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


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."

Isaacson's daughter, Elizabeth, said her father loved to travel, and chose trips to exotic places. He was scheduled to go on a walking tour of Ethiopia next spring.

"His trips were always rigorous. He never went anywhere easy," she said.

Isaacson was as well known for his elegant clothes as for his photos and writing. He frequently wore a bow tie, and rarely went out in public without paying careful attention to his dress and grooming, Fitzpatrick said.

"He always looked like he was going to a business meeting," she said.

Isaacson was an avid outdoorsman. He trekked to the base of Mount Everest in the 1980s, climbed Mount Ranier in Washington around the same time, and took many hikes and climbs across the White Mountains. For his 85th birthday, he and his family climbed Mount Washington.

A dedicated skier, Isaacson often took long lunch breaks to ski at Sunday River, said his son John. This past winter, as in most years, he flew to Colorado to ski the Rockies.

As word of Isaacson's condition spread this week, friends from across the state reflected on his life and his role in creating a 50-year conversation about art and architecture in Maine.

He began his newspaper column in 1964, and it continued in the Maine Sunday Telegram until his death. For his next assignment, he was scheduled to review the new Lunder Pavilion at the Colby College Museum of Art.

Edgar Allen Beem, who writes about arts in Maine, once called Isaacson the most cultured man in the state.

"He had impeccable taste in everything from art and architecture to apparel, he wrote elegantly yet modestly, he lived in one of the best Modernist homes in Maine, he was politically progressive and personally charming," Beem wrote in an email. "I call him the dean of Maine art critics not just because he has been writing about art longer than anyone in Maine or because he wrote so well for Maine's premier newspaper. I call him the dean of Maine art critics simply because he was.

"He was writing long enough to have evolved several times over from a cheerleader for contemporary art, which was what was needed in the 1960s and 1970s, to a thoughtful commentator on the art scene who had a long visual memory. Phil Isaacson was a fine writer, photographer and attorney, but more importantly, he was a wonderful human being. He was well loved and he will be long missed."

Rod Harmon, deputy managing editor for features at the Press Herald/Telegram, called Isaacson "the consummate professional who could write about any genre of art with an expert's eye, but also in a way that a layman could understand. He had the unique talent of making you feel as if you were in the gallery alongside him as he described the work on display. His voice, and his talent, will be sorely missed."

A former editor, Jane Lord, said she felt "privileged to have known him. ... What a huge loss."

Brown said that when he was curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, he would watch Isaacson when he visited the gallery and try to read his reaction to the work, to gauge the tenor or tone of the upcoming review. But Isaacson rarely gave his opinion away until it came out in print.

"I was always amazed -- he would come into the gallery, look around carefully but not ponder forever. He would jot a few notes down, and then go home and concentrate and was able to write eloquently and fluently about what he experienced," Brown said.

Dan Mills, director of the Bates College Museum of Art, met Isaacson soon after the former arrived at Bates, three years ago. During his transition to Lewiston, Mills lived in a college-owned house just down the street from Isaacson.

On his first New Year's Eve in Lewiston, Mills attended a party hosted by Isaacson. He was impressed with the meal -- Isaacson served goose -- and the house. "It was full of wonderful books and collections of interesting things, including oceanic weapons and folk baskets and photographs," he said.

Mills said the Bates community will miss Isaacson for his support and commitment to the college.

"He was a great, good friend of the college and the museum, and has been so for a long time," Mills said. "I've been here only three years, and I think he came to just about everything. He was very social, and just a terrific guy, very smart and witty and self-deprecating."

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art and a former director of the Bates museum, called Isaacson Maine's Renaissance man.

"He has made the cultural world of Maine a wonderful place to be and helped all of us realize the potential of art to speak so many languages and impact so many lives," Bessire said.

Perhaps no one appreciated Isaacson's support more than the artists whose work he championed. Claire Seidl of Rangeley benefited from a half-dozen Isaacson reviews over the years, including a recent one for her exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

"He was one of the first critics that liked my paintings and photographs together," she said. "He seemed to accept both, understand both and not question me or anyone what the connection was. That's pretty commendable."

As a writer and a critic, his greatest trait was his ability to speak about art in everyday terms, Seidl said.

"He didn't use art-speak," she said. "He was very clear in what he had to say."

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


Twitter: pphbkeyes

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