Philip Morsberger’s paintings remain works in progress long completion

There’s a lot happening on the front of a Philip Morsberger painting. Color, characters and comedy converge like a cacophony on the canvas.

But perhaps the real painter can be seen by turning the pictures over. As Morsberger’s characters quiet to a murmur, and his bold brush strokes melt into memory, the blank backs reveal his secret.
On the back of “Fantasy Impromptu,” for example, is a cryptic code: 1985, 1996, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Those are the dates of the painting’s completion.
Pick up a completed canvas at his urging — “Feel this. It’s just cloth over wood” — and you’ll feel the weight of his work. “That’s years and years of paint. Layers on top of layers,” he said.
Morsberger laughs at the sight of the dates on “Ghosts No.2” that reads 2002, 2004.
“That was a real quickie, just two years,” he joked. “And I can’t change it because it’s in that book. There are things I want to do to it and I can’t.”
That book is “Philip Morsberger: A Passion for Painting” by Christopher Lloyd, the former Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures at the Royal Collection, London. Not every author is profiled in a book by Elizabeth II’s curator, but Morsberger, a former Morris Eminent Scholar of Art who has held posts at Harvard and Dartmouth, was the only American ever to be named Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford University in England.
And yet, this distinguished artist, whose works are in the collections of museums all over the nation and the world, has a problem.
“I create my own problems,” he said, and then he struggles in vain to correct them. “It’s an endless quest for perfection which is never going to happen.”
That doesn’t stop him from his quixotic pursuit, which almost got him in trouble once in England when he desecrated a painting in the dining room of Priscilla Tolkein. The daughter of author J.R.R. Tolkein, Priscilla had a painting of Morsberger’s hanging on the wall when she asked him to housesit for her.
“She hadn’t been gone 30 minutes until I had that painting off the wall,” he chuckled. Just one small corner section of the painting bothered him. But once he fixed that, he realized that the rest of the picture didn’t work.
Before Tolkein returned, he had repainted the entire canvas and turned it upside down. He finished and got it back on the wall only about a half-hour before she returned.
Days passed and he didn’t hear anything from her. Morsberger’s wife worried that the police might get involved. “That was her painting,” she chided him.
And then he saw her in the shops.
“I see you’ve done some work on my painting,” she said. A breathless lifetime passed. Then she gave a little hop: “I love it!”
But there are things he can’t change, including the front of “Ghosts No. 2.” But if you look closely, you can see he’s still tweaking. The inside of an ear, a color correction to a face … small details that almost no one but Morsberger would notice. And maybe his wife, who he praises as having a way of critiquing his work with just a look.
“Then when she leaves I’ll go, ‘What? What?’” and he leaned in toward a painting as though frantically examining it for cooties.
It might be different if he began his paintings with a plan, but his method is more organic madness.
“I start putting paint on canvas, and I paint and I paint and I paint and eventually I find a painting,” he said. “When the painting is really going well, it’s like a conduit and the brush is moving and I’m trying to keep up.”
And all the images are gifts, he insists. From who? “You tell me, I don’t know,” he shrugs in a way that is both dismissive and delighted.
Perfection and the strike of inspiration can’t always be separated, though, so Morsberger is not always certain where he’s going with his work. “I much prefer not knowing what the hell it is I’m doing, even when I am doing it,” he said.
Creating on canvas is, for him, a prayerful activity for which he requires solitude. He gets requests from students and artists to just sit quietly and watch him paint, but “if they’re here, I can’t do it. I’m normally a very solitary person.”
And it might alarm them if he could, since he often finds himself arguing with his muse as though everyone could hear her.
“Blue?! Are you kidding?!” he imitated himself and then laughed. But the desire to get mind onto mat keeps him painting almost constantly — “Just seven days a week,” he joked — in much the same manner as friend and inspiration Elmer Bischoff, a San Francisco Bay area artist who contributed to the rise of abstract expressionism in America.
Morsberger and Bischoff met for breakfast every Monday and Friday for eight years, until Bischoff was struck with cancer. Morsberger visited him in the hospital as he declined, and was with him about 15 minutes before the artist passed away. Lucid and practically still standing at his canvas, Morsberger said Bischoff was still lamenting his art.
“I can’t make these damn paintings work! I can’t get the colors right!” the patient complained to Morsberger.
“He was more frustrated by painting than the cancer,” Morsberger chuckled. “Inspiring.”
Philip Morsberger: Works on Paper and Canvas
Mary Pauline Gallery
Through June 9
Philip Morsberger: Paintings and Drawings from the Sixties
Morris Museum of Art
May 12-June 17

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