Looking at History’s Underbelly

Teddy Roosevelt - Bicycling America

Sitting at the foot of the Queensboro bridge is one of the few free-standing houses left in Manhattan. Having begun life as an old farmhouse, it went through a restaurant phase, then lastly operated as a private nightclub before making its way into the hands of artist John Ransom Phillips. He transformed the former dance floor on the second story into his studio space, where two skylights give all the natural light a painter could want. On the first floor, aside from the eclectic oeuvres d’art from everywhere he’s lived and traveled, are a staggering amount of books— enough to give an insight into what was lost in the Alexandria fire.

But all of these wonders are still nothing compared to the secret treasure trove in his basement. The place looks like an unassuming, even bare, office until he opens the closet door. Then, like all the best classic children’s literature, a different world is revealed in the form of a cavern filled with his paintings. What looks like thousands of them are meticulously organized in the space that used to be the restaurant’s kitchen except no, rather than oversized cauldrons, abstract pictures of what the dreams of American Presidents might look like lean against the wall.

Phillips is one of those people who are so delighted by history that they sweep up everyone around them in their passion. As a painter, an author, a playwright, he mines yesteryear for inspiration—although the connection can be more than academic.   

Lily Hoagland: So you believe in past lives?

John Ransom Phillips: Yes. I wrote this small book, called Beyond Nature, and it’s the diary of this young girl that I was many years ago in Palestine. I have problems talking about that because people get very belligerent. So I’ve learned to use certain buzz words in the art world like “appropriate” or “reinvention.” But it’s not either of those. I think you explore within yourself and you discover those dimensions. You have many spirits within you. I’ve encountered hostility when I talk about it.

LH: Why?

JRP: People are threatened by it. I have encountered people who are uncomfortable with their gifts. I don’t possess psychic insights but I’ve noticed in talking to people who do, that they don’t want to pursue or utilize these gifts.

LH: You would think the art world would be more open to the idea.

JRP: The art world is provincial in its own way.

LH: Tell me about your interest in Mathew Brady, who I would guess would have worked for Quest were he alive today.

JRP: Definitely. Mathew Brady fascinates me because like Andy Warhol, he was a celebrity photographer. If you weren’t famous he could make you famous. He did so for many people who were unknown. Abraham Lincoln said “If it were not for Mister Brady and Cooper Union [the speech Lincoln gave in 1860], I would not be president.” Brady was like Warhol, and I’m interested in those kinds of historical parallels. Andy Warhol shaped the same image over and over. Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Mao, he repeats them. And in repeating them, he trivializes them. Brady did the same thing. He was trying to achieve what he called “The Calm Feelings Of The Heroic.” The most iconic picture of the Civil War is this guy lying like…let me get it.

[JRP goes to his library for a book.]

This picture is one of the great photos of the Civil War. It portrays this soldier who we know whose body was dragged, and aligned in this way with his head thrown back and an open mouth which, in the 19th century, was the posture of heroism. Brady made it picturesque, he made it heroic, and everyone who saw it said, “This is the truth. This is the reality of war.”

[JRP scoffs.]

Hey. First of all, Mathew Brady didn’t even take it. Alexander Gardner, his assistant, did. He dragged the body and rearranged it. This is a wooden gun, because guns and shoes were the first things looted for their value, so the original had already been poached. The soldier was redressed, rearranged, and choreographed.

LH: What would you say is the driving force behind your interest in these kinds of stories?

JRP: I’m fascinated by different kinds of truth. I’m interested in history, but not in the obvious sense of history. I’m interested in the underbelly of history.