Calligraphy as an Artistic Style

Mark Tobey, After the Imprint, 1961. Gouache on illustration board, 39 1/4 x 27 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1962 © 2015 Mark Tobey / Seattle Art Museum, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Tobey saw the potential of his calligraphic style to reconcile the rational and irrational forces of humankind and arrive at a “unified world,” one that mirrored the union of the polarizing yin-yang principles in Asian calligraphy. In this mature work, Tobey layered strokes of white, black, and beige in an all-over pattern suggestive of the unseen energies of the cosmos.

In 1947, American critic Clement Greenberg deemed Tobey a product of the “School of Klee”—a classification that Tobey wore proudly, later professing to his dealer his “kinship to Klee.” Late in life, while living in Basel, Tobey acquired a drawing by Klee.

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

Tuesday Tunes: A Playlist for Mark Tobey

Taking inspiration from the major theme of music in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, we paired 11 staff members with 11 works from the exhibition and asked them to respond to create a playlist in response to their individual artwork. Caitlin Meredith, Phillips Music Coordinator  created this playlist in response to Mark Tobey’s “Night Flight.”

Mark Tobey, Night Flight, 1956, Tempera on cardboard, 11 7/8 x 9 in., Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As I studied Night Flight by Mark Tobey, I saw many repetitive strokes and lines, that once repeated, began to morph into different shapes. This visual aspect is akin to the fugue, a compositional technique in which a melodic line is introduced and repeated by different voices, at which point the interwoven voices begin to develop into something new. For my playlist, I have chosen four pieces that have prominent examples of fugue-like material: two pieces by the king of the fugue, J.S. Bach, and two by more contemporary artists Sylvan Esso and Bon Iver. I hope as you listen you may be able to hear and visualize the repetitive fugue-like sonorities.

Caitlin Meredith, Phillips Music Coordinator 

Feeling inspired? Create your own playlist based around works in the exhibition and send it to us at communications@phillipscollection.org and we may feature it on our blog and social media.

Arthur Hall Smith Remembers the Phillips

Pamela Carter-Birken is a doctoral student at Georgetown University who is researching Duncan Phillips’s relationship with Mark Rothko. She traveled to Paris to interview Arthur Hall Smith who was employed by the Phillips when the museum’s Rothko Room was first installed in 1960. She guest posts about their meeting here.

Arthur Hall Smith. Photo: Pamela Carter-Birken

“I still have dreams about the Phillips Gallery,” says artist Arthur Hall Smith of the Washington, D.C., art museum celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Hired by founder Duncan Phillips in 1959 to be a “welcoming presence,” Smith worked at what is now known as The Phillips Collection for 14 years as curatorial assistant, tour guide, lecturer, and handyman. At The Phillips Collection, he heard abstract expressionist Mark Rothko demand the lighting be changed in the museum’s original Rothko Room, and he bantered in French with Russian painter Marc Chagall.

Smith, a student of abstract painter Mark Tobey, left the Phillips in 1974 to teach painting and drawing at George Washington University, where he stayed for more than two decades. During his professorial years, Smith spent summers at his apartment in Paris, where he now lives year-round and continues to paint in his adjacent studio. The thick-walled building which houses his fourth-floor rooms contains elements from the fifteenth century and is located on the rue Visconti, among galleries of antiquities from Africa and South America.

Even before he graduated from high school in his hometown of Norfolk, VA, Smith aspired to an artist’s life in Paris. In 1951, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts. He served in the Army during the Korean War then returned to the United States to study under Tobey at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he came to Washington, D.C., where he worked in federal jobs until his interview with Duncan Phillips.

“His diction when he wrote his art criticism was almost Edwardian,” Smith says of Phillips. “He had that elevated Yale-educated turn-of-the-century vocabulary. Of course what became of his art criticism was the Collection itself.” Continue reading “Arthur Hall Smith Remembers the Phillips” »