Folk Art (Fall 2008)

Page 88


he soul-thirsting quest for the creation of"inner light," as Mark Rothko once termed it, has preoccupied artists for centuries.' Ammi Phillips(1788-1865) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970),two American masters disparate in time, place, and presentation, pursued this light through the "realm ofthe canvas" that held infinite possibilities for truth and illumination.' For Rothko,the surface ofa 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" ofthe canvas quite as deeply but worked closer to the surface in shimmering light-filled or velvety darkfilled spaces that seem to exist apart from the known world. In their paintings, both Phillips and Rothko opened portals to a dimension where form was suspended in an ether ofsuffused atmosphere,and where the mysticism oflight was coaxed into being primarily through the vehicle of color. For neither artist was color a simple tool to compose pleasing arrangements;instead it was a complex language ofits own,used to invent and investigate the depths offered by the deceptive flat plane ofthe canvas. Rothko was concerned that his use ofcolor in the classic paintings ofthe 1950s and 1960s would appear "decorative" despite their monumental scale, and this produces an intrinsic tension in the experience ofthe paintings. He explained that he worked on a large scale "precisely because I want to be very intimate and human." Some art historians relate the tremendous size ofthese canvases to philosopher Edmund Burke's theory ofthe sublime—"the mind... so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other..."—effecting a sort of pretechnological omniverse of all-encompassing sensation.' Too,the scale recalls 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.The frescoes and other forms that were unearthed from these sites had a profound effect on the palette and imagery ofearly nineteenth-century arts in Europe and the United States and contributed to a neoclassical formulation that endures to the present. Some ofthese discoveries were accessible to Rothko through museum installations, most notably the cubiculum (bedroom)from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale,Italy, at the Metropolitan Museum ofArt in New York. At times, Rothko's is a voracious, primal intimacy, perhaps akin to Burke's equation ofthe sublime with the violence of astonishment,"that state ofthe soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror."' Ammi Phillips relates a less tempestuous, more delicate humanity. In their bated and tender atmosphere, the early paintings, especially, seem to hold their breath,gently stirring the air around them with ripples of heartbreaking vulnerability and beauty. In our regard of paintings by Phillips or Rothko,then, we are mute,for words cannot grasp the ineffable stuff of which they are made. It is not known what training Ammi Phillips received as an artist, though we can trace his growing skill through the more than seven hundred canvases he painted between 1811 and his death in 1865.The Phillips family were mostly farmers and property owners in Colebrook, Connecticut,and later Colebrook, Ohio. Ammi Phillips was already painting portraits


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