Curator's Corner

Women's History Month 2011 III

By Karl Cole, posted on Mar 21, 2011

If you have been following this blog you probably know I am particularly fond of investigating artists who are completely new to me or whom many of you may not have heard of. So, for the last two weeks of Women’s History Month, I’m going to introduce you to memorable artists who have been neglected in most art history books, but who were pioneering modern artists. Up this week is the sculptor and printmaker Helen Phillips. This piece from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is a great work to use to discuss positive and negative space.

Helen Phillips (1913–1995, US), Abstract Form, 1967.
Helen Phillips (1913–1995, US), Abstract Form, 1967. Alabaster, 32 ½" x 8" x 7" (82.55 x 20.32 x 17.78 cm). Photo © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. Art © 2011 Estate of Helen Phillips. (AK-515)


Phillips was born in Fresno, California, and studied art at the San Francisco School of Fine Art. There she learned direct carving, and became acquainted with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who was painting murals there. Although impressed with the rounded, plastic forms of Rivera’s work—himself inspired by ancient Mexican sculpture—Phillips was not drawn to social realism. She found it stifling compared to open exploration of form. Sculpturally, she was influenced more by the ancient Mexican, Asian, and Oceanic works that she saw in San Francisco collections. These formed the groundwork for her mature style.

Phillips moved to Paris in 1936, then the center of modernist experiment in both painting and sculpture. She befriended such important avant-garde sculptors such as American expatriate Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966, Swiss). From Calder’s work she came away with an interest in line, creating positive and negative space in a series of works made of copper tubing. From Giacometti’s sculpture her interest in “primitive” form was reinforced. She lost all of her Paris sculptures when she fled the Nazis back to New York in 1939.

Phillips sculpture and prints attracted increasing notice during the mythic seminal period of the New York School. She showed in the landmark 1948 exhibition Bloodfumes alongside such artists as Arshile Gorky, Wilfredo Lam, and Isamu Noguchi. While experimenting with wood and bronze casting, Phillips always returned to carving in stone as a way of continuing to explore movement in space through cubic abstractions.

Abstract Form suggests a biomorphic, growing form in the confines of minimalist geometric form. While this piece may recall Donald Judd’s untitled “stack” sculptures, the connection of each geometric unit to the next gives it a definite organic feel lacking in Judd’s work. Ironically, this was Phillips’ last major bit of stone sculpture. She seriously injured her back while installed it and never produced large-scale sculpture again.


Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 9.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; The Visual Experience: 6.3, 10.2; Discovering Art History: 17.5