Artforum: Three Landscapes: JB Blunk, Anna and Lawrence Halprin

October 1, 2022

Ashton Cooper

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Three Landscapes brought together a trio of artists who lived and worked, both individually and collaboratively, in Marin County, California, during the 1960s and ’70s: dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin (1920–2021); her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009); and sculptor JB Blunk (1926–2002). This charming show foregrounded the aesthetic influence of Marin County, that magical cusp of land north of San Francisco that’s still rife with foggy cow pastures, eucalyptus-lined country roads, and shuck-it-yourself oyster shacks overlooking the sea. The Halprin family home, where Anna famously taught workshops on her outdoor “dance deck,” functioned as the spiritual center for all of the pieces included here. Two video recordings of Anna’s dances, staged in the mid- to late ’60s, were on view, as were a selection of abstract paintings on paper by Lawrence that have never been shown before. These compositions, which were unfamiliar even to the couple’s closest friends, were executed between 1960 and 1961 and were layered with staccato marks done in ink and gouache. Sculptural pieces of furniture—a table, a bench, and a stool—by Blunk, the sole artist represented by Blum & Poe, filled the gallery floor. Carved from giant salvaged stumps of cypress and old-growth redwood lace burl, his objects, which also had their public debut here, were crafted exclusively for the Halprin residence. The curation was a family affair, too—the show was assembled by Blunk’s daughter Mariah Nielson and the Halprins’ granddaughter Ruthanna Hopper. 

Blunk’s and Lawrence’s private works were paired with Anna’s very public Parades and Changes, 1965, her best known and most controversial piece. Because it featured dancers who disrobed during the performance, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged the choreographer with indecent exposure after it was staged at Hunter College in 1967—the same year that Hair debuted off-Broadway with its own naked thespians. By the mid-’60s, Anna had already trained an entire generation of artists who were heavyweights in the downtown New York scene, including Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, and LaMonte Young (all attended the same summer workshop at the Halprin home in 1960). 

Anna’s lithe form was omnipresent in this show, including in a 1967 photo that was prominently placed on the cover of a newsprint takeaway supplement. Snapped by Bay Area photographer and cinematographer Paul Ryan, the picture captures the artist and her daughter Daria in their living room, lounging in beachwear on Blunk’s furniture. Powerfully invoking the site of the Halprins’ home studio, the exhibition asked us to think about the cross-pollinations that took place at and around this distinctive dwelling. At this time in Manhattan, live/work spaces took the form of repurposed lofts, but in Marin County, artists gathered in a foresty setting around a table gently carved from what used to be the trunk of a redwood tree. Anna especially helped shape a kind of proto-wellness culture with deep roots in Northern California. In the 1960s, she was involved with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, ground zero for the New Age and Human Potential movements. She taught there for many years and later, with Daria, founded the Tamalpa Institute in San Rafael, an arts-therapy organization. Affected as they were by this particular site and its connections to the idea of art as healing, these practices opened up issues less explored in the usual accounts of avant-garde approaches of the 1960s and ’70s. Self-expression, empowered embodiment, and spirituality were hugely important for artists on both coasts, even if these ideas have often been treated with discomfort and passed over for more “serious” topics by historians of this turbulent period. Reexamining the work of artists for whom these Age of Aquarius aspirations were crucial is an important step toward more fully understanding how intricately the artmaking of this period was entwined with aspirations of self-actualization and liberation. 

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