examples of which were recovered in archaeological excavations such as Pompeii and Herculaneum just prior to the time Ammi Phillips began to paint.' Rothko's interest in antiquities, as well as medieval art, particularly frescoes by Giotto and Fra Angelico, has been well documented. Without resorting to the devices of foreshortening and modelling to create depth and perspective, Phillips and Rothko treated pictorial space primitively, with overlapping planes and forms creating a felt, or tactile, reality that is more 'real', more dramatic and more intimate.

Hollander's daring connection of two artists so far apart in many ways is a gift, not only of the light sought, found and revealed by these two masters, but of insight and sensitivity to their grandest achievement. The light inside the paintings is a tangible presence which viewers will feel gathering strength as they proceed through the exhibit and lingering even as they leave behind the images that produced it.

Cindi Di Marzo

1. Revisiting Ammi Phillips: fifty years of American portraiture, organised by Stacy C. Hollander and Howard P. Fertig (5 February-17 April 1994). Hollander and Fertig also wrote the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
2. The word 'Ammi' comes from Hosea 2:1 and translates from Hebrew as 'my people.' In hindsight, the name seems well chosen for an artist whose style and congenial personality led to many commissions.
3. The exhibition catalogue, comprising half of the autumn 2008 edition (volume 33) of the American Folk Art Museum magazine (the other half is devoted to Martín Ramírez: The Last Works, on view from 7 October 2008-12 April 2009), includes 18 full-colour illustrations and essays by curator Stacy C. Hollander and Rothko scholar Bonnie Clearwater, executive director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, Florida.
4. Rothko's paintings have been labelled with one of the main currents of the abstract expressionists: colour field painting. Other artists associated with this current are Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. This classification emphasises these artists' commitment to colour, but Rothko's statements indicate that his engagement with colour is as an aspect of the light which was his primary concern.
5. Rothko ground his own pigments, used egg temperas and separated layers of pigment with an egg-white glaze. See exhibition catalogue, p.13.

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