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In his colorful and evocative work, Philip Burgess Morsberger managed to merge the best of abstract expressionism (which characterized his paintings early on) with Pop Art’s fascination with mass culture. The origin of his approach dates to his childhood when his grandfather, a stationer, taught him that drawing lines over a printed image–adding hats and mustaches to people appearing in the newspaper–could transform its meaning. Although he began his painting career in a realist style, his work evolved over time to combine gestural abstraction with cartoon-like figures in a bright palette.           

A native of Baltimore, Morsberger was precocious, attending a summer program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and receiving a scholarship when he was thirteen. Since his father worked for the Baltimore Sun, Morsberger had ready access to the comics, which became a major source of inspiration late in his career. In 1950 he started at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, but his time there was interrupted by a stint in the United States Army. He was stationed at the supreme allied headquarters in Paris and at night he took classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He returned to Carnegie and obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1956. He used the GI Bill to study further at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford University in England, a traditional academic program that stressed drawing from plaster casts and live models, as well as copying masterpieces. He received a Certificate in Fine Arts.

Returning to the United States, in 1959 Morsberger began his teaching career at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he remained for nine years. He became involved with campus activities, including summer theater, the university’s art gallery as its director, and a television program produced by the university that included interviews with artists such as Louise Nevelson, art dealer Ivan Karp, and commentaries about traveling exhibitions. His work at this time reflected the tumultuous sixties, touching on the civil rights movement and Vietnam. 

In 1971 Morsberger was appointed Ruskin Master of Drawing at his alma mater in Oxford, England. He was the sixth Master and first American appointed to the role, and he held the position until 1984. While there he established a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Even though he was teaching in an academic environment, his paintings shifted dramatically, away from contemporary issues toward more abstract compositions; these were colorful and often relied on chance. Morsberger was named artist in residence at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1983. He then moved west and became professor in residence at the University of California, Berkeley, 1986–1987, followed by a longer appointment, 1987 to 1996 as the President’s Fellow in Painting and Drawing at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. During this period, he was also a resident artist at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991, and in 1994 a fellow in painting at the California Art Council. He returned twice to Oxford; in 1996 he was the resident artist at Wadham College and in 2006 artist-in-residence at New College. From 1996 until 2002 he was the William S. Morris Eminent scholar in arts at Augusta State University in Georgia. 

In a 2014 TED talk, Morsberger called art making “a crazy process.” He also quoted many artists he admired, especially Vincent van Gogh, as well as Richard Pousette-Dart, who defined an artist as “a child who escaped.” This quotation is pertinent to Morsberger’s own painting where one finds a mixture of classic figures from the comics, such as Bugs Bunny and Little Orphan Annie and recurring symbols like cigarettes and airplanes, alongside caricatured self-portraits. All of these images are developed with energetic lines and bright colors. He has admitted: “I have monumentalized the people in the paintings. They’re either subjects which mean a great deal to me or which I detest.”