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Functional Splendor

May 10, 2011

Phillips Collection staff members view Augustus Vincent Tack's mural, Time and Timelessness (Spirit of Creation), 1944, at Lisner Auditorium. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Thanks to PhD student Jennifer Stettler Parsons, a few Phillips employees took a field trip on April 13 to George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to see the last abstract painting of Augustus Vincent Tack in a most unexpected form.

In 1944, as a commissioned project facilitated by Duncan Phillips, Tack created a beautiful mural, called Time and Timelessness (Spirit of Creation),  to be used as a fire curtain in the university’s new auditorium. Fire curtains serve to protect audiences from fires that may break out on stage, dropping and forming a fireproof wall. This curtain, like many of the time, is made of asbestos material. Tack’s mural was created in 14 panels and adhered to the commercially-made curtain. Tack fell ill during the creation of the mural and only completed half of the panels himself. The remainder were carried out by longtime assistant, Carl Lella.

Tack's Spirit of Creation, 1944. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

The design for the fire curtain is closely related to the painting Liberation, in the Phillips’s permanent collection. Our painting Time and Timelessness  is a sketch for the mural.

Conservator Lilli Steele takes in the mural. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Tack, a deeply spiritual and philosophical artist, truly took the university’s commission to heart. In a 1944 exhibition publication from George Washington University, Tack wrote about his thoughts when approaching the mural project:

How could the Vital Principle or Soul of  a University be expressed abstractly? A University — the center from which spring the expansion and development of human minds reaching out far into fields of astronomical proportions as well as into the infinitesimally small ranges of microscopic discovery.

If only the students who have looked upon this mural over the decades thought of their education in that way; imagine the achievements!

Detail, Tack's Spirit of Creation, 1944. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

We all paced the stage and the empty auditorium, getting as close as possible to the active brushwork and running far back into the aisles to take in the vast work, while students chanted and demonstrated just outside the theater doors at a campus appearance of President Obama. And as if that spectacle wasn’t enough, production manager Eric Annis invited us to go backstage and see the back of the fire curtain.

Jenny Parsons and Phillips preparator Bill Koberg stand backstage. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

We were all easily awed. For years, performers and guests at Lisner Auditorium have signed the reverse of the mural. Everyone from Ronald Reagan to Larry Flint, the Dalai Lama to Bobcat Goldthwait to Meryl Streep, had left their mark. Perhaps we should have signed it too?

Detail, Tack's Spirit of Creation, 1944. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

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