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Finding Inspiration in The Drexel Collection’s Newest Exhibit

March 25, 2019

"Browser," by Matt Phillips, 1964, monotype. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.
"Browser," by Matt Phillips, 1964, monotype.

In 2009, The Drexel Collection, Drexel University’s flagship collection of art, exhibited over 40 monotypes from painter, printmaker and art educator Matt Phillips that were lent by Arthur Frank, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Dornsife School of Public Health, and his wife Joanne B. Frank.

Now, 10 years later, the Franks have once again opened up their private collection of Phillips’ work, but the exhibit theme and inception are a little different this time around. 

For starters, the 2019 exhibit, which is called Matt Phillips: Inspired, features more than just monotypes. Prints, oil paintings, collages, book illustrations (and, yes, monotypes) will be displayed in the show, which runs from March 29 to July 26. All of the pieces were chosen by Joseph O’Kane ’18, who curated the exhibit as a museum leadership graduate practicum project, and The Drexel Collection Director Lynn Clouser.

Phillips, who visited the University in 2009 for a special printmaking art class coinciding with the exhibit, passed away in 2017 at the age of 89. Known as a “master of the monotype print,” and having described himself as a “painter-poet,” Phillips was a man of many talents and interests. Beyond his versatility in art mediums, he also was an educator, teaching literature and philosophy at The American University of Paris from 1962 to 1964 and then teaching art at Bard College, whose Art Department he chaired for almost a quarter of a century. Throughout his life, Philips never stopped creating art, seeking inspiration in everything from poetry to his world travels to nature to the female form. 

Matt Phillips: Inspired pays homage to his tremendous artistic output and the variety of influences that enlivened his work. And, for Frank, it also pays homage to his 40-year friendship with the artist.

"Self Portrait," by Matt Phillips, 1992, drypoint. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

“I bought my first Matt Phillips piece in 1972,” said Arthur Frank, adding that the piece of art, a Moroccan scene in brown and purple, will be in this upcoming show. “He had a one-man show at a gallery at New York, which I attended as a medical student during my last year of school. I had bought a piece that he had really liked and he had wanted to meet the guy who bought it, so I met him at the gallery. That was the beginning of the 40-year friendship.”

Over the years, Arthur Frank and his wife collected over 80 pieces of Phillip’s art, the time of their creation ranging from when he was in Paris in the early 1960s to one as recent as the year before he died. Phillips also gifted pieces to the Franks, such as a watercolor he created as a gift for their wedding (which can also be seen in the show). In tribute to the artist, the Franks loaned about half of their collection for The Drexel Collection’s show in 2009, and now again in 2019.

“Lynn and Joe came over to our house to pick out pieces for the exhibit, and probably 30 of them are now being represented by blank hooks on the three floors of our house,” said Arthur Frank. “Our walls are bare, but we know it’s for a good cause and we hope other people get some joy and pleasure from the colorful, thoughtful, expressive artwork that shares the vision of the artist.”

Arthur Frank had proposed the idea of a new Matt Phillips show after sponsoring two simultaneous photography exhibits in The Drexel Collection in 2017: LIFE'S WORK: A Fifty Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A and BADGES: A Memorial Tribute to Asbestos Workers. Clouser agreed, and brought on O’Kane, whom she had worked with on Holding Your Drink: 3,000 Years of Drinking Vessels, a student exhibit during his first term as a museum leadership graduate student in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

To curate the exhibit, O’Kane did everything from researching the artist to creating the theme and title of the exhibit to managing the exhibition budget to writing the labels and marketing material for The Drexel Collection’s website and invitations. He also worked with the donors, art handlers, the artist’s family and guest speakers for additional programming events that he planned: a public talk and gallery tour called “The Monotype: An Engendering Transcription of Nature” that will be held on May 30 with Phillip’s ex-wife, artist and educator Susannah Hays, PhD, and a poetry reading on May 2 held in collaboration with Drexel’s Department of English & Philosophy.

"Composition with Figures (Biblical Scenes)," by Matt Phillips, 1966, monotype with India ink. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

I have project managed in the past with a for-profit organization and in several ways, it is like curating — planning and organization is vital,” said O’Kane. “The difference I have experienced, however, is that in the curation of an exhibition, especially one with a donor and one where the artist’s family is involved, is that so many people are invested in its success and invested in a personal and emotional manner. It does not feel like a business project but a project that teaches and inspires people. I wanted to do justice to the artist, his work and his family and friends.”

O’Kane finished the practicum and graduated in the fall term of 2018 and had planned on working on the exhibit for several months on a paid Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa. However, the 2018-2019 35-day government shutdown that started right at the end of term affected the Homeland Security’s ability to process visas and OPTs, and O’Kane returned home to the United Kingdom to work remotely and assist in the curation of the exhibition on a voluntary basis. He recently accepted a program officer position at a nonprofit LGBT organization in Manchester, England, but has continued to help with the exhibition remotely.

“The Drexel Collection is a great asset to Drexel University and allows people like me to gain valuable experiences and knowledge,” said O’Kane. “Most graduates must wait years before they are given the opportunity to curate their own exhibition. I was able to do this while studying and it has given me an advantage when building my new career.”

Matt Phillips: Inspired” will be on display in the Rincliffe Gallery from March 29 through July 26 on the third floor of Drexel’s Main Building, which is located at 3141 Chestnut St. An opening reception will be held March 29 from 5­–7 p.m. in the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery also on the third floor of Drexel’s Main Building. The exhibit and all events are free and open to the public.

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