Helen Elizabeth Phillips Biography

Helen Elizabeth Phillips




Helen Elizabeth Phillips Hayter, sculptor and printmaker, was born in Fresno, California on March 3, 1913. She studied at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA; now the San Francisco Art Institute) between 1932 and 1936 and was a student of Ralph Stackpole and Gottardo Piazzoni. While there, she met visiting artist Diego Rivera, whose collection of Mexican sculpture would leave a lasting impression on the young student and change the course of her studies.

In 1936 Phillips won the San Francisco Museum Purchase Prize for her stone carving, Young Woman, which remains a part of the SFMOMA's permanent collection. That same year, she was awarded a Phelan Traveling Fellowship to travel to and study in Italy and France. While living in Paris as winter approached, the cold weather made carving stone difficult and she looked for an alternative medium to focus on. After learning about Atelier 17 from artists she'd come to know in Paris, she entered the experimental intaglio workshop founded by Stanley William Hayter to try her hand at printmaking. There, she was able to work alongside Europe's leading Modernists: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Vieira da Silva, and many others. Phillips produced a prolific body of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist intaglio prints that expanded her knowledge of the use of negative space, a crucial aspect of her future sculpture. A quote from Carla Esposita-Hayter's dossier on Phillips reads: "'Engraving is the same thing', she said when asked to comment on its bearing on sculpture, 'except it is so quick, you can experiment.'"

In 1937 Phillips returned to San Francisco to accept a commission for three figural sculptures that would flank a major fountain at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition held on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay; at this time she also took a position teaching at the CSFA. She returned to Paris in 1938 and one year later she and Hayter, now a couple, left Paris for London after Hayter was called up to serve his country as World War II loomed. After the invasion of Paris by Germany, Phillips' work from her time there - abandoned as with many artists' works due to the fear of invasion - was largely lost to bombing (though some would later be salvaged by Peggy Guggenheim). At the end of 1939 Hayter left on the last ship bound for New York while Phillips, now pregnant with their first son, returned directly to San Francisco. Hayter would follow her soon thereafter.

In 1940 Phillips exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and in June she and Hayter married and moved to New York, where they would re-establish Atelier 17 in Manhattan. Phillips had her first solo exhibition in 1941 at the New School for Social Research, and participated in the major exhibtion Surrealism organized by Roberto Matta the same year. Her star on the rise, Peggy Guggenheim included Phillips' work in her seminal 31 Women exhibition at Century Gallery. In 1947 Phillips' sculptures were exhibited at the landmark BloodFlames show held by Nicholas Calas at the Hugo Gallery with Isamu Noguchi, Roberto Matta, David Hare, Wilfredo Lam, Arshile Gorky, and Jeanne Reynal. Her reputation as a sculptor set her on par with the leading Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists of the time, and earned her write-ups in the influential Surrealist publication Tiger's Eye and elsewhere. Her sculptural works expanded to include bronze, wire tubes, and wood, and in 1948 she won the Timothy Pflueger Sculpture Prize. She continued to work in intaglio printmaking as well and participated in the first of several joint exhibitions with Hayter at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1949.

In 1950 Hayter decided to return to Paris to re-establish Atelier 17 once again in his adopted city, and Phillips followed. Throughout the 1950s she continued to work as she could while raising two children, working primarily with French oak to create monumental totem-like sculptures. She studied the principles of modularity written by Buckminster Fuller to further her vision for angular, kinetic compositions, and she exhibited in several Salons and museums in France, Belgium, and England. Among her most well known sculptures from this time is Metamorphose II, a cast bronze piece created in response to the Tate Gallery's international call for a monument honoring political prisoners; for this work she won the French Prize in the International Sculpture Competition. Meanwhile, she continued to work in printmaking, now integrating lithography and large-scale linoleum cuts to her body of work, as well as color viscosity printmaking, the signature experimental medium of Atelier 17. In 1956 she and Hayter held a joint exhibition at the Achenbach Foundation in San Francisco.

In 1960 Phillips returned to San Francisco to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, and began dividing her time between the U.S. and France. Disaster struck, however, when she severely injured her back while moving her sculpture Alabaster Column, newly purchased by the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo in 1967. At the height of her career, she was nearly incapacitated for eight years. Undeterred, she continued to work, now concentrating on two-dimensional works and small modular sculptures. After her divorce from Hayter in 1972 she continued to work in New York and Paris and to exhibit, and in the summer months she frequented the foundry of Santa Pietra, Italy, completing earlier projects and beginning new works. In 1988 she was the subject of a documentary by the BBC titled "American Sculptor Helen Phillips, Paris Studio". Helen Phillips died in Greenwich Village, New York, on January 22, 1994.

Over the course of her career Phillips created nearly 400 sculptures, 800 prints, and countless drawings. Her work is included in the book Modern Sculpture by Carola G. Walker, and is represented in collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Fine Arts Museums of
San Francisco; Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Library of Congress; the Guggenheim Museum; Victoria & Albert Museum, England; Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, Texas; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; Museum of Art, Cleveland; the Albright-Knox Museum, and the Bank of America World Headquarters, among others.

1934: Edgar Water Sculpture Prize
1936: San Francisco Museum of Art, Sculpture Prize; Phelan Traveling Scholarship
1948: Timothy Pflueger Sculpture Prize, San Francisco Museum of Art
1952: French Prize, International Sculpture Competition, Tate Gallery, London
1958: Copley Foundation Sculpture Prize (French Prize)

Selected Exhibitions & Salons:
1940: New School for Social Research, New York, Surrealism
1943: Peggy Guggenheim, Art de Century Gallery, New York, 31 Women
1944, various: New York, Japan, Europe, Brazil: Hayter and Atelier 17
1947: Hugo Gallery, New York, BloodFlames
1952: Petit Palais, Paris, New York: Six Sculptors; Galerie La Hune, Paris, cat. Max Clarac-Serou; Galerie Pierre, Paris; American Embassy, Paris, Artistes Americains d'Aujourd'hui; Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
1954: Biennale de la Sculpture, Antwerp; Petit Palais, Paris, Artistes etrangers en France
1955, '58, '60, '61: Salon de la Jeune Sclupture Contemporaine
1956: Whitechapel Gallery, Londres, This is Tomorrow; Achenbach foundation, San Francisco; Prints by Stanley William Hayter and Helen Phillips; Musee de Beaux-Arts, Rouen, 75 American Sculptors
1958: Centre Culturel Americain, USIA, Paris, 4 Artistes Americains of Paris
1960: Dallas Museum of Art, presented by Salon de Mai, Ses Sculptures: Adam and Eve; Cenre Culturel Americain, Paris, Artistes Americains en France; Musee d'Art Moderne de Rennes, Peinture et sculpteures des Americains de France; Petit Palais, New York Six; Musee Rodin, Deuxieme Exposition Internationale de Sculpture; Musee d'Art et d'Industrie de Saint-Etienne, Cent sculpteurs de Daumier a nos jours; Maison de la Pensee Francaise, Dessins et gravures de Maitres contemporains
1961: Musee Rodin, Troisieme Exposition Internationale de Sculpture Contemporaine; Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C., 14 Americains en France (touring exhibition); Musee d'Art et d'Industrie, Saint-Etienne, 50 Ans de Sculptures
1962: Palais de la Defence, Paris
Salon International des Arts
1965: Berkeley Museum of Art, 14 Americans in France; Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA, London, La main; Galerie Claude Bernard Haim, Paris, La Main 1965
1975: Salon de Mai
1990: Calcografia Nazionale, Rome, Hayter et Atelier 17
1996: Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, Suurealists and Their Frends on Eastern Long Island at Mid-Century
2012/'13: LACMA, Los Angeles, and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Wonderland: the Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States
2015: Maison des Arts, Ville Antony
2021: Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, in Hayter @ l'Atelier du Monde; Musee Fabre, Montpellier, in United States of Abstraction: artistes americains en France 1946 - 1964