Blisses and Black Mountain . . . from page 1
Before moving to Utah, Koven had lived in Asheville, N.C., and served on the board for the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center. So this exhibit, in its original form, was “to not only bring attention to the influence of Black Mountain College but also the influence it had on the craft and design movement in the United States.” But when she started at the Harrison in January, and learned of the number of artists in the museum collection who were faculty or students at Black Mountain College, Koven says, she began to look at connections: “A good very direct example of that is John Neely who is the ceramics professor here at Utah State University. One of his teachers when he was at Alfred University was Robert Turner and Robert Turner built the pot shop at Black Mountain College. And the other connection, of course, is Robert Bliss, having been the [first] Dean of Architecture at the University of Utah and studied at Black Mountain College and helped build the Studies Building there and started learning architecture from Lawrence Kocher while he was at Black Mountain College. Those are just two examples but there are more examples of that national influence and the regional connections that Black Mountain College has to Utah.”
Bliss was just 17 or 18 when he arrived from his native Seattle to study at the college, at that time located in a large wooden building surrounded by small cabins owned by the YWCA, which took possession back in the summertime. Faculty lived in the cabins and male and female students occupied different floors of the large structure, he recalls.
There were two courses you had to take at Black Mountain College, Koven says. One was a course in the classics, and one was an arts course, a foundation course, with Josef Albers. The latter was Bliss’s first class at the school. “Albers’ favorite expression was ‘open eyes’ – look, look,” he remembers. “And we would go to junkyards or into the woods and it combined all Albers’ ideas about color so there was a heavy amount of that and he was also teaching drawing and painting.” There are examples of works of fallen leaves from visits to the woods in this exhibit.
In 1940, the YWCA wanted their buildings back year-round and the school found 600 acres across the valley that included an old summer camp which could be adapted for use by the college. “Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer designed a facility for the new land and the estimates came in much too high and the community couldn’t afford to do it,“ Bliss says. Those plans are on exhibit. Another architect volunteered his design work on some structures that could be done economically and a work-study program was initiated of classes in the morning and building work in the afternoon. “And when we moved over to Lake Eden, that’s what I did,” Bliss recalls, pointing to a photograph. “This is the building I nailed a hundred thousand nails into. It was the only building they were able to get finished before so many of us, me included, left for the war.”
Bliss remembers monthly community meetings, where students and faculty discussed finances, the direction the college was going and how to attract more students, because prior to the arrival of Albers, whose presence was good for enrollment, there were not more than 25 or 30 taking courses. Still, in 1949, after he had been at the college for 14 years and was away on a fund-raising trip, the community voted Albers out. It limped along for another seven years or so and folded. Albers became head of the art department at Yale.
“It was a very, very stimulating, energetic education,” Bliss says. “After the war I finished up at MIT. It was like going into a factory. And that’s where I met Anna Campbell Bliss.” She had earned a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and was working on a master’s in architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She would later study color theory and design with Gyorgy Kepes at MIT and with Josef Albers.
“His roommate was in my class at Harvard,” says Anna. “And he invited me for dinner one night. So that’s when I met Bob -- and we went home together.” NOT, says Bob. “We went back to the drafting room so you could put me to work,” he insists. “And I was hooked.” That was 64 years ago.
The Blisses, who moved to Utah in 1963, have their own exhibit – just the second time their work ever has been shown together – in the lobby of the Harrison. Relational Forms: Robert Bliss & Anna Campbell Bliss highlights several furniture pieces designed by Robert Bliss with a number of paintings and prints by his wife. Other work by Robert Bliss is included in the show in the main gallery: one vital piece being “Lady Murasaki’s Fan,” (1993) an elegant chair (30 x 37 x 24 inches) replete with black suede cushions. It has 32 teak legs and only one bolt holding it together.
His arresting modern designs are intentionally practical as well as beautiful. A set of three aluminum cube tables (11 x 11 x 11 inches) in the lobby begs to be used as well as looked at. One longs to stretch out on his Deep Cradle Rocker (1991) (1/4” aluminum & French Bridle Leather 12 x 26 x 84 inches) on a granite base, even though this one resides in the Smithsonian.
Robert says he is delighted that “Anna enhanced my furniture show with her art.” In fact, it is remarkable how well their pieces work together. Her work makes connections between mathematics, computer science and art -- and is ultimately about color. His is all metal, wood and leather. Yet there is a “marriage,” if you will, perhaps of minds, a connection that is tangible as you walk through this exhibition.
The show is hung well, with Bliss’s large and captivating 2010 Element Series (screenprints on handpainted oil on canvas) “Waterwall,” “Firewall,” and “Windwall” high on the staircase and smaller pieces in the lobby itself. Her important 1973 “Triangular Articulation, Series II” Variations A B & C is tucked away into crevices, however, and easy to miss – look for these. It’s a series that will give you an immediate appreciation of color theory.
Bliss said she was a “little bit sick” that she hasn’t been able to get new work done. “But I put pieces in the show that are of the era of the Bauhaus, things that related.” And they do, nicely.
A newer work, but with the flavor she mentions, is 2002’s superb “Topkapi Palace Study” – four screenprints on anodized aluminum with “a slightly Oriental feeling, an Islamic feeling,” the artist says.
Robert Bliss maintains that the only connection Anna Bliss has with Black Mountain College “is through marriage.” But Koven says his wife was included “because we have a couple of pieces of Anna’s in our collection and she has taken classes from Josef Albers. “ She points out that there are many connections to be made here: “The Blisses were quite close friends with Josef and Anni Albers and they were also friends with [sculptor] Ruth Asawa whose work is in the same space as their works are being shown. But there are a lot of connections that one can make between Anna’s work from a standpoint of her formalistic approach to design, her interdisciplinary interests between computer science, math and art as you find in a lot of works that you see in the Black Mountain College exhibit. . . . And then to see her work juxtaposed beside her husband’s work and his ability to explore material in a very sort of formalist beautiful kind of way with the form following function in a lot of ways but making aesthetic choices like the kind of leather being a saddle leather from France that was specially ordered so that he could get a solid piece of leather for that lounge.
“So I’m hoping that people make connections between the Blisses’ works and how they have been together for many years -- being now in their early 90s -- and also their relationships to various faculty and students who were at Black Mountain College that they knew throughout their lives.”
||Culture Conversations: Dance
Changing Dance Seasons
An evolving summer, and a look at the fall season
Salt Lake’s summer dance landscape is slowly shifting; rather than most locals going off contract and skipping town, many community dance artists go “off contract” from full-time teaching positions and use the summer as a space for premiering new work or exploring new contexts for choreography. It’s hardly a new phenomenon with Salt Lake taking many steps in that direction, but this summer the offerings were more ample as artist turnover from universities decreased and many dancers found their ways back to the Wasatch Front.
While venues like the Utah Arts Festival have long presented mainstay companies to audiences that may not be season-ticket-holding or even theater-going, their commissions (primarily of Ballet West artists) haven’t always extended the variety of dances being produced. Rather, the festival objective seems to be bringing existing work to a context where the stakes are lower for what’s traditionally expected of an audience (find a babysitter, find a parking spot, find forty bucks). This scenario is vital outreach for companies flourishing on traditional (and subsidized) prosceniums but new approaches are on the scene. Relatively new takes on the festival format include Craft Lake City and the Urban Arts Festival, where the choreography showcased is located somewhere between modern dance traditions and commercial forms. This year Amy Falls and Sam Hanson took on those respective showcases noting the work by Porridge for Goldilocks, Two Boots, Triptych Figures, Movement Forum, Karin Fenn and Hanson himself.
Because the presented artists trend younger, and many are recent graduates, their works more readily link up with the sorts of contemporary dance you might also find on the stages in Gallivan Plaza and Gateway, respectively. By “contemporary” I really mean the idioms popular in commercial dance and not just a re-branding of otherwise modern dance techniques presented on stage. While these festival venues were a great way for working-yet-unestablished artists to locate audiences, there is still a way to go in exploring how the dances can be better served. Meaning: it’s not the same to passively peruse artist booths as it is to really witness a live performance. Festival venues take careful attention to this difference when it comes to presenting music and film; next up should be dancing. Perhaps this will be greater attention to curation and perhaps it will mean alternatives to large stages where dancers or audiences take turns basking in the summer sun.
A new works-in-progress series, 12 Minutes Max, considers these modes of viewing as it presents not only dance but readings, films and music in various stages of development. Modeled after a series of the same name at On the Boards, the Salt Lake project was moved, by Paul Reynolds, from Dunce Studios to the Main Library. The extraordinarily beautiful auditorium serves as a neutral space for the work of diverse artists and has included a dance I made with Ching I Chang and Katie Meehan as well as recent dances by Alysia Ramos and Sam Hanson. It takes a format for dance like Mudson and extends the conversation between disciplines through viewing and conversation.
Speaking of Mudson, Daughters of Mudson saw its third iteration at the Rose Wagner Studio Theater. Works presented there were also seen at other venues including Ching I Chang’s “Dinomato” at Sugar Space. This fall you can find Ching I creating new work for the Sugar Space River District Opening.
“Dinomato” brought an existing tension in Salt Lake dance to the surface this summer. The show, though daring and ambitious, was met with small audiences. It seems that no matter how thorough an investigation or work, nor the reputation of the artist (Ching I has not only performed for the venerable Susan Marshall but was also part of the original cast who developed SLEEP NO MORE), dance might only be considered worthwhile viewing by small committees of friends initiated in educational institutions. This high school reunion attitude combined with Salt Lake’s outdoor culture means that summer dance, while growing, is frequently fraught with disappointment. By contrast, some of summer's high-budget, one-night productions (think FEAST, NOW-ID’s second concert) had the fortune of their high visibility in relationship to Salt Lake’s larger companies and other art institutions, while newcomers to the scene, Ching I included, grapple for an audience for just as deeply investigative and interdisciplinary work.
As these issues play out in time many players in Salt Lake dance remain the same. SBDance and companion organizations in the Rose Wagner frequently use the summer to fundraise while hosting workshops and boosting awareness of their upcoming seasons.
So what to see this fall? In the interest of expanding the dialogue around attendance, below are some offerings grouped not by the people you might know but rather, the things you might be interested in.
If you want to see something new & free.
12 Minutes Max: see new works-in-progress on the third Sunday of the month through the fall. Admission is free at the Main Library Auditorium.
Mudson: see new dances by Amy Freitas/Porridge for Goldilocks, Shira Fagan, Emma Wilson, Heather Francis, Daniel Charon/Natalie Desch, Kat Martinez, Karin Fenn, Ashley Anderson, Amy Falls, Josie Patterson, Tablado Dance Company & Sara Jackson. September 15, October 20, November 17; 7:30pm at the Masonic Temple Ballroom.
If you want to see some developing work by local artists
Two Boots — the duo of Katherine Adler and Samantha Matsukawa present an evening of dances to Bob Dylan in an alley on 252 Edison Street.
Courtney Norris — see works by Courtney and her collaborators at Sugar Space in September.
If you want to see something featuring national guests to the Salt Lake scene.
Movement Forum (aka MoFo) presents an evening of works commissioned by five national improvisers at the Marriott Center for Dance. See dances by local Steve Koester alongside Yvonne Meier, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Gabriel Forestieri and Miguel Gutierrez.
Ririe Woodbury returns to the stage with their fall season, which somewhat ironically showcases work exclusively by white male choreographers after a year honoring 50 years of hard work by company founders and hardworking women Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury. See new work by Artistic Director Daniel Charon alongside a reprisal of work by Johannes Wieland and new work by Jonah Bokaer.
RDT, on the cusp of its own 50th-Anniversary Season, presents “Portal.” The show challenges the expectation of the company’s national repertory by presenting a commissioned work by two Israeli choreographers alongside archived works by Steve Koester and Zvi Gotheiner.
If you want to see something linked to an area university
Molly Heller & Sara Parker: see the thesis concert by MFA candidates from the University of Utah at the Ladies’ Literary Club. November 21-22 at 7:30pm. Read more about past work in the club here.
Graham Brown: RDT’s LINK series presents “YOU” a work by the BYU educator whose thesis work from the University of Maryland will be reprised.
If you want to see something interdisciplinary
Mothers Artist Project: with area dancers working under the direction of Ai Fujii Nelson, a performance in the Blackbox at the Rose Wagner on October 18 celebrates a new book by Sara Caldiero-Oertli.
NOW-ID at UMOCA: Inspired by the Bikuben exhibit and featuring music by the Figura Ensemble, Charlotte Boye-Christensen presents one night of choreography.