Artist Visits: Phyllis Mark at the FWMoA

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

The artist poses in front of several of her kinetic sculptures, on display in the galleries at FWMoA.
Phyllis Mark poses before some of her sculptures at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Summer 1979. FWMoA archive image. 

I was recently going through some old papers and pictures at home, often an onerous task, but sometimes little treasures are uncovered in the dusty old boxes of stuff; this was one of those times, because I found this little treasure: 

The front of a FWMoA exhibition postcard mailing showing a large scale sculpture by Phyllis Mark.
The back of a FWMoA exhibition postcard mailing detailing Phyllis Mark's exhibition details and opening reception.
Postcard scans courtesy of Suzanne Slick 

Phyllis Mark was one of the New York women artists who exhibited their work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in the late 70s/early 80s. The others were Alice Neel, Grace Hartigan, and Dorothy Gillespie. This was pretty cool stuff for Fort Wayne back then! I was still a student at the Fort Wayne Art School in the summer of ’79, and I probably picked up the postcard in the old “A” Building, the former Theodore Thieme home and the Art School’s main building. Students were encouraged to attend Fort Wayne Museum of Art exhibits and led through the museum by faculty. Phyllis Mark’s terrific exhibit was held there from June 15, 1979 through July 29, 1979. 

A photo of the artist and one of her sculptures.
Phyllis Mark installing her work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, June, 1979, courtesy of the FWMoA archive. 

Phyllis Mark was born in New York City in 1921. Her art education took place at The New School under the guidance of Grace Greenwood and Seymour Lipton. Mark’s career began in expressionist figurative painting in the 1950s; her work later evolved into biomorphic abstraction. She was given 3 one-woman shows in New York during this era. In the mid-1960s, Mark was working with wood relief pieces that incorporated electric lights, revealing her long-time fascination with the play of light and shadow on surfaces. This work resulted in another one-woman show at the Ruth White Gallery in Manhattan in 1966. Following this success, Mark turned from her relief surface approach to cut, polished, and anodized aluminum. She also began to work with fabricators who executed her designs – some in editions or “multiples”. 

Her work with metal in motion was realized in kinetic sculptures composed of elements suspended, and movable, within other elements. Some moved by simple manual rotation; later, motors were used to provide the power to turn pieces on their bases. These were first exhibited in 1968, but Mark continued in this vein through the remainder of her career. Our Polished Circle, 1978, is an example of her refined approach to suspended, movable elements. 

A sculpture by the artist held in the FWMoA collection: A circle with two inner circles and, inside the inner circles, two circles intersect hanging from a wire.
Phyllis Mark, American, 1921-2004. Polished Circle. Polished aluminum, 1978. Gift of the Artist, 1979.105.a – .c. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

In the early 1970s, Mark began to execute her sculpture designs in the form of jewelry she called Sculpture-to-wear. These were initially commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for its gift shop, but were later available through high-end department stores and galleries.  

It was in the mid to late 1970s when Mark designed and executed large kinetic pieces for outdoor installations, capturing wind power to give them movement. The earliest was Wind Intervals, followed by Pyramid Butterfly, Sail Structure, Red Tumble, Lawn Peacock, and others.  Most of these were constructed of painted aluminum, others of enameled and stainless steel. Sail Structure even incorporated Dacron sails! Later in her career, Mark created kinetic works powered by water. All were designed to play in light and shadow. 

The artist placing a banner outside the FWMoA.
Phyllis Mark installing her work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, June, 1979, courtesy of the FWMoA archive. 

Mark did not abandon two-dimensional work in her career as a kinetic sculptor, delving deeply into words as art through her Color Alphabet series of poems punctuated by pictorial alphabet elements. One of these poems, “Color Meditations”, was published as an edition in 1973. 

Phyllis Mark died in New York City on May 23, 2004. 

The artist checks one of her circular sculptures inside the museum exhibition.
Phyllis Mark installing her work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, June, 1979, courtesy of the FWMoA archive. 

Artist’s Statement 

I started out as a painter, and through my concern with the plane of the canvas, gradually moved off the wall into sculpture. It was interesting to see the roots of this evolution explicated by Dr. Margit Rowell in the exhibition “Planar Dimension” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. 

As for my current concerns, I think of my sculptures as a series of interactions. Light interacts with a polished surface to create shadows and reflections. Motion sets the reflections gliding over surfaces. Wind causes sails to move. Sails, as they billow and flap, make wind force visible. All these effects, which are built into the sculpture, but which do not become activated unless there is light and motion, are interactions. 

If no one has turned on a light or a motor, or if there is no breeze, the work does not exist as I intended. For the possibilities within a work to be realized; a viewer reflected, a light turned on, sunshine rendering the sails translucent, these are interactions which transform the work, release the potential there. 

My work provides an opportunity to perceive interactions and transformations as they occur.  

The artist hangs pieces on a material sculpture installation.
Phyllis Mark installing her work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, June, 1979, courtesy of the FWMoA archive. 

References 

Phyllis Mark, Fort Wayne Museum of Art exhibition catalogue, 1979. 

Phyllis Mark by Ira S. Mark, http://phyllismarkart.com/pm-about.htm  

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