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New Art Exhibit Brings Delightful Surrealism to Arizona Landscapes

Philip C. Curtis; The Wanderers; 1960; oil on board; 17 15/16 x 33 7/16 in. (45.5 x 85 cm) Framed: 22 1/16 x 37 5/16 in. (56 x 94.7 cm); Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of Virginia Ullman

The Ullman Center for the Art of Philip C. Curtis at Phoenix Art Museum has officially reopened with the arrival of the exhibit “Philip C. Curtis and the Landscapes of Arizona,” now on view through Dec. 31.

Refreshed and reimagined, the gallery will show rotating exhibitions of the work of Philip C. Curtis, beloved artist and founder of the initial iteration of the museum. The collection showcases the lens through which Curtis saw Arizona—one of magical realism, fantastical elements and Victorian-style figures. “Philip was fascinated by the circus, music, mysterious gatherings of people and Victorian architecture and costumes, often in combination,” says Betsy Fahlman, adjunct curator of American art at Phoenix Art Museum. “The landscape in many ways was a place for staging human activity, and he could situate all kinds of images within that space.”

We recently sat down with Fahlman to learn more about what to watch for at “Philip C. Curtis and the Landscapes of

What can visitors expect to see in “”Philip C. Curtis and the Landscapes of Arizona”?

Visitors will see a broad range of his work. There was an earlier version of the exhibition
when it was installed upstairs in the North Wing (the American Art Galleries), but much of it has
been replaced. There are several works on loan from private collections, as well as new work
from the Phoenix Art Museum collection (which has more than 100 Curtis works) and some
recent gifts.

Why is Philip C. Curtis not well known for his landscapes?

I think viewers focus more on what is going on in his paintings, rather than on the setting. But
the landscapes that are the stage for that action are desert ones. He came to Arizona
during the Great Depression to set up the Phoenix Federal Art Center and returned to Arizona in 1994.
He lived at Cattle Track in Scottsdale, and the desert was outside his front door. He couldn’t
miss it. Also, for much of his life, Curtis suffered from painful arthritis, and the warmth of the
desert was beneficial to his health.

How would you describe Curtis’ signature art style?

Curtis has broad themes, which he painted in a style that could be described as “magic
realism,” or surrealism. He was fascinated by the circus, music, mysterious gatherings of people
and Victorian architecture and costumes (often in combination).

What are some of your favorite pieces in the exhibit and why?

I was drawn to his series of solitary trees and saguaro cacti, which I found oddly compelling,
perhaps as a result of the pandemic distancing we’ve all experienced during the last few years. I
found them both elegant and engaging and an intriguing counterpoint to his figural work.

Is there anything about the exhibit that you think will surprise visitors?

I hope our visitors will be surprised by how wonderful the work looks! The Ullman Center for
the Art of Philip C. Curtis was extensively renovated: A big wall in the center of the gallery was
taken down, new carpet was installed, and the walls were repainted. We also positioned the
name of the gallery front-and-center as you enter the gallery, with strong lighting. Finally, on the
title wall, we have a wonderful photograph of Curtis sitting outside in the landscape. We are
grateful to The Virginia M. Ullman Foundation and the Philip C. Curtis Charitable Trust for their
support in reinvigorating this space.


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