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Arthur Hall Smith Remembers the Phillips

November 14, 2011

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.”

Smith speaks about some of the connections among the art Phillips collected. “The idea of radiance that occurs in Rothko is, I think, the reason Mr. Phillips said Bonnard was the greatest of the recent French painters and why he preferred Bonnard to someone like Picasso. Mr. Phillips saw painting as an affirmation or a celebration and in the case of the Rothkos, the possibility of tragedy – the positive and the negative.”

Smith remembers seeing one of the Rothko paintings in the basement of the Phillips Gallery before the Rothko Room was built. “My memory of the painting, the Green and Maroon, is that it was squarer in format than it is. I suppose in the basement it had the weight of the mansion on it!”

Green and Maroon (1953) is, in Smith’s opinion, the greatest of the Rothkos purchased by Duncan Phillips. “It is more subtle and also more complicated,” Smith says.

“[Phillips Chief Curator] Eliza [Rathbone] writes about Mr. Phillips knowing Rothko wanted his paintings hung separately from other artists. I can see a reason for that that is not ego. They demand a certain concentration.”

Of all the conversations Smith enjoyed with Phillips, one in particular stands out. “They had over some pink fireplace Monet’s The Cliffs at Dieppe [Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning)]. One day when I was in the room with him, Mr. Phillips looked at it and toward the Renoir [Luncheon of the Boating Party] and back at the Monet. He said to me he thought the Monet was an equally great painting.”

There’s no doubt Arthur Hall Smith provides a treasure-trove of links to the past. But at 82, the man for whom the Corcoran Gallery of Art held a 10-year retrospective in 1961 still creates art. Smith is currently working in mixed media, with pastels and oils. He likens some of the forms in his recent paintings to origami. He abides pain in his shoulder to continue to paint and in the past few years has produced what his teacher Tobey might have called “a flow of work.”

Pamela Carter-Birken, doctoral student

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