NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AFTER COMPLETING A PAINTING THAT WOULD CHANGE HIS WORK FOREVER, RICHARD PHILLIPS LOOKS BACK, WITH AN EXHIBITION AND A NEW BOOK, AT THE ACID-POTENT PIECES THAT HAVE COLORED HIS LIFE AND OURS
“You have to understand that I had no audience whatsoever,” Richard Phillips says, sitting in a large suite at Dallas’s Joule Hotel. He’s referring to the time period in which he completed his landmark painting Mask. “It wasn’t like I was painting for a show,” he says of the piece, which he describes as a “night-and-day difference” from his previous work. “I couldn’t get a show. An art dealer came over to my apartment and saw a friend’s work hanging on my wall, and gave him a show and representation. It was cool, but for me, there was no consciousness that [painting] could be anything other than something for myself. The work was very personal.”
Today, the painting is one of 52 on display through August 10 in Negation of the Universe, a solo survey exhibition of the artist’s work at the Dallas Contemporary museum. (The show also features three films and the installation Playboy Marfa, a three-part piece comprising a blacked-out Dodge Charger, a concrete plinth, and a neon Playboy bunny icon.) For the 51-year-old artist, who also opened a show of brand-new works at Berlin’s Galerie Max Hetzler in May, the concept of a retrospective was uncharted territory.
Among the best-case paintings that did make it to Dallas, War holds special meaning for the artist, who hadn’t laid eyes on it in fourteen years. “I fell gravely ill in 1999,” he explains. “I fell ill working on that painting, and I nearly passed on to the next life at that point. Then after a long period of recovery, it was the first painting that I finished. In a way it was the painting that brought me back into being an artist again. I think it’s a particularly beautiful painting, and it’s one of my favorites.” Another surprising reunion was one with a portrait of the former governor of Massachussetts and failed Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. “I made it under such time pressure and it was only up for a short period of time,” he recalls. “I had no time to appreciate what it was like. I am stunned by the painting. It freaks me out.”
Those seeking a more complete look at Phillips’s oeuvre to date will be rewarded when Rizzoli releases a comprehensive monograph this October. But what does the experience of so much looking back yield for the artist moving forward? “I think it has to do with how we engage with imagery and how art is our first language,” he says, resolutely. “It has the potential to communicate and communicate powerfully. It can be anarchic, it can be destructive, it can be violent, and it can be sexual. I think it reconciles our lives rather than creating some type of obfuscation or some type of escape, you know? It’s not an escape from our reality, it’s a different type of reality.”
NEGATION OF THE UNIVERSE IS ON VIEW THROUGH AUGUST 10
RICHARD PHILLIPS: NEGATION OF THE UNIVERSE IS AVAILABLE OCTOBER 14 FROM RIZZOLI