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The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green and Red

March 31, 2009

Seduction of Light

Another exhibit I saw this weekend at the Folk Art Museum was The Seduction of Light, an exhibit that places two American artists, Ammi Phillips (1788 – 1865) and Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970), side by side. The purpose of the exhibit was to explore how both artists used the language of color on “the realm of the canvas” to either portray an ethereal suspended space (Rothko) or a surreal jewel-like portrait (Phillips). While I didn’t quite understand the lengthy explanations of the theory behind the pairings, just to see them together was eye opening and a beautiful experience.

In fact, this exhibit reminded me of a wonderful book I read about the origins and history of colors, “Color: A Natural History of the Palette” by Victoria Finlay. The author travels around the world hunting the sources of color, discovering surprising facts along the way (for instance, did you know that yellow can come from the urine of cows that are fed mango leaves? or that the bright red of a flamenco dress can come from the blood of a beetle? or that Napolean may have been killed by his wallpaper pigment?). You learn a little bit about world history and trade along the way too. I would highly recommend it.

If you want to read more about the exhibit, the NYTimes wrote a review, here; the Financial Times, here. Unfortunately, the day I went was the last day of the exhibit… Although you can’t get the sense of scale (which is very important for Rothko’s work) you can get a sense of what it is like to see these paintings together (and how brilliant a pairing it was) by looking at some of them side by side:

Ammi Phillips (1788 - 1865) and Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970). Images courtesy of American Folk Art Museum.

Ammi Phillips (1788 - 1865) and Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970). Images courtesy of American Folk Art Museum.

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