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Philip Morsberger’s Autobiographical Notes
By Wim Roefs
The one head looking up at the viewer from the bottom-left corner of Philip Morsberger’s 2014 painting La Paloma is the only presence of the human figure in the artist’s current exhibition. The rest of the show is mostly without the cartoon-like figures, animals and objects that have dominated much of Morsberger’s work of the past three decades. Instead, the work is defined visually by names, words and phrases written with vigorous, energetic and joyful marks and the riotous color compositions that embrace them. While the human presence is no less evident here than in Morsberger’s other works, aside from that one head and the odd object, the scribbles are the only representational element in the paintings.
The exhibition is representative of Morsberger’s output for 2013 – 2014. While the extended near-absence of figures, animals and object is a new development, the paintings are less of a departure than they might seem. They fit Morsberger’s larger body of work fairly effortlessly, as the illustrations with this essay suggest. Morsberger often before has included words and phrases in his representational work, at times the same ones as in the recent paintings. He also has created non-figurative, essentially abstract-expressionist paintings, both with and without scribbles. And he has superimposed figures and objects on compositions that, like the current work, are strongly defined by their abstracted, expressionist nature and brushwork.
No less important, the recent paintings share the strong autobiographical element of Morsberger’s figurative work. In the latter, Morsberger encountered his hat-wearing father; his mother; his brother fancying himself Tailspin Tommy; cartoon characters; toy cars and airplanes; and goldfish and turtles, the only pets his father allowed him and his brother to have. He also inserts himself in different ways and stages of life.
About those paintings, Susan Landauer wrote in the catalogue for the 2000 exhibtion The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration: “One of Morsberger’s recurrent alter egos is the character he affectionately calls the ‘Cosmic Scribbler’.” The scribbler “can usually be seen furiously recording the anarchic activity around him or else galloping his way through the ‘rat race’ of the art world.”
In the recent paintings, the scribbler scribbles his biography into the work. Morsberger’s lifelong love for comic books is evident, for instance, in phrases such as “notary sojac,” from the Smokey Stover comic strip, or “nov shamoz kapop,” from Room And Board, another cartoon. Even though he suspects the phrases were nonsensical, they suggested meaning and seemed important, Morsberger says.
The names in Roll Call, on this catalogue’s cover, present friends from his youth, boys and girls. Pot Pourri also lists people he knew, including one “Aldrich,” who furthermore refers to a beloved radio and TV series, Henry Aldrich. “Cecilia” shows up as someone from Morsberger’s past but also as St. Cecilia (p. 7), patroness of musicians – Morsberger is an avid piano player. “Paloma suave en la fuente,” written in La Paloma (p. 6), is from the 19th-century Spanish habaneras song by the same name. “Fiddle Dee Dee” refers to Scarlett in Gone With The Wind but also to Morsberger’s not unanimously appreciated response to the goings on in a meeting at Oxford University. He taught there at St. Edmund Hall (p. 11) as the Ruskin Master of Drawing in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Charm City refers to a nickname for Morsberger’s hometown, Baltimore. “Catoctin,” in Maryland Fantasy (p. 6), is the mountain range straddling Maryland, his native state, and Virginia. The area includes Cunningham Falls (p. 10). In the 1940s, working in a camp for crippled children in the Catoctin Mountains, Morsberger would play one of his favorite pieces of music, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, the title of and writing in yet another work (p. 7).
“So there,” Morsberger says after reluctantly explaining the meaning of words and phrases in several paintings. “All of the terms are an excuse to move lines and colors around. It’s very much stream of consciousness.” With approval, he refers to Mattise’s quote that painters ought to have their tongues cut out because their decision to become a painter takes away their right to express themselves with anything but a brush. “The writing is not meant to be mysterious in any way,” Morsberger says. “I am not trying to confound the viewer. I want the viewer to be a participant just as me, and I take it as an act of fate that people will bring their own insights as to what the paintings are trying to be and offer.”
During his early-1950s undergraduate studies at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie Mellon University, Morsberger didn’t care much for the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the art world. He took his cues more from Bay Area Figuration painters such as Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliveira. The academic training he received courtesy of the GI Bill at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing later that decade was more his speed.
In the 1960s, Morsberger was a committed figurative realist with a modern flair, dealing with JFK’s assassination, civil rights and other political issues. But a 1972 painting about the My Lai Massacre stopped him cold. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said in 2009. Slashing paint all over the work, Morsberger discovered his inner abstract expressionist after all and turned to expressive, abstracted landscapes, such as Cornish Fantasy (p. 4).
But he missed the figure, which returned in the early 1980s, after his father’s death, as figures from his youth rather than the contemporaries Morsberger dealt with in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, he briefly painted rather exact, regimented scenes with a multitude of strongly delineated figures, deciding on what color to use for which parts by throwing dice. Around 1982, he arrived at the cartoon-like characters painted with a sure, painterly, draftsman-like brush that came to define much of his career. They were, as Mark Van Proyen wrote in 1993, “billowing improvisations of phosphorescent color oscillating in the shallow field along with cartoon faces that suggest images of Ross Perot drawn by Gasoline Alley cartoonist Frank King.”
In his 2007 book Phillip Morsberger: A Passion for Painting, British author Christopher Lloyd observed that the paintings “adumbrate universal truths about life and death through a sequence of personal references.” Morsberger himself says: “All these paintings are on their face comedic, but they are a little bit like whistling in the cemetery. They are about life, death and resurrection.”
Why did he step away from figuration? “I am not sure I know the answer,” Morsberger says. “I suppose I was feeling I was repeating myself, running the risk of becoming formulaic, so I went out to the edge of the branch, as it were, making marks just for a while and in the process enjoying the color interplay. But also inserting words that in one way or another had some meaning for me. Childhood nostalgia things. Words that aroused me to write them and embellish them and then using them as a springboard for composition. And from there, one is just hanging onto the brush for dear life.”
“I’ve been enjoying the voyage so far. Where it will take me, I can only imagine. As I said, hanging onto the brush for dear life. Whether the figures will come back, I don’t know, but it easily could happen. But for now I am perfectly happy with my words, and strokes and color interactions. If I knew what I was doing, I could quit. But I don’t, so I can’t.”
Wim Roefs is the owner of if ART Gallery