The last bit of pseudo-wisdom I’d expect a Utah artist to bring to mind would be that overworked cliché about life, lemons, and lemonade. Growing up amidst the scenic splendor and natural grandeur that surrounds her, the local artist feels challenged just to live up to it. When life gives you Zion, say thank you and get to work. But Anna Campbell Bliss wasn’t from these parts, and when she arrived during the expansive 1960s, she saw that, culturally speaking, this was no longer an empty land waiting passively for her to fill it with imported ideas. For example, Bliss had always admired, and often employed, that most characteristic product of Renaissance Humanism: the unadorned human figure. But when she found that images of the nude made much of her audience uncomfortable, she faced a choice: cut short her exploration of the theme, or adapt in order to move ahead. She found her solution in a mathematical mapping of anatomy similar to what today’s animators call a ‘wire model.’ The unmistakably human figures that resulted allow her to invoke the heroic empiricism of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and all those who risked excommunication and worse to unlock the forbidden knowledge of anatomy, but without injuring sensitive viewers. Paradoxically, stripping the offending skin from her figures allowed her to look more closely at their physical—rather than spiritual—qualities, and to emphasize the continuity between people and the nature to which they belong, all of which ought to have been far more disturbing to those early critics.
As it happens, the encounter between the human and the natural world could stand as a synecdoche for Bliss’s primary artistic interest. What has always fascinated her about the things she encounters—beings and objects, yes, but also categories and ideas—is what she calls their ‘fringes.’ It makes sense for an artist to interest herself in boundaries and surfaces, in the parts that most substantially identify and distinguish individuals she might portray. But Bliss comes at it from an unusual perspective. She began her career studying to be an architect, where volumes and spaces are seen as much from within as without, and have their own vocabulary: one that is used for everything from non-verbally identifying a room’s purpose to making grand statements about the zeitgeist. Of course in the ’60s, when she was rapidly ascending their ranks, aspiring architects were being told to eliminate ornament from their works. It may have been partly such restrictions that led her to change directions, and to create an art that consciously collaborates with the buildings that call for its creation.
Artists are suspicious of anyone who undertakes to tell their stories, and not without reason. A recent film about Anna Campbell Bliss, arguably the most significant artist to anchor her career in Salt Lake City, compares her life and career to Georgia O’Keeffe’s. Yet although she was born only forty years later, Bliss came of age in a very different century, with the result that they might as well have been born on two separate worlds. O’Keeffe was an easel painter, who made portable, visual copies of familiar objects and scenes, as painters had done for thousands of years. When Bliss was born, abstraction as pioneered by Kandinsky was already an accepted way of painting, but by the time she began making art even more traditional restrictions had fallen. Crafts like glass, wood, and textiles were gaining respectability, and it was taken for granted that these media would work particularly well when designed for, and installed in, architecture. In fact, stained glass can be seen as a kind of bridge from architecture to art for Bliss, and like her handling of anatomy, the way she approached glass says a lot about what to look for in her art.
Stained glass developed to complete gothic churches, some of the most elaborately ornamented structures ever built. But glass ended by transforming those buildings into filigree boxes that all but evaporate themselves in the service of ever-larger windows. Bliss departed radically from the dominant concept of stained glass as a backlit painting that challenges the building for our attention. Instead of thin sheets of glass, she chose thick slabs, giving the transparent material its own interior dimension and stony presence. Instead of drawing with thin lead lines, she settled on a substantial grid of identical, repeated openings, within and against which a simple pattern of colored shapes gradually shifts. Given the depth of the frames, the glass itself is often invisible, replaced by the glow of colored light falling on the structure holding it. By eliminating the narrative from traditional glazing, she restored a sense of balance between art and architecture. In Europe and elsewhere, contemporary artists paid lip service to the same ideal of collaboration, but few managed in the end to overcome their egos and actually serve the building.
The arrival of traditional crafts materials wasn’t the only thing happening in art during those years. The impact of what Walter Benjamin called ‘the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ initially marginalized, then undermined the legitimacy of individual works of art. Photographs, prints, and posters became democratic weapons against art’s being used as a token of wealth and privilege. Given her preference for the revelatory outer limits of concepts and categories, Bliss was led almost inevitably to explore how the means of mass production interact with mechanical forms of image making. As ways to design, computer plots and mathematical analyses are ready-made for reproduction. In “Going My Way” and “Jumping Koi at Lake Truchet,” she combines disparate scientific images in the same work, while in the ‘Math Studies’ she juxtaposes a whole range of discreet examples. In the Elements, poster-like abstractions recalling the Op-Art of Bridget Riley, she first hand-painted a richly textured background, then printed a geometric pattern over it. The printed element was generated by combining mathematical instructions in a computer that then carried them out without the artist’s interference.
Theory alone cannot guarantee results, but the Elements succeed beyond hypothetical expectations. The hand-painted backgrounds and printed grids suggest convoluted or tilted boundaries in compound interaction, netting and capturing between them essential knowledge about the interacting behavior of time and space. The resulting optical illusions achieve a level of credibility rarely seen since the waning of Baroque technique—no matter what credulous critics may have written about this or that ‘post-modern master.‘ Some contemporary viewers still believe that abstractions cannot also represent actual things. But as these works demonstrate, the real difference is that the world Bliss depicts becomes visible for the first time in these vividly imagined landscapes. Here energetic, charismatic space, color, surface, and illusion draw the eye from a distance. Up close, they decline to resolve into their constituent parts, but remain in a state of nervous flux, like water and sky dissolving into each other at the horizon, passing the truth back and forth between them like a secret they seem always on the verge of revealing.
If ever an artist and a venue were made for each other, it would be Bliss and the Leonardo, both emphasizing the encounter of science and technology with art. As anyone acquainted with the latest science, from cosmology to particle physics, can attest, many recent discoveries can only be grasped by recourse to aesthetics. Theories are ‘elegant,’ while experimenters look for beautiful patterns in their data. Metaphors are used to explain conclusions, but also to reach them first. Until the end of the year, Anna Campbell Bliss will fill a gallery of her own design with what she declines to call a retrospective, preferring a less linear description. She calls it a selection of episodes from her work and the life that produced it. Taking into account how much of the work of this essential Utah artist can only be seen by traveling to the places it was made to articulate, and considering what a poor substitute photographs make, it’s not something to miss.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.