Tom Phillips at Brown University, October 5, 2009

For those of you who were fortunate to be able to attend the TOM PHILLIPS lecture at Brown the other night, you may be interested to know that we have four editions of his artist book A HUMUMENT in Special Collections.  The first edition was published in 1980, the “first revised edition” in 1987, the third edition in 1997, and the fourth edition in 2005.

Humument Covers

This British artist, known not only for his artist books but also for his paintings, portraits, posters, illustrated books, sculpture, poetry and music, gave a wonderful presentation of his work and how it developed.  As a child, growing up in London during World War II, he and his brother used to push a handcart through the streets looking for salvage material.  A copy of Dante’s INFERNO, illustrated by Gustave Doré, found its way into their hands and made a great impression on his young mind.  Another significant source of inspiration came in the form of care packages, sent to his family by relatives in the US.  Precious parcels of food were lined with old comics, cast-offs from American cousins.  One comic in particular stood out, the cover of a September 1939 issue of DETECTIVE COMICS with a powerful image of Batman looming behind a castle, shrouded in mist.  This was the first image he copied as a young boy and you can see in his adult work, traces of it being repeated in many forms, including his contemporary illustrated version of Dante’s INFERNO.

Phillips’ first edition of A HUMUMENT, started with an old Victorian novel he found in a book shop in the 1960’s called A HUMAN DOCUMENT, by W. H. Mallock.  He took this book and altered it by working directly onto the pages, transforming the text by a process of “elimination”, inspired by the methods of Mallarmé.  On each page, major parts of the story are covered over with paintings, drawings, and collaged elements.  The remaining words form poetic phrases, many terse and pithy, humorous and provocative.  Since this first edition, he has used 15 other British copies of A HUMAN DOCUMENT, to create three more published editions and numerous other single works.  Each new edition has approximately 50 new pages, totally different from the previous editions.  He continues to scour the text for new subjects/words that evoke an emotional response and can be transformed into a new poetic composition.  He makes poems from words and pictures from poems.  He speaks of his rules for this process as the “dogged silliness” of the artist because often those “rules” are creatively broken.

Some of the original collaged pages are part of the RUTH AND MARVIN SACKNER ARCHIVE OF CONCRETE AND VISUAL POETRY in Miami, FL.  When I visited their home which houses this collection in the 1990’s, the entire wall just inside the vestibule was covered with these remarkable pages.

Other tidbits of interest from Tom’s lecture:

Every year he makes a drawing of a periwinkle each day for about a week, while the periwinkle is in bloom.

The American editions of A HUMAN DOCUMENT are not usable for his collages because many quaint English phrases are omitted for US readers who “might not understand” them.

Humument  Bush

He is now starting to collage pages from old American comics into A HUMUMENT.

The original DETECTIVE COMICS sold for 10 cents back in the 1930’s.  A copy of his favorite issue from September 1939 now sells for $44,000.00.  His brother sold their copy in the 1940’s for 6 pence.

Some of his figures for Dante’s INFERNO have also come from the work of William Blake.

Mottos to live by, found on the walls of his studio:

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Samuel Beckett

“I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”  Samuel Beckett

Humument Hamlet

Music has always played a big role in his work, and he was much influenced by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Brian Eno, and Terry Riley.  Tom created an opera called “Irma” and is currently working with a composer Tarik O’Regan on an opera called “Voices”.  In Phillips’ work, often the words are arranged like a score.  One page of A HUMUMENT reads, “The sound in my life enlarges my prison.”

Musician Morton Feldman once distinguished between a “notion” and an “idea”.  A notion is superficial and temporary.  An idea is something that grows and lasts a lifetime.

His advice to students: “Be where you are.  Muster all the forces you’ve got.”              LWC

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