Once they were our Young Turks, upending the establishment, smashing the windows of a staid and conservative artistic world with new styles, techniques and ideas. Because they found a home in Phillips Gallery, they thrived, determining the tastes of a generation of Utah art lovers. Many are now dead, the remaining definitely graying, all at risk of being ignored or forgotten by a generation of young artists and art lovers, most of whom weren’t alive when these artists were in their prime. With 45, Denis Phillips, one of their own, has brought together an exciting retrospective of the post-war generation of Utah artists who helped develop modernism in the state.
This, it should be noted, is not a going-out-of-business sale. Yes, many of these works are from the personal collection of Denis and Bonnie Phillips, others part of the gallery’s archive of work (some, though, have been brought in from outside sources); and they are, as the gallery cards — hand drawn by Denis, a one-time sign painter — indicate, for sale; but this exhibit feels more like a museum retrospective than a commercial event; and neither the gallery nor its owners are going anywhere: Denis and Bonnie seem as engaged as ever in projects — Denis Phillips’ own work is on display in an exhibition in the downstairs Dibble Gallery, and Bonnie, spurred in part by the Logan School District controversy, is getting fired-up about reintroducing original art into public schools.
Utah art history may not yet have a post-war art mythology firmly embedded in the community’s consciousness — as it has, say, for the 19th-century introduction of Impressionism with the LDS “art missionaries” — but mixed into the mortar of any such history must certainly be Doug Snow and Lee Deffebach, the two artists who in the 1950s returned from burgeoning careers in New York City with ideas inspired by Abstract Expressionism filling their aesthetic suitcases. Snow took up a teaching position at the U, influencing a generation of students, both personally (as a generation of New York artists went through their apprenticeships making “bad de Koonings,” Utah had its fair share making “bad Doug Snows”), as well as in his hiring decisions (see our recent article on Richard Johnston). If Snow worked from within institutions, Deffebach remained the unattached bohemian, her tall figure gracefully sailing through exhibitions and studios, or strolling barefoot into concerts at Abravanel Hall.
The easiest of Snow’s works to find at Phillips will be a dark and moody oil, one of those canvases of his that seem to effortlessly silence the pedantics who like to say black isn’t a real color and shouldn’t be used; but three smaller works should not be missed: it’s hard to find a work of Snow’s not inspired by the landscape, but one here inspired by the ocean must certainly be a rarity, as is a nearby oddly linear work; more familiar in style will be a wonderfully executed small work on paper of large masses and smaller, spindly forms, evoking the desert landscape at the artist’s heart.
Deffebach is also represented by one large piece and additional smaller ones. Looking at the 1986 date of her “Metallic Dream,” a shimmering aluminum painting with what look like two plastic dishes attached to its surface, it’s easy to conjecture that Deffebach, who was fond of making art out of detritus like tin and aluminum cans (examples of which you’ll find in the gallery), was making an allusion, irreverent or otherwise, to the crockery of Julian Schnabel, whose work was the rage at the time in New York. Her painting of oranges wrapped in plastic should be enough to quiet those who still assume abstract art is done by those who can’t draw, while two early works on paper, a 1958 piece that makes apparent the influence of the surrealists on the New York school, and a 1965 work that suggests what, at least in the work of Rauschenberg, came after, indicates why artists like Snow and Deffebach, who helped plant New York ideas in Utah soil, are so important.
To think these two imported modernism or abstraction wholesale into the state is, of course, a myth. Foundations had already been laid, contemporary fellow travelers were also hard at work. The influence of George Dibble can’t be ignored, both his arts writing — which championed modernist developments for the newspaper-reading public — and his own experimentation with cubism and other modernist developments. His “Fire Mountain” renders the Utah landscape as a series of simplified color planes pushing against each other for attention, while his watercolor of bare trees, executed as slashes of pigment against the occasional splash of color, could be the figurative framework one can find beneath and sometimes on top of some of Pollock’s famous paintings.
Don Olsen should also be remembered. A few years younger than Dibble, he was almost 20 years older than Snow or Deffebach, but after a visit to Hans Hoffmann’s art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1954, worked as their contemporary, first in an electric thunderstorm of brushwork and color, and later in a signature hard-edge style. Lesser known is his work in collage — a sample of which one can find in 45 — often done in earth tones that rarely find their way into his paintings. His influence as a teacher at Jordan High School could not be as great as Snow’s at the University, but his work influenced many who came across it, including Claudia Sisemore, whose color field painting of floating masses jostling each other, hangs here beneath Olsen’s expressionistic work.
Modernism also happened in three dimensions, and its Utah forms are warmly represented in 45. Angelo Caravaglia, the University of Utah sculpture professor who worked in abstracted, though never fully non-referential, forms, might be best known to the Utah public for his piece at Salt Lake City’s Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, where his abstraction reaches its greatest reduction; but works of his like that of four gymnasts at Salt Lake Community College (Redwood Road campus) more readily reveal his main interest: the figure. “Robat,” his piece at Phillips, can be deceptive at first glance: it looks like a bronze, but is actually wood covered in silver-leaf, and out of the corner of the eye might appear like an abstract massing of forms, but is actually a thick figure of a man balancing on one arm. Other 3-D work fills the gallery’s floor spaces: multiple pieces by Richard Johnston, a work by Michael Wright, and close to a dozen ceramics (of which the state has a rich if underappreciated tradition) by artists like Dorothy Bearnson, Karl Howard, Deral Barton and Larry Elsner.
It’s unfair to compare a selection like this, of works culled from a half-century or more, with what goes on during any given month in our art scene, but seeing all these works together in one place, at one time, one can’t help but become nostalgic, to begin to think things were so much better “back then.” Seeing Steve Beck’s untitled work of what looks like four earthworms standing at attention (it was apparently saved from some university storage room where a second Beck didn’t fare nearly as well) and then Pat Eddington’s “On the Way Home, After the Party,” where a couple in 1930s attire confronts a spindly-legged monster out of a child’s sketchbook, or Gary Pickering’s Picasso-inspired work, it just feels like something so vital was happening in the past.
An illusion, of course. Not that there wasn’t a certain vitality happening at Phillips Gallery and in the Salt Lake City scene (because, yes, most of these are Salt Lake City artists), but a selection like this obviously heightens and focuses it. To our delight. And there’s no reason to lose hope, because while many of these artists are no longer with us, 45 features a whole batch of works from the generation that came after, artists who are still producing and exhibiting. Connie Borup, Susan Beck, Bonnie Sucec and Maureen O’Hara Ure have all had recent exhibitions, as have Sam Wilson and Earl Jones. Claudia Sisemore is busy preparing for a new show with Trent Alvey in March and Tony Smith, that magician of the marker (his piece here looks like a woodcut print of a cut of wood, but was produced with pens) doesn’t seem willing to go, quietly or otherwise, into any good night. For what this show is all about, we can take a cue from a work by Susan Kirby — another of this second generation — called “Ancestors.” It features families and temples and cats and mountainsides and ice cream and even Smithson’s Sprial Jetty — myriad influences all feeding the life of the present generation, not unlike the 45 branches of our state’s artistic family tree, here on display.
45 at Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, Jan. 19 – Feb. 10, opening reception Fri., Jan. 19, 6-9 p.m.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.