Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art Catch: The Seduction of Light

Posted By on Tue, Nov 4, 2008 at 3:30 PM

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In her weekly online column "Art Catch," The L's Patricia Milder tells you which exhibits and dance shows are worth visually stalking. And which ones are simply not.

I'm supposed to be boycotting the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM). No, the museum is not politically incorrect or utilizing child labor in developing countries; nothing like that. It's just that senior curator Stacy C. Hollander totally dissed my roommate when she practically promised and then rescinded an offer to include one of her paintings in the recently closed "Dargerism" show. And if I learned anything in high school, it's that one must always choose sides, especially regarding other peoples' disagreements that have nothing to do with you. Otherwise, how can you feed and perpetuate unnecessary and time-consuming drama? I mean, really, how?

But I couldn't stay away. I had to see the unlikely pairing of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) that Hollander (that bitch!) brilliantly arranged at the alter of color and light: "The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips/Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red."
Wait a second here -- what, you ask, is ab-ex art star Mark Rothko doing at the outsider focused AFAM? Well, there is some strange (for this setting, among true folk artists) wall text emphasizing his "self taught" background: it must have started after he dropped out of Yale, and the Art Students League, and the New York School of Design…and um, also after his highly influential art classes with Arshile Gorky and Max Weber.

Granted, the man didn't have an MFA, but that hardly qualifies him as folk. His presence is more logically explained by the fact that this current show with Phillips is as much about unlikely social conversation as it is about visual juxtaposition and the striking depths of sublime color. Like "Dargerism," which showcased contemporary artists who were influenced by Henry Darger's work, this show is based on what is emerging as an overarching and rather successful theme for the museum: the blurring of the line between folk and fine.

It is interesting how, by bringing Rothko inside its walls, the museum is able to deepen general consciousness and serious considerations about the rest of the artists featured throughout. In a perfect world (or my version of it, anyway) this would be unnecessary and we wouldn't cling to established hierarchical distinctions, but the AFAM has developed great tactics for working with the world we're actually living in.

Enabling a new kind of discourse, but actually much more important than it, is the fact that the works in this show are absolutely stunning. These two artists are each enlivened through juxtaposition with the other. Your eyes glide seamlessly over the canvases of Rothko and Phillips, between the reds, greens, and pinks that bounce off and blend into each other perfectly. That the colors in these two artists' paintings are phenomenal, unreal, and beyond the possibilities of reproduction (you must go see for yourself), is what makes the pairing of them seem natural, easy and almost even meant to be.

Nothing is known of Phillips' training as an artist or his ambitions and thoughts about the work he produced; he left no notebooks or records. He came to widespread attention when his forgotten portraits were rediscovered in the 1920s at the height of the Colonial Revival and these images, long hidden away in old homes, started to frequently illustrate art magazines. Clearly Phillips could not have predicted Rothko's spiritual seeking through canvas and paint, or the 20th Century artist's large-scale emotional rejection of representation. But something about Phillips' surface hovering, hauntingly beautiful images makes me need to imagine that he did.

At least in this one well-curated room, Rothko and Phillips really do seem comfortably settled together in the same elusive space. On some level, the two artists' know each other well, and through light and color they let us in on the little/big sublime secret that they share. Now -- to rehearse excuses for when my roommate finds out mine.

The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips/Mark Rothko
American Folk Art Museum, 45 W 53rd St, closes March 29, 2009

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