Understated Original

Phoenix owes its art museum and its cultural life in part to the late Philip Curtis

Philip Curtis, the Scottsdale painter who died November 12 at age 93, would have loved the Phoenix Art Museum's farewell to him last week. He always liked a good party. And this one included some of his favorite things: a few hundred of his closest friends praising him and his extraordinary career; a man in a top hat perched high on an eight-foot chair; and Sacha Pavlata, a tightrope walker wearing a bowler hat.

Pavlata was the perfect sendoff for an artist whose paintings often featured circus performers and people attired in the Victorian dress of his childhood. As Pavlata monkeyed himself up a makeshift scaffold on the lawn behind the museum and stepped gingerly onto the wire, he momentarily looked the part of a Curtis scene. He stood, getting his balance, against the magical twilight that Curtis often painted. Then he moved against the stillness like a skater in midair, one foot sliding ahead of the other.

Halfway across, he paused to lift his right foot from the wire and extend it ahead of him in a balletic farewell. He wobbled, recovered, then pulled a fistful of multicolored confetti from a pocket and hurled it into the air, announcing, "In the words of Philip C. Curtis, 'Carry on.'"

Philip Curtis at his Scottsdale studio in 1997.
Vivian Spiegelman
Philip Curtis at his Scottsdale studio in 1997.

Details

The museum's Ullman Center for the Art of Philip Curtis, scheduled to open in March 2001, will offer a more comprehensive look at the artist's career. For more information, call 602-257-1880.
Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central

With Curtis, departures were never goodbye. They were always a wry, "Carry on." He knew something about the difficulties and frustrations of doing just that. Amid the chaos of the 20th century, he imagined a world with the penetrating humanity and stillness he admired in the frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Because of that and the fact that he worked and sold his paintings mostly here, rather than in New York, he was that rare understated original who was easy to mistake for an artist-come-lately. Critics and other viewers in a rush were prone to dismiss his personal style as frontier surrealism, a hand-me-down from Max Ernst, René Magritte or Giorgio de Chirico.

Curtis' symbolic use of Victorian attire, ornaments and formality in his paintings unquestionably made little play for modern attention. But their dated calm was deceptive. Curtis' painterly refractions of bygone people, objects and scenes tapped the existential core of modern experience.

He settled into the use of Victorian details, he once told me, to separate the meaning of his paintings from the day to day. "If I make the settings somewhat unreal," he said, "it gives me room to introduce other things, things of the mind."

He initially saw the ornamental flourishes of the era's Carpenter Gothic architecture, carriages, circus and fire wagons, gazebos and bandstands as lyrical expressions of great craftsmanship. But he eventually came to see the Victorian components of his paintings as symbols of death and loss.

"It obviously has other meanings for me, too," he said, "but there is a sadness about it that's part of my pictures."

More of a riddler than a narrator, Curtis saw his job as being more along the lines of a stage director, he said, "putting all of the elements in place, but not spelling out the ABC's of what I mean."

He scrupulously avoided offering definitive accounts.

Asked once whether people in an open-air elevator in one of his paintings were headed up or down, he said, "How the hell do I know? For all I know, they could be stuck."

He preferred to give the mind plenty of room to roam through his portraits and landscapes. As an incentive, he often threw open the doors and windows of the houses in his paintings, or made paintings within paintings, opening like virtual windows on experiences within the experience.

Curtis once attributed his painting and its psychological mobility partly to a childhood accident. When he was 16 years old, he fell through a snow-covered Michigan lake and came down with rheumatic fever, which immobilized him for a year. The rheumatic germ developed over the years into a crippling form of rheumatoid arthritis. The affliction trapped him in a stiffened body. Painting let his mind get out and move around.

"Sometimes I think that if I had been a normal 16-year-old," he said, "maybe I would have become distracted by the usual things that grab boys that age."

Instead, he became more contemplative and intellectually resourceful. His first inclination was to apply his wits to writing. Yet in his sophomore year at Michigan's Albion College, he took an art class from Charlotte Swanson, a young teacher who had been trained at the Chicago Art Institute.

"Painting was a real revelation to me," Curtis said. "I don't know that it was any less demanding than writing. But I was attracted to it in a way that I wasn't attracted to writing. With writing, I felt that every word had to be exactly right. And the very nature of words demanded that meanings be more resolute, precisely spelled out. In a way, painting was another, more flexible way for me to tell the kinds of stories that interested me."

Curtis was born in Jackson, Michigan, in 1907. After Albion, he worked as a law clerk in Jackson. His father was a lawyer and judge, but Curtis wanted to paint. So, in 1932, he went east to get a master's degree in art at Yale. He settled in New York in 1935, where he landed a job with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to put artists to work during the Great Depression.

In 1937, the WPA sent him west to establish an art center in Phoenix.

Phoenix, said Curtis, "was culturally impoverished as hell when I got here. There were a couple of sketch and charcoal clubs in town. And other than those, the only outlet for artists was the State Fair."

The federally funded art center was a momentous change. It regularly brought in exhibitions of works by contemporary American artists. It provided workshops and classes. And its core group of artists, which included Lew Davis, a fine painter from Jerome, produced works for the several WPA buildings being constructed in the area.

The art center was the seed that eventually grew into the Phoenix Art Museum. Its wide-ranging activities attracted the interest of key Phoenicians such as Walter Bimson, head of the Valley National Bank, and Mrs. Dwight Heard, who donated the building for the center, and later, the downtown land for the museum.

The WPA work didn't leave Curtis much time for his own paintings. He made a few each year, along with numerous watercolors and sketches. Yet during the late 1930s and the war years of the early 1940s, he mentally worked and reworked his approach to painting.

He spent the war in Washington, D.C., with the Office of Strategic Services -- the forerunner of the CIA -- and a congressional committee on health. By war's end, his progressing arthritis and the damp East had taken a toll on his health. So, in 1947, he and his wife, Marjorie, whom he had met in Phoenix during his WPA days, returned to Arizona, and to painting.

"I was about to turn 40, which at the time seemed to be pretty old," he said. "All through the war, whenever I could find time on the job, I had tried to paint a little. I didn't do much, but I did a lot of work in my head, thinking through ideas about what I wanted to paint and how I'd approach it. So I felt I didn't have to do a lot of experimenting to get going again. And I sort of knew what I wanted to say."

Curtis and his wife settled in among the core of artists who gave Scottsdale its reputation as an art scene. Among them were prewar friends Lew and Mathilde Davis, Philips Sanderson, Lloyd New (known as Lloyd Kiva) and a handful of talented others. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Curtis evolved his poignant vision, painting scenes whose combination of emptiness and spectacle suggested spells of boredom broken by the sudden thrills of daydreams.

His landscapes alternated between the closed-in forests of his Michigan childhood and the expansive Arizona desert. They featured circus and band performances and parades under way in silent settings with sparse arrangements of old trees, billboards, furniture, buildings and doors bleaching and peeling in the sun. Clothing, curtains, hair and banners often appeared furled and buffeted by silent gusts of wind. And his people invariably stood alone in crowds, mouths closed, eyes averted, poised to act.

"The whole secret," he said, "seems to be to stop the action at the right place."

That place was rarely in mid-motion or stride. It invariably occurred just before or after an event.

Curtis viewed these frozen moments as telling predicaments, revealing something, he said, about what was going on in the minds of his subjects.

Curtis sold his paintings to a broadening circle of Phoenix patrons, including Bimson and others he'd met in the 1930s. Marjorie drew the household pay with a variety of steady jobs.

His big break came in 1960, when Lewis Ruskin, a former Chicago drugstore king who sat on several Phoenix cultural boards, persuaded nine other Phoenicians to join a trust to support Curtis for three years. The arrangement propelled Curtis into one of the most productive periods of his life. He produced more than 40 pictures, including some of his finest. He exhibited briefly at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York, and at a gallery in Switzerland, before returning to his old ways of selling his work to friends out of his Scottsdale house.

Over the years, his work appeared in numerous international group exhibitions. And in 1978 he had a solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Yet his renown remained largely within the region. In the 1990s, he exhibited briefly at Scottsdale's Marilyn Butler Gallery, now closed, and the Riva Yares Gallery.

Toward the end of his life, Curtis confided that this small circle of success suited him.

"I remember after the war of thinking about going back to New York," he said. "But at the time I was afraid of getting trapped into that style of painting. Not going back could have been a mistake, but I don't think I could have done it any other way."

Last year, the Phoenix Art Museum published a book about Curtis' career. Next spring, it will open a room dedicated to his work.

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