Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

April 2016

Life Between the Lines

Unpacking the Drawings of Lawrence Halprin


Anna Halprin, Architecture, Articles, Lawrence Halprin

At 95, the dancer, choreographer and activist Anna Halprin has no time for nostalgia. Last summer she celebrated her birthday with a performance on the dance deck at her home in Marin County. Bare feet on redwood boards, white hair framed against the pine trees beyond, she was as present and lively as when her late husband and collaborator, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, first built the deck for her in 1954.

Their marriage was an interdisciplinary affair; each partner brought expertise and depth from their field of practice to the partnership: modernism from Lawrence, Gestalt philosophy from Anna. Together they addressed a changing America through movement and design. Scenes from the Halprins’ collaborative life are on view in San Francisco until May. The California Historical Society is showing the exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, organized by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, that looks deep into a series of cross-disciplinary events in Northern California that brought together designers, artists, and dancers. In addition to the traveling show, the Society produced a pair of historical exhibitions and extensive programing that put the work in social, political, and personal context.

Drawing was always a critical part of Halprin’s practice, from his abstract scribbles to his watercolors of the High Sierra. Asked about the sketches he produced during World War II in the South Pacific (some shown in the California Historical Society’s auxiliary exhibition on the Halprins’ careers), Anna unflinchingly chronicled their import.

“His life was up for grabs every minute. Those are some of his most dramatic drawings because that was one of the most dramatic times of his life,” she said over the phone. “He did an amazing 30-second drawing just a moment before they were hit by the Kamikaze plane.” Another illustration from Lawrence’s war years is rendered ink on notebook paper and titled in script “Enemy troops 18,000 yrds, Leyte, Oct 22.” A dark cloud hangs on the horizon, and rays rain down on the bumpy profile of a Philippine island. A battleship sits low in the water. An ominous abstract shape hovers over the scene. Similar to figures from the hands of Paul Klee or Joan Miro it’s unclear what it represents in the otherwise naturalistic scene: a propeller, a bomb, a blimp?

As tempting as it is to see the makings of a landscape architect on the page, in the formal language and pen gestures—what might be smoke from burning jungle fires or bomb hits are rendered in neat squiggles—Anna sees a man who almost died. “He had to identify burnt bodies,” she recalled. “He had a nervous breakdown two years later, which now they have a name for, but then they did not. He couldn’t work for six months.”

The drawings, artifacts of a creative practice above and beyond professional and collaborative efforts, flesh out a more private interrogation of natural forms. When Halprin died in 2009 at the age of 93, his professional archives went to the University of Pennsylvania along with his 147 notebooks and many drawings and paintings. However, many of the drawings on view in San Francisco are part of the Halprin family’s personal collection. More than 200 of these works are represented by Edward Cella Art + Architecture gallery in Los Angeles.

At times the intimacy on the page is astonishing, almost too close for an outside viewer: a wartime doodle of a lovers’ embrace with “Your arms were my house” noted in pencil or a hirsute self-portrait from 1977 with different colored eyes rendered in pencil and a crown of vine-like hair. And yet when they are viewed alongside renderings of rocky outcroppings and windblown trees a shared elemental language emerges.

“These drawings are important to me because they contain the knowledge and insight into a life,” notes gallerist Edward Cella. “We can tell his history from what and where he draws. Aesthetically he is synthesizing these different parts of his life together through drawing.”

The architect Charles Moore designed the Halprins’ house at Sea Ranch on the Northern California coast, and from his studio there, Halprin produced endless versions of the scenery—bluffs, crags, cypress, the Pacific Ocean. “He would draw hedgerows and he would draw the house. He would just draw, period,” Anna says. In his gestural linework and organic figuration, it’s easy to see a relationship to the dynamic plays between cascades and concrete in projects such as Lovejoy Plaza and the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland.

While it’s no surprise that Halprin carried a sketchbook around with him at all times—it’s a practice of many designers—his creative compulsion was seemingly boundless. “He would do hundreds, thousands of self-portraits,” recalls Anna, adding that when she’d get tired of dutifully posing for sketches her husband would become his own subject. “He has many, many self-portraits, not because he was egotistical, but because he wanted to sketch and he didn’t have anything to sketch. So he’d sketch himself.”

One has to wonder, though, if his urge to draw iteration after iteration of himself served something more than practicality. In conversation, Anna recollected a never-finished book project she had encouraged Halprin to take on late in life, a personal history that would delve into his childhood traveling the globe before the Great Depression and his time on a kibbutz in Israel. She wanted people to know the man behind the designs, the theories, and the RSVP Cycles. She put to him a series of questions: “I said Larry, we know all about your work. We can see it. But who are you? What has influenced you? What has made you who you are? What about your family and your parents and your Jewishness and all the things that are unique to you?” Perhaps the self-portraits were his answers, both documentation of and inquiry into the nature of identity.

Drawing persisted willfully as part of Halprin’s identity after he experienced the onset of dementia. Anna says he would sit and intently draw even after his mind had blurred the relationship between cognition and representation. “He would draw something but had absolutely no recognition of what he was drawing—it would just be a series of continuous lines, one next to the other,” she explains. “And he was sure he was drawing a tree.” His skills were in place after a lifetime of muscle memory, ink, and sketchbooks. The abstraction was by default.

Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 is on view at the California Historical Society through May 1, 2016.