A World to See the World By: by David Jennings

Tom Phillips with reading glasses

One of two biographical pieces by David Jennings commissioned especially for this website.

Tom Phillips is an artist who weaves together painting, text, music, photography, video, sculpture, design and location-specific work. He is equally at home with  ideas from High Art (as in imagining Schumann’s final score, composed in an asylum) or philosophy (several of his works refract quotations from Wittgenstein) as with stitching together prostitutes’ advertising cards collected from London telephone booths. His 60-or-more portraits include paintings of Iris Murdoch, a lithograph of Samuel Beckett, and screen-based computer-processed drawings and video of Baroness Susan Greenfield.

Running through Phillips’s diverse output like a braid is a series of durational works. Foremost among these is his A Humument, a (so far) 45-year project to treat and re-treat the pages of a Victorian novel. The texts produced in this way have in their turn spawned further paintings, poems and an opera (Irma). Meanwhile the Curriculum Vitae series of 20 blank verse canticles (1986-1992) along with Song of Myself (wire sculpture, 1995) provide parallel — more authoritative — texts to the one you are reading now, tracing the artist’s influences and preoccupations. As Simon Callow (himself a collaborator: Phillips designed the sets for his production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) put it, it is as though there is a school of contemporary artists, working in a variety of styles and media, who have all chosen to use the name Tom Phillips. Over the course of half a century, Phillips’s career has explored multiple ways of drawing strands together, making new lines between them and playing with the old ones.

According to Tom Phillips’s friend and one-time student Brian Eno, an artist is now “a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things… the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures.” This is not simply a case of the artist switching hats between part-time roles —  though the sheer substance of Phillips’s work in, for example, translating Dante’s Inferno as well as illustrating it and co-directing a TV version, stands in its own right. This focus on the connective tissue of culture is a form of commentary on these meta-roles as a response to an era of abundance. It opens up layers of meaning and the chance connections that occur when you pile one layer on top of another, endlessly. It’s also a way of reclaiming the roles, folding them back into the art.

Phillips’s collection of some 50,000 postcards may have started as research for the composition of his paintings, but it has spawned a book and a major exhibition. The Postcard Century lays out the hundred years of the postcard’s growth and decline as a medium as a chronological list. Woven into this framework are all manner of story fragments, unlikely patterns, lessons in social history and the evolution of photography alongside other media. We Are The People, a thematically arranged collection of postcard portraiture, gently subverted the National Portrait Gallery’s institutional bias towards “big cheeses and high achievers”. The ambition: to demonstrate how the visually epic may emerge from the aggregation of small, personal gestures. The taxonomies that Phillips conjures out of his raw data are the product of a sharp wit that is alive to how there is always some cooking of the books in the act of representation. The playful links he makes invite you in to participate in identifying others, alternative classifications and readings.

This preoccupation with the margins found its consummation — or its antithesis, depending on your perspective — when Phillips curated the major exhibition  Africa: The Art of a Continent for the Royal Academy. This in turn has its counterpart in Phillips’s documentation of his personal collection of “ethnographic treasure” published as African Goldweights — these Ghanaian miniatures are among the recent objects that have succumbed to what the artist refers to as “the psychopathology of collecting” and the “delightful drudgery of sorting”.

Text runs through Tom Phillips’s work as through a stick of rock in one of his postcards, variously ornamented and ornamental. Often text surrounds a pictorial image in a Phillips painting; sometimes the text is the image; or words are “ghosted behind words to form a (literal) subtext [so that] they are all the more image for being doubly text”. His principal patrons, Marvin and Ruth Sackner, house selections from A Humument, his musical scores, book collaborations and other work in their Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. Marvin writes of how he sees in this work “images representing visual poetry, abstract expressionism, constructivism, visual/verbal art, expressionistic portraits, pointillism, colour stripes and calligraphic markings, among others.”

Phillips speculates that for our African ancestors the worlds of art, music and language may have been one thing and admits to “a nostalgia for this Eden before the roads of expression forked off.” His attraction to opera — as set designer, librettist and composer — is testament to this. Phillips recently adapted his favourite novella, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as libretto for Tarik O’Regan’s opera of the same name, this premièred at the Royal Opera House in 2011.

But when it comes to musical composition, Phillips’s approach is closer to Cage than to Wagner. He credits early meetings with Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff as enlightening influences, and was a founder member of Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra (whose loose constitution was drafted in his garden). He in turn is credited with passing these composers’ ideas about generative and indeterminate process to Brian Eno, who translated them into the genre of ambient music.

Phillips’s musical scores look not dissimilar to his paintings. Some of the pieces in his Drawing on Music exhibition look like scores. His Composers Series is a set of thirteen  collage hommages to the composers whose music holds a fascination for him. His writings about art  show how paintings have a rhythm, counterpoint and melody  as expressed through colour, proportion and shape. Works such as Phillips’s After Raphael show a Pythagorean concern with harmony and proportion, space itself divided into musical intervals.

Persistent dedication to his art may not have brought Tom Phillips great wealth or fame, but it has won recognition in the form of honours (CBE) and the kind of high office that probably comes with many headaches and few thanks. Among several roles that render him a de facto member of the Establishment, Phillips has been a Trustee at the British Museum and Chairman of Exhibitions for the Royal Academy. Over his twelve years in the latter role, he overhauled the style and bearing of the Academy’s showcases. And even there he demonstrated his proclivity for deploying ‘waste’ resources. Using the margins of committee meeting papers and the creative surplus of a mind focused on policy and procedure, Phillips produced  Merry Meetings, a series of visionary, erotic and ornamental drawings to illuminate Any Other Business.

Alongside a reputation as a public speaker of wit and vision, there have been many diverse calls on Phillips’s talents as a writer. A reviewer for the  Times Literary Supplement for over 30 years, he has also written introductory books, Aspects of Art and Music in Art, for the general reader. (Phillips paints about paintings, too, but without ever losing his footing in the play of signifiers.) Unafraid to turn his critical eye inwards, Phillips refers to himself inter alia as “shaman and charlatan, the scout that failed”.  His blend of the discursive and analytical makes him a natural commentator, and the notes he provides to accompany each of his illustrations in Dante’s Inferno, along with his  commentary in Works and Texts, are full of insight without ever being reductive. As Phillips’s co-conspirator Bill Hurrell has written, “no artist leaves a better or more diligently helpful trail.”

“Art’s purpose,” in one of Phillips’s formulations, “is to give us a world to see the world by.” Artists may be connectors, but not with the intent of distilling meaning: they create it too, by whatever alchemical means they can muster. Thus Peter Greenaway, another Phillips collaborator, uses the ornithologist Tulse Luper, a fictional alter ego, as thread that playfully suggests links between apparently disparate works, and projects a backstory beyond them. And the protagonists of A Humument, Bill Toge and Irma, reappear in many places in the Phillips oeuvre. Other MacGuffins in the commentary on this oeuvre are more subtly drawn and a credulous or slow-witted reader may be gulled into believing in them for some time — until, say, he  comes to research an essay about the artist. Quite how Tulse Luper came to write an endorsement for an early book of Phillips’s work I have yet to fathom.

One of the results of Tom Phillips’s self-confessed “childish love of lists and systems” is that it sets up many polarities — junk/treasure, chance/design, sacred/profane, and so on — only to transcend them. I have yet to see Phillips’s recent commissions for hallowed spaces — the  armed forces memorial at Westminster Abbey or his panels and mosaic in Westminster Cathedral — but I rub up against his art in everyday life: the 50 pence coins designed for the Royal Mint (which I hoard, never to spend), the mosaics in Bellenden Road, Peckham, which I pass three times a week, and the enchanted streetmap, South London Dreaming, that hangs by our front door. I live in the same quarter of the city that has been Tom’s base throughout his life. I admit to holding it in less affection than he does. Annually since 1973 he has taken the same walk in a circle of 20 locations round our neighbourhood, taking the same photograph at each spot for his 20 sites n years project. This “humdrum epic” has taken on the spirit of aboriginal English art and invested the suburban landscape with magic. It is, says Phillips “in the old sense, a Mystery”. Elsewhere he writes, “Art’s job is… to make beautiful things [and] even more importantly to increase the stock of things in which beauty can be seen.” Tom Phillips took the job and did it well: his career continues.

[all quotations are from Tom Phillips except where indicated otherwise]

See also this biographical sketch by David Jennings.