Whitehot Magazine

Lawrence Halprin's Drawings Provide a New Lens onto his Life and Work

Lawrence Halprin (1916 - 2009), Untitled, 1961, Pen and ink on paper, 10 3/4 x 13 5/8 in, copyright Lawrence Halprin Family Collection and courtesy Edward Cella Art+Architecture

Lawrence Halprin: Alternative Scores, Drawing from Life
September 9-November 4, 2017
Edward Cella Art and Architecture
2754 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90034


The landscape architecture of Lawrence Halprin has been well documented, and justly so. Take one example: the Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain (1970-71) in Portland, Oregon, a public courtyard made of waterfalls and stacked concrete platforms that prompted the otherwise implacable New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable to proclaim it “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.”

“Ira’s Fountain” (as it’s often warmly referred to) feels like everything Halprin loved, coalesced into one project. His adoration for the theater (in particular, performance art enacted in a natural setting) is abundantly clear, manifested in the hovering slabs of the fountain’s central arena that function as an “urban stage.” Like mountains surrounding a mesa in a miniature landscape, the Brutalist ziggurat that forms the waterfall acts as a sonic buffer to the city beyond, establishing a sense of intimacy. Halprin’s obsession with movement is evident as well, as the arrangement of elements in this “playable” fountain encourages exploration. The potential flow of people in and out of the site was a shared concern: in this regard, Halprin was acting in accordance with his gifted choreographer and “life/art” partner, Anna Halprin. On all counts, “Ira’s Fountain” is a magnificent integration of nature and urban space.  

Lawrence Halprin (1916 - 2009), Sea Ranch Rock Study, 1980, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 x 12 in, copyright Lawrence Halprin Family Collection and courtesy Edward Cella Art+Architecture

But work backwards from the ribbon cutting for the scores of public works over 60 years, past the fabrication and decades-long processes that it takes to complete ambitious ventures like urban parks; go back far enough and you’ll find drawing. In Lawrence Halprin’s case, you’ll find boatloads of drawings: over 147 surviving sketchbooks that are the product of an obsessed Renaissance man who was apparently fit to bust for so many ideas. “Can we take 20 steps without a sketch?” his daughters remember asking their father, who apparently drew “to the point of irritation,” scratching out ideas on napkins if the sketchbook wasn’t handy. 

Well, what was once an annoyance to his family is now a legacy. The tip of this creative iceberg is on view at Edward Cella Art & Architecture, called Lawrence Halprin: Alternative Scores, Drawing from Life.

Lawrence Halprin (1916 - 2009), Letter to Annie, 1944/5, Ink and watercolor on paper, 13 3/4 x 18 in, copyright Lawrence Halprin Family Collection and courtesy Edward Cella Art+Architecture

Halprin was always deeply committed to the concept of collaboration; at any rate, working in teams was, and still is, is a necessary evil in architecture and dance. Drawing, and perhaps this medium alone, provided Halprin with the opportunity to get down with his solitary self. Some of the earliest examples in the exhibition emerge from his service in the Pacific theater of World War II, serving as cathartic remnants of the excruciating “downtime” experienced by soldiers. His talent for realizing a rich mise-en-scene with only a few brief gestures is unmistakable in “Smoke Screen: San Pedro” (1943). And while these wartime sketches don’t break avant-garde ground, the fact that they exist at all is fortuitous (Halprin hastily tossed them, in a package addressed to Anna, off the destroyer as it disembarked for Okinawa.) During that battle, his ship was shorn in two by a kamikaze, and a penchant for abstraction dominates his stylistic shuffles after this event.

From 1944-onward, drawings like “Letter to Anna” become more the norm, with Halprin synthesizing his own personal landscape with the Modernist experiments of Arp, Matta, Miró, as well as Klee and other Bauhaus alumni that affected his outlook during graduate studies with Gropius at Harvard before the war. Picasso’s influence looms large over his “This is My Beloved” series, and a selection of these sensual drawings of intertwined couples from 1946 evinces the Halprin's romantic side and his dedication to his muse, Anna. Other works, from his “Workshop” series, act as notations of movement, a fundamental part (which he termed “Motation”) of a practice that was deeply concerned with the poetics and practicalities of people traversing through environments.

Lawrence Halprin (1916 - 2009), Movement Study, 1970, Marker on paper, 24 x 18 in, copyright Lawrence Halprin Family Collection and courtesy Edward Cella Art+Architecture

Halprin began his career proper in San Francisco, and his mark is all over the public works there, from the BART to Ghirardelli Square. But if Alternative Scores, Drawing from Life is any guide, it was his immersive collaboration in the Sea Ranch project that dominated the 1960-70’s, as the experience generated hundreds of studies. Beginning in 1963, Halprin signed on to the ground-breaking development; as “planned communities” go, it’s one of the most sensitive on Earth, with guidelines in place assuring that the buildings are visually assimilated into the landscape. The rugged coastline on which Sea Ranch is perched inspired him to sketch the faceted formations, and these wonderful “rock studies” from the 197’s -80s form a corpus that falls out from the shadows of his masters and becomes, in the end, uniquely, and marvelously, Halprinesque. WM

[Note: Persons interested in supporting the maintenance of Halprin’s public works – some of which are in state of decay – are advised to contact the Halprin Landscape Conservancy in Portland, OR.]


Lawrence Gipe


Lawrence Gipe is an artist, writer, professor and curator based in LA and Tucson. His work is represented by George Billis Gallery (New York) and Lora Schlesinger Gallery (Los Angeles). Gipe's writings have appeared most recently in SquareCylinder.com as well as Flash Art, L.A. Weekly and Artillery Magazine. Recent curatorial projects include "Everyone is Hypnotized: Artists Dérive the Bay Area" at ProArts Gallery, Oakland (May 2017) and "The Known Universe" at Root Division, San Francisco (March 2016). View all of Gipe's projects at www.lawrencegipe.com.


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