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The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red

October 7, 2008–March 29, 2009
Exhibition

Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) and Mark Rothko (1903–1970), two American masters disparate in time, place, and presentation, pursued the soul-thirsting creation of inner light through the “realm of the canvas,” as Rothko once termed it. For Rothko, the surface of a canvas presented limitless space to be explored with intrepidity into great distances and with mythic dramas enacted in each succeeding layer. Phillips did not penetrate the “mysterious recesses” of the canvas quite as deeply but worked closer to the surface in shimmering light-filled or velvety dark-filled spaces that seem to exist apart from the known world. In their paintings, both Rothko and Phillips opened portals to a dimension where form was suspended in an ether of suffused atmosphere, and where 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; instead it was a complex language of its own, used to invent and investigate the depths offered by the deceptive flat plane of the canvas.

“The Seduction of Light” includes large-scale canvases from Rothko’s classic period of the 1950s and 1960s, when the paintings had already transcended representation and reached a purity of meaning held solely in color, texture, depth, and proportion. Phillips’s greatest achievements are surveyed through masterpieces from 1815 through the 1830s. Without abandoning representation, the artist pushed the limits of portraiture well beyond the constraints of his time, presaging a modern sensibility and engaging with his materials to create gorgeous and encompassing fields of color.

Ammi Phillips and Mark Rothko: two seekers, each of whose work illuminates the other’s and brings new light into the world.

Artworks

Woman With Pink Ribbons
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)
United States
c. 1830
Oil on canvas
32 x 27 1/2 in.
Collection of Peter and Barbara Goodman

Untitled
Mark Rothko (1903–1970)
New York
1970
Acrylic on canvas
60 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.173
© 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel; photo courtesy the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Blond Boy With Primer, Peach, and Dog
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)
Probably New York State
c. 1836
Oil on canvas
48 3/8 x 30 in.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, estate of Alice M. Kaplan, 2001, 2001-13-1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Mrs. Mayer and Daughter
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)
Probably New York State
1835–1840
Oil on canvas
37 7/8 x 34 1/4 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1962, 62.256.2
Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Harriet Campbell
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)
Greenwich, Washington County, New York
c. 1815
Oil on canvas
48 1/2 x 25 in.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, gift of Oliver Eldridge in memory of Sarah Fairchild Anderson, teacher of art, North Adams Public Schools, daughter of Harriet Campbell
Photo courtesy Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College

No. 1
Mark Rothko (1903–1970)
New York
1961
Oil and acrylic on canvas
101 7/8 x 89 5/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.151
© 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel; photo courtesy the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Credits

“The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red” is made possible in part by support from the David Berg Foundation and the Robert Lehman Foundation. Museum exhibitions are supported in part by the Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. & Erna D. Leir, the Gerard C. Wertkin Exhibition Fund, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Resources
Reviews
Both painters favored broad flat areas of color, and Ms. Hollander has underlined that connection by selecting paintings by both artists that feature red, pink and green.
– KEN JOHNSON
Rothko’s coloured rectangles and Phillips’s vermilion fields vibrate in unison like strings in a well-tuned lute.
– Ariella Budick