Editor's note: The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Philip C. Curtis: Watercolors

January 10 - April 11, 2004


Philip C. Curtis is one of the best-known of Arizona's modern artists. His surrealist images of circuses and fantasy landscapes, populated by a cast of characters from days gone by, are beloved by local audiences. Yet Curtis had another, little-known side as an artist. At periods throughout his career, he made casual watercolors that are the antithesis of his paintings -- loose, gestural, and full of exuberance. In keeping with its goal of bringing to light the history of contemporary art in Arizona, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art [SMoCA] presents "Philip C. Curtis: Watercolors," an exhibition of more than 40 of the artist's rarely seen works. (right: Philip C. Curtis, "Untitled" (undated), watercolor on paper, Collection of Ellis Family. Photo credit: Scott Farence)

"These watercolors, infrequently shown, reflect the sheer joy of Curtis's vision and his skilled observation of nature," remarked Susan Krane, director of SMoCA and curator of the exhibition. "In them, we see the artist's eye and hand dance in perfect harmony -- with a pleasure that similarly absorbs the viewer."

Spanning nearly five decades, "Philip C. Curtis: Watercolors" follows the evolution of Curtis's career and includes examples of his early Social Realist and Cubist-inspired imagery of the 1930s as well as mature works from the early 1980s. Curtis painted most of his watercolors outdoors in the Arizona desert he knew and loved so well. With great technical skill and bravura, Curtis was able to describe the boulders, mesquite, cottonwoods, palo verde and mountains of the Valley abstractly, with a few brilliantly placed strokes of his brush. He captured the subtle patchwork of green that carpets the Sonoran Desert, the saturated blue of morning sky and the crisp light that casts this landscape into sharp, sculptural relief. If it took him more than 20 minutes to complete a watercolor, Curtis claimed it could be "no good." The artistic freedom of his watercolors reflects Curtis's aesthetic alter ego--and offers an intimate view into his practice. (left: Philip C. Curtis, "Untitled," 1966, watercolor on paper, Collection of Ellis Family. Photo credit: Scott Farence}



Curtis was born in 1907 in Jackson, Michigan. He attended Albion College and started law school before studying art at Yale University from 1932-35, after which he supervised mural projects for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York. He was sent to Arizona in 1936 to start the Phoenix Art Center (which became the Phoenix Art Museum in 1959), and in 1939 similarly went to Iowa to start the Des Moines Art Center, now one of the nation's premier museums of modern and contemporary art. After undertaking museum studies at Harvard University, which were interrupted by his service in World War II, Curtis returned to Arizona to live in 1947. He died in Scottsdale in 2000.


Curtis is one of the last of the great hermits: St. Jerome without the lion. When he telephones long distance, the unmistakable gravely voice takes up the conversation as if it had never been broken off, absence and the passage of time are as if they had never been. The work has, equally, a timeless quality. Historians would be hard put to date a Curtis: 'anywhere between 1925 and 1970,' they would say. 'His imagination is like the desert air: pellucid, hiding nothing. The desert hates to let anything go. It preserves, where the big cities destroy; and, in the same way, a painting by Curtis preserves something once seen - or imagined. Halfway, I'd say, between the two'.
John Russell, London, 1970; catalog essay excerpt
(from the Laynor Foundation Museum Website)



The exhibition is accompanied by a free illustrated brochure, designed by Nargess Salaas, with an essay by Susan Krane.



"Philip C. Curtis: Watercolors" was organized by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in collaboration with The Philip C. Curtis Charitable Trust. The exhibition is made possible in part by the Scottsdale League for the Arts, The Arizona Republic, The Philip C. Curtis Charitable Trust and the SMoCA Salon, with in-kind support from Armstrong-Prior, Inc.




FEBRUARY 26, 6:30pm
Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum and longtime friend of Philip C. Curtis, discusses the work and life of this much-beloved Arizona artist. Meet in the museum lobby. Free.
FEBRUARY 28, 8:30am
In celebration of Curtis's joyous watercolors of the desert, experience the subtleties of the Arizona landscape on a nature hike in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve with a guide from the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust and a bird specialist from the Audubon Society. Wear covered shoes and bring water, sun protection, a snack and binoculars. The easy 4.5-mile, round-trip hike has mild inclines. Meet at 8:30am at the Anasazi School parking lot on 124th Street north of Via Linda. Space is limited--reservations required by calling 480-998-7971. First come, first served. Free.
MARCH 18, 6:30pm
Watercolor artist Lew Lehrman demonstrates the elegant but difficult magic of watercolor painting. Followed by a docent-led tour of the exhibition "Philip C. Curtis: Watercolors." Meet in the museum lobby. Free.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.