Baltimore native Philip Morsberger (b. 1933) studied at Oxford in the mid-1950s and from 1971-1984 was the university’s Ruskin Master of Drawing. He used the prestigious position to develop and head a now renowned, full-blown art department at Oxford University. In the United States, Morsberger has taught at Harvard University, Dartmouth University, UC Berkeley, the California College of Arts and Crafts, Miami University and other institutions. He retired from teaching after a five-year stint as Williams S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta State University in Augusta, Ga. His work is in several museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Art.
While at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Morsberger began to paint in a more abstract style, using color as his primary tool. A reaction to the dark tragedies of the 1960s, this work is referred to by Morsberger as “mindscapes” or “inscapes.”
In the 1980s Morsberger continued with abstraction, sometimes with a comedic narrative that recalls his early passion for comic strips. Influences from his childhood pervade his work and seem to filter their way more prominently into his later work as autobiographical stories and reminiscences.
Morsberger continues to work in this manner, without a preliminary sketch and without any preconception about the outcome of the painting. He allows the color and the application of it to evolve into a narrative on an abstract background, with figurative elements breaking through. By thinking in Technicolor, Morsberger creatively combines his early teachings with his lifelong discoveries.
ARTS AND HUMANITIES:
New film celebrates life, art of Philip Morsberger
Written by Tom Mack | October 8, 2015
Much has been written about the psychology of color, particularly the ways that color influences one’s emotions and general state of mind. Blue is said to be a good color for bedrooms, for example, because it has a calming effect on the viewer; stop signs are painted red because it is the strongest of colors and thus more easily observable in the environment. The color red is also often associated with alarm.
Most people would agree with the general proposition that color can affect how one feels. For the purposes of this column, however, my focus will be on how color can also serve as an agent of emotion.
Artists, particularly those of an expressionist mode, use color better to convey on canvas their inner experience. I am reminded in this regard of Vasily Kandinsky, an influential Russian painter of the first half of the 20th century whose “improvisations” foreshadow the work of later abstract artists.
Kandinsky believed that there were very deeply ingrained correlations between color and the individual psyche and that only through the uninhibited expression of those linkages can the artist really find himself.
[Submitted photo Philip Morseberger is pictured.]
Enlarge Submitted photo Philip Morseberger is pictured.
This is, I think, a helpful approach to understanding the later paintings of Philip Morsberger, whose extraordinarily long and productive life in art has been recently celebrated with the release of a short film produced by the Morris Museum of Art.
Entitled “Motivated by Color,” the film provides an overview of Morsberger’s nearly lifelong engagement with the visual arts with special attention to the work produced since he moved to Augusta nearly 20 years ago.
The film begins with a view of Morsberger’s Augusta studio, which is filled to overflowing with canvases saturated by color. Color, color, color.
Often characterized as memory paintings, these more recent works are, to some extent, subconscious explorations of the artist’s youth, explorations, if you will, of his formative years and the key factors influencing his later life and work.
Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures at the Royal Collection and the author of a fine 2007 study of the artist, attempted to describe these works created by Morsberger since the early nineties by making reference to the figures – sometimes his parents or childhood pets – that seem to float on a patchwork of color.
In the film, the origin of much of the artist’s personal iconography, his reservoir of simplified figures and forms, is traced to a seminal moment in his childhood when he observed his maternal grandfather altering the photographs in the Baltimore Sun, perhaps adding mustaches and glasses to the images of people in the news or knocking out their teeth with the tip of a lead pencil.
“This is magic,” the artist-to-be said to himself; and he never wanted to do anything else with his life than to draw and to paint.
A summer class at the Maryland Institute of Art eventually led to Carnegie Tech and then, thanks to the G.I. Bill, to the Ruskin School at Oxford University.
There, first as a student and then as a member of the faculty – he held the post of Ruskin Master of Drawing for a dozen years and created the first degree program in art at Oxford – Morsberger learned how to engage in careful observation.
He “mastered” the art of seeing and accurately registering on paper and on canvas the products of that activity.
For his most recent work, however, external observation takes second place to visual memory. One of the most engaged and engaging conversationalists, Philip Morsberger is, while in his studio, a solitary practitioner, reflecting on his own past while he confronts the canvas.
“I paint and paint until I find a painting,” the artist avows. When does he know that he is finished with a canvas? According to Kevin Grogan, Director of the Morris Museum of Art, that process can sometimes take 20 years because Morsberger is fond of working and reworking a painting.
It can take a long time to explore one’s private world, especially when that interior landscape is rich with incident and association.
Philip Morsberger has surely lived a full and varied life. What more fitting subject can there be for art? Copies of “Motivated by Color: The Life and Work of Philip Morsberger” are available at the museum shop.
Directed by Tim Barrett, this is the second short film produced by Nicole McLeod for the Morris; her first foray into film production for the museum was the 2014 documentary entitled “Preservation of Place: The Art of Edward Rice.”
Directed by Mark Albertin, that earlier film also focused on the life and work of a local artist whose reputation extends far beyond the bounds of the Central Savannah River Area.
For more information on both films, visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, Dr. Tom Mack holds the rank of Distinguished Professor Emeritus at USC Aiken. For more information on the colorful history of this region, please consult his books “Circling the Savannah,” “Hidden History of Aiken County,” and the soon-to-be-published “Hidden History of Augusta.”
Mayor Proclaims Friday As Philip Morsberger Day
June 18, 2015
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis has announced that Friday will be Philip Morsberger Day in the city. Morsberger, an internantionally-known painter, has lived in Augusta since 1996.
“It is not just his gifts as a great painter and fine teacher that has benefited Augusta so greatly,” Davis said in his proclamation. “It was his decision to remain here after his term as the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta State University (now Georgia Regents University) ended, working among us and representing Augusta brilliantly elsewhere that has really identified him as a favorite son. Whether adopted or not, he is a great Augustan and a wonderful ambassador for our city. We take great pride in his continuing presence here.”
In honor of the day, Morris Museum director Kevin Grogan announced that admission to the museum will be free all day on Friday.
“No public institution anywhere has enjoyed the support of such a staunch and abiding friend as the Morris Museum has had in Philip Morsberger,” Grogan said. “We share in the mayor’s salute and wish him all the best.”
Morsberger and his wife, Mary Ann, moved to Augusta in 1996 when he was named the Morris Eminent Scholar in the Visual Arts, a prestigious endowed professorship at Augusta State University. He held the post until 2001. His work is represented in numerous museum and corporate collections in the United States and England, as well as dozens of private collections worldwide.