Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Family Resemblance Hagen Haltern’s Intensive Drawing Studio

Hagen Haltern’s intensive drawing studio, photo by Brent Orton

Mark England. Bruce Robertson. Jacqui Larsen. I came to know and be intrigued by the work of these three Utah artists separately, but have always felt there was something that linked them. England I came to know through his late father, Gene England, a brilliant professor of literature who proudly showed off his son’s stained glass when I visited his home and later invited me to an exhibit of Mark’s works at Finch Lane Gallery. Robertson’s work I came across years ago at an unmanned booth at the Utah Arts Festival, back when it was held at the state fairgrounds. After that I made a mental note each time I saw his work, unaware for years that he was spending every day at the Visual Art Institute, just a few hundred yards from my home. Larsen’s work I came to relatively late, at an exhibit in 2004 at Library Square (when Biggs was still part of her professional name).

Though each artist has a well-developed and individual visual language, I felt in them an undefined quality, something each shared that made their work part of a family. I still find it hard to pinpoint in words. I could attempt to describe the formal elements the artists share: an interest in mark making and drawing; the inspiration of collage; a search for unity out of disparate elements; an air of searching and experimentation. It’s like trying to describe what it is that make cousins look alike, though one’s a redhead and thin while the other’s a hefty brunette.

Then one day Larsen made an offhand comment — all three had been together in Hagen Haltern’s Intensive Drawing Studio at BYU — everything seemed to make sense. And it made me wish I’d been there.

The class, begun in 1982 by professor Hagen Haltern, was an intense experiment that seems to have deeply affected the artists involved. Haltern retired this spring, and to mark his commitment as a teacher curator James Swensen has put together an exhibition of works by Haltern and his students entitled A Product of Time and Faith.

Hagen Haltern was born near Hamburg, Germany shortly after World War II. He grew up in Bonn and studied art at Cologne and Düsseldorf. During his studies he came to an epiphany: art should be a means to value diversity and unity in a harmonious whole.|1| At the same time he became a convert to the LDS church.

Haltern’s conversion eventually brought him to Utah, where he taught art at BYU. After a few years of teaching he began thinking about the problem of art education. Looking back at masters like Michelangelo and Velasquez, Haltern noted that they had all started early (at thirteen Michelangelo was a late beginner) to take on serious work as apprentices in other artist’s studio. Today’s art students, he thought, begin too late, “and we struggle, often in vain, to make up for lost time.” The Intensive Drawing Studio was his answer to the problem.

The course was designed for serious, committed students, ones willing to spend nine hours a day together, four days a week. Because they spent so much time working in the Studio, others in the art department started calling the students the “cave people.”

The class was an experiment. Only after it was halfway done did the group approach University officials with the idea: “May we interest you in a class?” As Swensen notes in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, the students described the class as “a creative environment where students can, in an atmosphere of trust between student and teacher, learn the creative process and develop their own imaginative visions and visual intelligences.”

Not all of the artists who participated in the Studio became masters or even professional artists. But since nationally less than 10% of art students make art five years after graduation, the number of students from the Studio that did become professionals is impressive.

Tom Schulte, who said Haltern could “elicit a commitment to medium and art that very few could do” went on to become a professor himself, and has taught sculpture and drawing at BYU. In his career he has experimented with various media, from painting and sculpture to furniture and stained glass.

Bob Adams, an artist based in Phoenix, Arizona, has also experimented with various media, creating large-scale public sculptures, as well as the intimate “landscapes” displayed in this exhibit — compositions of vertical lines of color not quite broken apart but certainly hazed out by the feathers that constitute them. He described the Studio as a “magical” atmosphere where the students consumed and meditated on art.

Richard Gate, a professional artist who returned to Utah after living in California for a long time, says his most vivid memory of the Studio was a Rauschenberg catlogue that floated around the space for the entire year. He says Haltern’s philosophy, like Rauschenberg’s, was a “grand unified-field theory embracing the entire visual universe: a metaphysical quest for light.”

This Rauschenberg catalog may be a key to understanding the similarity between the three Studio alumni I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Larsen, Robertson and England — and Gate should be included in this group as well — all experiment with “collaging” disparate elements to create a visual whole — something that can be traced back to Haltern’s own epiphany as an art student. So we might say that Rauschenberg was a visual grandfather for these artists, but it was under the intense tutelage of a brave and dedicated uncle — Haltern — that they learned to embrace their heritage.

A Product of Time and Faith is at the B.F. Larsen Gallery on the Brigham Young University campus through November 13.


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