MARJORIE PHILLIPS & NIGHT BASEBALL

Several years ago, during a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was surprised to discover a painting by Robert Moskowitz, “Hard Ball III.”  This painting reminded me of my own love of baseball.  From childhood stickball games in the street, where fire hydrants, telephone poles, and man-hole covers served as the bases, and on to later years when we played in a summer league on real fields along the Mall and the Elipse just across the street from the White House in Washington, DC. 

 

Robert Moskowitz
“Hard Ball III”
1993
Oil on canvas
108” x 58”
Detroit Institute of the Arts,
Detroit, Michigan

The Washington Senators were of course our home town team.  One had to root, root, root for the home team even when they didn’t win, which was often, and a shame.  But it was always great, whether we were sitting right there on the first base line or out in left field waiting for hits from Mantle and Berra, or Runnels and Busby and Yost.  

Over the years my Dad and I both worked for a printing and photography company located at 19th and K Streets, NW:  he much earlier in his career, and I during the summers right after high school and on through art school.  The company was called Cooper/Trent after its two owners, and we were all baseball fans.   Mr. Cooper and Mr. Trent had season tickets at Griffith Stadium and would usually bring back souvenirs for us, a photograph signed by Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals, and a baseball, signed by the entire Senators team.  I still have both of these, to this day. 

Photographer Unknown
“Stan Musial” (Publicity Photo)
c.1956-1957
B&W Photograph
11” x 8 1/2”
Private Collection, Indianapolis

But this is about something larger than these pieces of nostalgia.  It is about a history that is both athletic and aesthetic:  perfect for bridging the gap between painting and poetry, and as it turns out, two women have played an important part in this process. 

During the 1930’s and 40’s the artist Marjorie Acker Phillips accompanied her husband Duncan to hundreds of local baseball games.  Duncan Phillips of course, was the founder of the Phillips Collection of Washington, DC.  During these outings, Marjorie often carried a sketchbook and drawing materials with her and drew the field, the players, and the general atmosphere of that great old ballpark, Griffith Stadium. 

Later in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York, the poet Marianne Moore also became a baseball fan, especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella were some of her favorite subjects.  She was well aware of the contribution that Jackie Robinson was making to our history at that time, and I think that the sound of Branch Rickey’s name may have brought a smile to her face.   

“Baseball and Writing”  

“Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing. 
         You can never tell with either
                  how it will go
                  or what you will do; 
generating excitement—
a fever in the victim—
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. 
                  Victim in what category? 
Owlman watching from the press box? 
                  To whom does it apply? 
                  Who is excited?  Might it be I?[i]    

As the Phillips Collection developed and grew, Marjorie and Duncan Phillips moved out of their original home near DuPont Circle in Washington, and gave over the entire space to the museum.  The Phillips Collection became the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art.  It also provided an educational component in support of the works contained therein, and soon became known as a museum of modern art and its sources.  Works of art were grouped as they played off of each other:  from Ingres, Goya and Delacroix to Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, from Monticelli to van Gogh, with Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Georges Braque included in the mix.    

Over the years Marjorie Phillips’ work became more known and she continued to enjoy the games of the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.  Her painting “Night Baseball” depicts a moment during a Yankees/Senators game when Joe DiMaggio comes up to bat.  It is 1951, his last playing season.  Everything is still, and rather than depict an action, she chose instead the tension of waiting on the delivery of that pitch to home plate. 

I have recently discovered, from an old article in the Washington Post, that Marianne Moore had actually seen this painting and wrote to Marjorie Phillips about it.[ii]  “Night Baseball” could have ended up in the collection of Miss Moore, unfortunately Marjorie Phillips had already given it as a gift to her husband Duncan, who placed it in his collection.  Supposedly, even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was interested in this painting, however it has remained in the Phillips Collection to this day.

It has been years since the Senators and Calvin Griffith left Washington, DC.  They are only memories nowadays.  However, newer painters and poets often remind us of those days.  As mentioned above, Robert Moskowitz has always chosen simple, iconic images for his work, transforming them into monumental statements.  Now, the poet Joseph Stanton, in the series “Painting the Corners” from his recent collection Things Seen, has taken a similar look at familiar icons, and this includes Marjorie Phillips’ painting “Night Baseball.”

Marjorie Phillips 
“Night Baseball”
1951
Oil on canvas
24 1/4” x 36”
Gift of the artist to the Phillips Collection
Washington, DC.

 MARJORIE PHILLIPS’ Night Baseball

“It’s the 1st of September 1951
and Joe Dimaggio
is about to take his last swing
in our nation’s capital. 
He’s up against the great,
but largely forgotten,
Connie Marrero,
El Guajiro de Labertinto,
El Premier of the Cuban stars,
four years older than Joltin’ Joe,
but still floating them up there,
one damned knuckle ball after another,
pitching with canny discernment
and elderly grace,
losing game after game,
for the hapless Senators,
despite his stellar ERA. 

The electrified white of his home togs
makes him seem a bright X,
marking the spot of green field
that waits under the glowering bruise
of the night sky
suspended above Griffith stadium
in this brief instant before the fateful pitch. 

Duncan Phillips has taken his wife
to witness the great Dimaggio,
another masterpiece for their gallery,
but Marjorie can see this night
as all about the weary pitcher,
spread-limbed as if on a cross,
arrayed against the base path
the too much celebrated Joe
will too soon circle. 

Oh, where have you gone,
Connie Marrero?”[iii]                          


[i] Schulman, Grace, ed; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking Penguin; New York, New York; 2002; p. 329.

[ii] Gildea, William; “Griffith Stadium Still Green and Alive;” The Washington Post; Washington, DC; 6 April 1985.  

[iii] Stanton, Joseph; Things Seen; Brick Road Poetry Press; Columbus, Georgia; 2016; pp. 106-107.

INTO THE LIFE OF THINGS

“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]

This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948.  This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.

Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there.  Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet.  Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition.  She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.

ellen1
Ellen Fischer
“Kodak and Mirror”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956.  She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida.  The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.

These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time.  They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter.  Both women have worked with great independence and determination.

On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida.  The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store.  Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.

Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another:  one thing being great because another is small.

ellen2
Ellen Fischer
“Hanging Machete”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic.  They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.

When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:

“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them.  I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them.  The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero.  Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”

“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go.  I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”

“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more.  The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”

“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”

ellen3
Ellen Fischer
“A Close Call”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Private collection Indianapolis)

“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously.  I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”

“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”

“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]

Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting.  She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters.  Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.

Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:

“When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.

ellen4
Ellen Fischer
“Bust with Palette Knife”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]


 

[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.

[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.

[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.

MARIANNE MOORE

moore-fish
“Polychrome Vase in the Form of a Fish”
British Museum Postcard
El-Amarma, XVIIIth Dynasty
(c. 1365 BC)
Glass
1.2 3/4″
The British Museum, London

During the summer of 1911 Marianne Moore and her mother visited the British Museum in London while on a trip to England. This post card from the museum was found amongst Ms. Moore’s papers and notebooks after her death in 1972. In the normal course of events, she might have seen similar objects in both the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Whether she encountered it first hand in London or only through this post card, it did inspire the poem titled “An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish.” It is not an isolated example in her oeuvre but part of a larger interest that included references to “Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome and his lion,” Magritte’s “The Magician’s Retreat,” and a general treatise on the subject of “When I Buy Pictures.” Dial Press in New York first published this poem in 1924.

moore-fish2
“Cosmetic Vessel in the shape of a Nile bulti-fish”
c. 1350 BC
Glass
L. 5.7″
The British Museum, London

“An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish”

“Here we have thirst
And patience, from the first,
And art, as in a wave held up for us to see
In its essential perpendicularity;

Not brittle but
Intense—the spectrum, that
Spectacular and nimble animal the fish,
Whose scales turn aside the sun’s sword by their polish.”[i]


 

[i] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 173.