Visual Arts

Understated Original

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.'"

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."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow