In Memoriam | Visual Arts

In Memoriam: Hagen Haltern


On 27 March 2014 Hagen Gilbert Haltern, as a result of a long struggle with cancer, passed quietly away.

Hagen Haltern, in the words of the late Brent Gehring, was “an artist’s artist.” Born 2 April 1947 in Wittingen, near Hamburg, Germany, Haltern grew up in Bonn, graduated from the University of Bonn, afterwards studied art at the Art Institute of Cologne, and then the Academy of Fine Art in Düsseldorf. In 1978 Haltern joined the art faculty at BYU. Bruce Smith recalls him as “this rising star from Germany . . .” whose “drawings signaled an artistic talent and awareness that far surpassed what most applicants could provide.”

One could write much about Haltern’s artistic prowess. His technique could astound. What he could see or envision, he could render. His discipline and his commitment to his personal vision were quintessentially German, and if a medium was inadequate for the communication of that vision, Haltern would often refashion the medium. When paper was too unrefined for how Haltern wished to draw, he would prepare his amazing “marble ground” that allowed both the finest pencil lines and the deepest washes of powdered graphite floated in ox gall. Or he would microwave ink washes to control the flow and the drying of the ink. He always managed to express his vision, and with a master’s aplomb.

For nearly the first two decades of his career as an artist, he refused to work in color, because he felt that he had not sufficiently mastered black and white. Nevermind that in 1969 art critics in Germany were already admiring the “technical perfection” of his drawings ((Lothar Schmidt-Mühlisch, Bonner Rundschau)—Haltern had higher standards.

Haltern’s discipline and doggedness, his art and his approach to educating younger artists, all flowed from his vision, from his philosophy. Early in his career, and around the time he joined the LDS Church, Haltern had a powerful spiritual and visual epiphany, a literal vision which ignited the aesthetic-spiritual calling from which he never deviated. Haltern was one of Schiller’s “schöne Seele,” in whom there was no division between inclination and duty, and none between the meaning of his artistic calling and the ultimate meaning of his life.

Haltern understood and enjoyed modern and postmodern experimentation and fragmentation in art, but he believed that ultimately such fragmentation had to be circumscribed within a greater arc of unity. The geometric form of the torus was his visual symbol for this meta-level integration, and “greatest variety in strongest unity” was something of a mantra. “Haltern’s approach to art . . . was a grand unified-field theory embracing the entire visual universe: a metaphysical quest for light . . .” (DH glossing Rick Gate for “A Product of Time and Faith” catalogue).

Haltern’s evangelism for unity chaffed against many of the ascendent artistic practices and theories which are themselves disposed to consider Haltern’s own beliefs as simplistic or antiquated. Undoubtedly Haltern lost some possible friends and comrades over theoretical divisions. He could be “a stubborn son of a gun,” recalls Audrey Flake Tiberius. But again, it wasn’t that Haltern detested theory. He simply could take no joy in beholding the meaningful tapestries of human discourse celebrate unravelling for its own sake.

Something about Haltern’s quest for ultimate integration endows his works with a certain metaphysical density, difficult to describe. German critics noted it in the early Haltern: “Different perspective views combined and sewn together without a seam continually lead the observer to different planes . . . until one finally arrives at a line or a point which in itself gives the impression that it may contain the secret of world order . . .” (Hartmut Kaminski). Jared Harlow, Haltern’s close friend and collaborator for the past 12 years, casts it differently, and in less presumptuous language, more suited to Haltern’s own modesty: “In the end, everything he has collected, curated, created and composed are only fragments: fragments which humbly point towards a much grander wholeness” ( Haltern’s images are compelling and persistent, as is his influence on the students and artists he helped form.

Bob Adams described Haltern as “. . . the voice in my head, pushing me to see beyond the obvious, to take chances, to push myself out of my comfort zone, away from my preconceptions.” Others recall his gentleness and his integrity (Keri Vincent Skousen), or his love of beauty (Ann Daines Cordes) and his ability to find beauty in the ordinary and overlooked. “It was absolutely clear to us students,” recalls Jacqui Biggs Larsen, “that he felt a great love and reverence for everything connected to the Savior, and that included people” as well as beauty. Haltern integrated his love, his religion and his vision into the singularity that was his soul, from which his art shone as a paean to light. “The world, whether it realizes it or not, just lost one of ‘the greats’” (Tiberius).

Categories: In Memoriam | Visual Arts

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