June 21, 2013

Philip Isaacson, iconic Maine arts critic, dies at 89

Isaacson was a cultural leader, attorney, public servant and Telegram columnist.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine lost an ardent voice for the arts Thursday with the death of Philip M. Isaacson of Lewiston, who also was a long-tenured lawyer, a dedicated public servant and one of the state's best-dressed men.

Philip M. Isaacson

A SAMPLING OF PHILIP ISAACSON'S WORK

From his May 12 review of the James Marshall show at ICON Contemporary Art in Brunswick, his final review for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram:
"A good building can serve the world in diverse ways and, as James Marshall advises, so can a paper bag. I cannot speak on the aesthetics of paper bags other than to say that the pleasure of the certainty of its form and its functional assurance make disposing of one a reflective experience. I hate to throw one away. In their best iterations, paper bags are among the most perfectly considered objects that commerce offers us."
Read the full review

From the April 14 "Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculptures" show at Bowdoin College Museum of Art:
"(Per) Kirkeby's observations are often based on the observation of the visible world, and contain references to recognizable shapes that are emblematic of biographical narratives. They inspire curiosity, and generate an opened process of discovery and expression. Much of the foregoing is from the excellent statement of Joachim Homann that introduces the show."
Read the full review

From his Dec. 16, 2012, review of "Between Past and Present: The Homer Studio Photographic Project":
"Homer's studio/home at Prout's Neck goes back to the early 1880s, and by the time I first got there - the misty 1960s - it was an object of mild curiosity, not the venerated site it has since become. I was looking for the personality of Homer - it might have soaked into the boards - but all I found was the standard account of his life and visual confusion. I was denied a brush with the occult. Homer had fled."
Read the full review

From his July 3, 2011, review of "Maine Moderns - Art in Seguinland, 1900-1940" at Portland Museum of Art:
"Maine does not account for the attitudes of the artists; they were New York artists (I use the geographic term loosely) with established approaches to their work. Still, there is a quality about some of the paintings, particularly Hartley's, that touch the deepest level of my sense of place. Amid the flux of my impressions of Maine, some of those paintings illuminate the agitation that lies within my feelings of our state. I sense that the images are utterly right."
Read the full review

From his Oct. 17, 2010, review of "Photographing Maine: Ten Years Later" at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art:
"Photographers with established aesthetic positions and great techniques have cast much of the past aside in favor of digital innovation. It would be interesting to see what the newfound freedom is doing to their art and, by the same token, their spirit."
Read the full review

Isaacson, 89, critiqued visual art exhibitions for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for almost 50 years, pursued his passion for art as a professional photographer, and advocated for funding for the arts during his tenure as chairman of the Maine Arts Commission.

"His was a critical voice and a supportive voice of Maine arts and artists," said Bruce Brown, curator emeritus of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport and a longtime friend of Isaacson. "I've always felt his work encouraged the public to want to go out and experience what he has experienced. He was a leader, telling his readers, 'Get out on the town and have a look at what is going on.' That was a key role for him."

Isaacson suffered a stroke Tuesday morning while preparing to go to work, and slipped into a coma. He died in hospice care Thursday afternoon in Auburn. Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at Temple Shalom in Auburn.

Isaacson practiced law in Lewiston for most of his adult life, specializing in corporate law as a founding partner of the firm Isaacson Raymond.

"He was my mentor," said Ronald L. Bissonnette, one of the firm's partners. "I have been with him for 30 years, and he taught me everything. He was a wonderful teacher and very generous."

Isaacson was ingrained in the daily life of Lewiston. He grew up in the city, got most of his education in its public schools, completed his undergraduate studies at Bates College, and returned to the city after he earned his degree from Harvard Law School. He held an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Bates College, and a Doctor of Fine Arts from Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Isaacson joined his father's law practice in Lewiston, and later began his own. He served on many municipal boards, and delighted in walking around the city. Although he had many opportunities to leave Lewiston, he always chose to stay.

"He was intensely loyal," said his son Thomas. "He inspired it in others, and insisted on it in himself. He would have viewed leaving Lewiston as an act of disloyalty to the city and to his parents."

In addition to art, Isaacson was passionate about architecture. In 1961, he and his wife, Deborah, built a modern home blocks from the Bates campus. The house drew national attention when the American Institute of Architects named it one of America's outstanding homes.

Isaacson worked tirelessly for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction he won in 2012. Its functional, modern design emphasized outdoor living and open interior spaces, and reflected his sensibilities for architecture.

He frequently wrote about architecture, and dedicated much of his photographic energy into shooting buildings he admired. One such photograph, taken in India, is part of the permanent collection at the Portland Museum of Art.

"He never went anywhere without his tripod," said June Fitzpatrick, a Portland gallery owner who showed his work. "Phil was a very, very good photographer. He would go anywhere and everywhere for that one photograph, which was usually architectural. The last place he went was Uzbekistan. Alone. There was one building he wanted to photograph, so he went to Uzbekistan."

(Continued on page 2)

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