The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Through March 29

This “unexpectedly stunning show” juxta­poses the paintings of an artistic odd couple, said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. They came from different cultures, “lived a century apart,” and worked in two drastically different modes. But the American Museum of Folk Art will convince you that the famous abstract canvases Mark Rothko produced in 1950s New York share a deep and mysterious connection with 19th-century folk portraits created by a relatively unknown Massachusetts painter named Ammi Phillips. The most obvious connection is color. Frederick A. Gale (c. 1815) is a Phillips portrait of a “solemn” young boy with a schoolbook. His shoes are red and his suit green, but what’s most notable is the luminous ochre background, whose texture resembles the colored squares of Rothko’s No. 1 (1961), which hangs right beside it. “It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the planes of color” in the two paintings, or the two painters’ shared pursuit of “pure luminescence.”

This show is “illuminating” in more ways than one, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. “The exhibition reveals parallel ways of dealing with surface, color, and light.” In particular, a similar faint, glowing quality may be traceable to the fact that both artists ground their own pigments for their paint, which they applied in layers so thin they sometimes seem evanescent. The pink and beige of Phillips’ Harriet Campbell (c. 1815), for instance, “evinces a subtlety of light and shade that reflects luminous parts of Rothko’s paintings.” But perhaps what links the two painters most closely is a “metaphysical dimension” most other painters lack. Phillips’ eerily poignant portraits can seem like ghostly apparitions, while Rothko’s abstractions form doorways to “ethereal realms of mind and space.”