NEW YORK.- Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), two American masters disparate in time, place, and presentation, pursued the creation of inner light through the vehicle of color. For both artists, color was a complex language of its own, used to invent and investigate the depths offered by the deceptive flat plane of the canvas. The exhibition The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red, organized by senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, is on view at the American Folk Art Museum through March 29, 2009. This focused exhibition provides a rare opportunity to consider the work of this unorthodox pairing. Although the artworks are separated by history and intent, the visual resonances reveal previously unexplored aesthetic connections.
In 1994 the museum presented Revisiting Ammi Phillips, a survey of portraits by the artist from all phases of his oeuvre, curated by Ms. Hollander. Her interest in Phillips has extended over the years to the use of color and the interplay of light and dark in his paintings. The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red includes a dozen significant works of art with a concentration on three colors derived from the palette of Roman frescoes and Renaissance panel paintings: three large-scale canvases from Rothko's classic period of the 1950s until his death in 1970, and nine portraits by Ammi Phillips from around 1815 through the 1830s. The selection of paintings by Rothko transcend representation and reach the purity of meaning held solely in color, texture, depth, and proportion. Phillipsís greatest achievement is evident in portraits that demonstrate shifts in canvas size and shape, color choices, translucency, opacity, and surface texture.
"We are pleased to present this provocative exhibition that embraces the museumís mission while extending its purview. It places folk art within a larger art historical dialogue," comments Maria Ann Conelli, executive director, American Folk Art Museum.
Ammi Phillips was born in Colebrook, Connecticut, in 1788. Little is known about Phillips beyond the bare statistics of his life. He was already painting portraits professionally in southwestern Massachusetts by the age of 21 and it is likely that he had seen the work of portrait painters such as Reuben Moulthrop and J. Brown, whose compositions apparently influenced his early efforts. Phillipsís skill and dynamically changing styles can be traced through more than seven hundred known canvases completed between 1811 and his death in Massachusetts in 1865.
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903. He immigrated to the United States in 1913 with his mother and sister, joining his father, who settled the family in Portland, Oregon. In his writings, Rothko revealed that he considered himself essentially a self-taught artist. Although he became one of the pivotal figures in twentieth century art, his formal training consisted of only a few classes at art schools in New York, where he had moved after attending Yale University. Rothko learned the painting techniques of the old masters from Arshile Gorky at the New York School of Design. But it was the painting class he took with Max Weber in 1925 at the Art Students League that defined the philosophical direction he was to pursue and develop until his death in 1970.
There is an intriguing yin and yang to the paintings of Ammi Phillips and Mark Rothko. In their artistic explorations, Rothko, the modern artist, looked back for inspiration and techniques while the 19th century artist, Phillips, looked into the future where representation was abstracted as far possible.
Rothko's self-education was shaped largely by his exposure to artworks in New York museums and galleries and his friendships with artists such as Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb. His growing conviction that color itself could hold the content and meaning of human experience, drama, and spirituality was nourished through the study of the arts of the ancient world, the frescoes of Pompeii, and the art of the Renaissance, particularly that of the Florentine master Giotto. These antecedents had a profound effect on the development of Rothko's own manifestation of pictorial space. But it was not until a trip to Italy in 1959 that he experienced the revelation of Fra Angelico's frescoes in the Convent of San Marco in Florence. Rothko responded to the tactility of space found within the surfaces of frescoes and the painted panels of Giotto. The air in his paintings becomes a participant in creating a reality; the space around the solid elements is palpable, contributing its own weight and density to the canvas. "The monumental scale, meditative beauty, and sacred light of Rothkoís classic paintings recall the sensate effect of such frescoes, their very size encompassing the viewer in an intimate embrace," notes Ms. Hollander. The strategies Rothko had devised by mid-century, and that today we consider the ìclassicî paintings, were the culmination of his search for truth, beauty, and humanity, uncluttered by extraneous and distracting elements.
In his paintings Phillips explored the light and reflectivity of the neoclassical color palette that drew its inspiration from the frescoes of antiquity. The luminous and delicate portraits, painted in New York State around 1815, such as Harriet Campbell, are on a large scale, tall and rectangular to echo the forms of full-length standing figures of children. His palette of translucent golden pinks, taupes, and greens derives from the neoclassical scheme of the period, rooted in Enlightenment ideas and archaeological discoveries that introduced a classically inspired iconography into the visual arts. In these early canvases, delicate hues blend into one another, and the figures, gently outlined, occupy a diffuse, hazy space.
By the late 1820s and 30s, Phillips's canvases become more modest in size. These paintings are characterized by a greater clarity of edge, opacity, and deeper saturation and contrast of color. The figures, clothed in brilliant color, emerge from dark backgrounds as seen in the portrait of the Woman with the Pink Ribbon. He introduced elements of Renaissance chiaroscuro in a smoky, soft dark background that frames the hard edge of the figure. Phillips responded to a medieval aesthetic in his use of broad planes of pure colors. He relied on dependable color relationships based on ideals of luminosity: the ancient scheme of light and dark with intermediate colors of red and green in between. Expanses of brilliant colorócarbon black, vermilion, white lead, and greenóand light play against indistinct, dark backgrounds as exemplified by the iconic paintings of children in red dresses. These portraits display strikingly modern reductive strategies, pared down to the essential elements of representation. They have a timeless quality, achieved in part through opaque surfaces that are virtually enameled to a glassy smoothness, eliminating the personality inherent in his brushstroke.
"For Rothko, the surface of a canvas presented limitless space to be explored into great distances and with mythic dramas enacted in each succeeding layer. Phillips did not penetrate the ìmysterious recessesî of the canvas quite as deeply but worked closer to the surface in shimmering light-filled or velvety dark-filled spaces," notes Ms. Hollander.
Rothko was fascinated with the passage of light through different mediums and how this affected the experience of color. He reinvented traditional techniques and played with color as though he were an alchemist. Rothko added dry pigments, egg, chalk, and other materials to the ground color or to the rabbit skin glue that he used as a foundation. The resultant mixture might be thinned so it functioned as a stain rather than an opaque layer. He sometimes separated layers of paint with a tinted glaze, building depth and translucency. He might leave areas of the unprimed canvas exposed, so that the natural color, weave, and texture of the threads functioned as an additional color element, the canvas pierced through the layers of color. This is evident in Untitled (1970), one of the last canvases Rothko painted before his death. He described the canvases of his classic period in terms of two categories of painting: transparent, heavily brush-marked surfaces and opaque, smooth surfaces with few obvious brushstrokes.
Phillips, too, applied thin layers of paint so the weave of the canvas, its texture, and color became part of the surface. In the portraits Harriet Campbell and Frederick Gale the white of the rough-weave linen substrate bleeds through the lean paint. This layered surface then receives the luminous pinks, earthy greens, and rich reds. The translucent washes and opaque areas in antique colors evoke the ruined surfaces of ancient Roman frescoes.
"In the paintings of Phillips and Rothko the mysticism of light was coaxed into being primarily through the vehicle of color. Evident in the work of each artist are areas of darkness that barely distinguish, so that fierce colors explode from within. Other times, layers of ethereal hues, so thin that the ground fairly shimmers, erase or contribute spatial referents. For neither artist was color a simple tool to compose pleasing arrangements," notes Stacy Hollander