In Memoriam | Visual Arts

Remembering Tom Kass (1936-2022)

Tom Kass in 2013, photo by Simon Blundell

Thomas Brewster Kass, 85, “an artist, a friend, a mentor,” according to architect Kenneth R. Pollard, passed away early Tuesday morning, the 26th of July 2022. “He was a brilliant teacher who touched many and made people see the color of the day,” Pollard says

Born in Rochester, N.Y., on Aug. 30, 1936, Kass studied sculpture at Cooper Union — earning a Certificate in Design in 1958 – and went on to Yale, where he studied under the direction and recommendation of Josef Albers. Upon completion of his BFA at Yale, Kass studied sculpture at the University of Washington. There he met Robert Reed, who recommended Kass for a position at the University of Utah where he would teach foundation courses in the Department of Architecture for 37 years. Kass was a firm believer in the study of a variety of disciplines and applied this concept rigorously to the architecture program at the U. He worked as an architectural advisor to several architecture firms in Salt Lake City, was a Professor Emeritus in the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning, an ACSA Distinguished Professor and the recipient of the Distinguished Professor Teaching Award from the University of Utah in Architecture in 1979. During his long and tenured career in teaching in Utah, Kass spent quite a few years collaborating with Korean design professors, presenting lectures for the Royal Asiatic Society in Korea with titles like “The Land of the Rainbow: Color In Korea” and “Visual Impressions of Tan/Chong or (Red/Blue)Painting.”

Julio Bermudez, Professor at Catholic University of America and President & Co-Founder at Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum says, “Tom was instrumental in my teaching career during my early years at the ‘U’ (1993-95) when he and I taught ‘Basic Design’ together (and with Claudia Bielaczyc-Pollard). In fact, this time teaching with Tom remains a highlight in my academic career. Working with him was inevitably passionate, insightful, caring, and truly enjoyable … I must say that I got the best part of the deal since I got to learn from such a master teacher.”

Verl Adams, who teaches at Tokyo Metropolitan University, was a student of Kass’ in that co-taught class. “Each professor had strong opinions about how to approach design, and they didn’t necessarily agree with one another,” Adams recalls. “From Tom’s perspective, it was an important part of his class that we receive various (even opposing) opinions about our work. I realized that he also expected us to formulate our own opinions and to develop our own unique approaches. I think that is why his class provided such a life-changing experience for so many of his students and gave so many future architects a strong foundation in design. Tom was always honest and firm in his teaching, but with a sense of humor. He expected his students to question, to experiment, to work hard, to follow an iterative design process, and to get at the heart of the design problem. He used to say, ‘The problem is the problem,’ and perhaps more famously, ‘There is no solution, seek it lovingly.’ These are words that many of us now live by.”

“Travellogue 44” by Tom Kass

In 1972, Kass’ artwork was included in an exhibition in Seoul, where he used Korean calligraphic marks in conjunction with contemporary abstract painting — a style that encompasses the theories of Clement Greenberg but also makes a step toward the post-modern phase of art- making seen in artists like New Zealander Max Gimblett.

After showing his work at a local architecture firm, Kass was discovered by Phillips Gallery which now represents him (see a review here). Gallery Director Meri  DeCaria says: “The first time I became aware of Tom Kass’ reputation as a revered University of Utah professor and beloved human being was when Patty Kimball painted a quirky portrait of him in a bright orange shirt and whirligig/propeller hat. Her graduate degree focus was on the figure, and Kass’ portrait stood out among the group as a mirthful fellow, someone I should get to know. He frequented our frame shop but rarely ventured over to the gallery. At some point I became aware of his artwork and that he had shown at an architecture firm a few blocks away. We eventually hosted an exhibit for him and in the process learned that he loved an audience and was a fountain of knowledge about obscure tidbits, Korean sayings, and historical references. His artwork teetered between well-resolved and experimental, and was certainly intellectually influenced by both his time at Yale, under the direction of Josef Albers, and his career as an architectural advisor. He employed simplicity, geometry and color to speak volumes about his rich and varied life experiences.”

Joe Marotta met Tom Kass soon after he came to Utah to teach in the Art and Art History Department in 1978. “By 1981 we were good friends. He’d walk over to my studio occasionally and we’d talk for a few hours. Tom was the best conversationalist I’ve ever known. He was engaging on any number of subjects, not just art and architecture. With his personality he could tell stories in a way that kept you interested.  He seemed to know everything about Albany, the city in upstate New York that I’m from, especially the history of the corrupt politics. And when I told him my family was from Italy, he, of course, traveled there often, giving me names of people to contact the next time I went. He was a larger-than-life character, generous with his time and knowledge. “

The two kept in touch after Kass retired, “talking about art and everything else at the Avenues Bistro. Even when his health was failing, he would go there and have a seat at the counter. When Tom walked in and he saw me or some of the other regulars, a big smile would break across his face like you were one of his family that he hadn’t seen in a long time — even though he’d just seen you the day before. That’s just the way he was. You couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say…”

Kass is survived by his wife, Gail, and children Priscilla and Tommie. No services are planned yet.

Tom Kass at work (photo courtesy Verl Adams)

Categories: In Memoriam | Visual Arts

2 replies »

  1. A shadow has crossed my heart! he was my first design professor along with Julio and Claudia all three giving opposing opinions of our designs. I worked so hard in that class I enjoyed every minute of fingerprint to the diamonds on black and white, to the color studies to the 3-D. I just ate it all up and enjoyed it every word of his advice. This became the basis of my entire design life and career.

  2. Thank you for this brief story of a revered teacher, master and human. I studied basic design with Tom in 1979, from there I studied structural engineering and then became an artist. Tom’s teachings were all eastern philosophy , wabi-wabi, mixed with european less is more . There is no perfect , so keep working toward perfection. There is no answer so keep working to find it. Work until you reach ultimate boredom, that is where the solution lies. Tom and I remained friends and he always seemed thrilled to see what I was up to. Thank you Tom. I am still seeking ultimate boredom in my art. I am so grateful you were my first art teacher.

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