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

(Continued from page 2)

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."
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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."
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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."
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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

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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