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Simply Divine, That’s Phi
Painter Anton Rasmussen’s latest work represents the culmination of his search for oneness and universality.

by Linda Marion

Marcus Hall
Simply Divine, That’s Phi hanging in its new home at the Union Student Lounge.

The abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock once observed, “Every good painter paints what he is.”

In fact, creating visual art could be considered an act of bravery, for it reveals the artist’s innermost thoughts, preoccupations, and peccadilloes—spilled onto a linen canvas, a plaster wall, a gessoed board, or a sheet of Arches 100 percent cotton fiber paper for all to see.

In addition to self revelation, the creative course also involves a pro cess of development and maturation, which often includes mimicry, experimentation, research, and reflection, with a bit of recklessness—and frequently, serendipity—thrown into the stew. All of this gives new meaning to the phrase “suffering for your art.”

Anton J. Rasmussen BFA’67 MFA’74 knows this. He is keenly aware of the multiple stages that have constituted his evolution as a visual artist, and he doesn’t hesitate to talk about them—from the influences in his master’s thesis, through various periods of experimentation and transformation, to his present-day productions, including his latest work, Simply Divine, That’s Phi, which currently hangs in the Olpin Union Building on the U of U campus.

Rasmussen began the painting about five years ago. It had been commissioned by the Union Building administration to replace another of his works that had been loaned to the Springville Gallery of Art and later purchased. Rasmussen agreed to replace the purchased painting with another, but due to ill health, was unable to carry on after the initial phase. Time passed and paint dried until he took up the brush again in summer 2007.

The primary motivation for finishing the piece was the mid-September opening of the refurbished Student Lounge, where the painting was to hang. That event was part of the Union’s yearlong 50th anniversary celebration, when its extensive collection of work by noted Utah artists such as James T. Harwood, LeConte Stewart, Avard Fairbanks, Douglas Snow, Alvin Gittins, and F. Anthony Smith, among others, would be highlighted. Rasmussen’s work was to be added to the collection. But how to get it finished, since the artist was able to work on it only in brief spurts?

“All that intricacy seems complex, but, in fact, is very simple. It's like a DNA double helix. It looks intricate, yet one little variation can create a dog, or a plant, or a human being, which goes back to my original thoughts about Zen Buddhism—about oneness and universality.”

Union staff specialist Ryck Luthi, who served as associate director of the Union for 36 years, contacted Professor Emeritus Nathan B. Winters BFA’63 MS’69 PhD’73, former chair of the U’s Department of Art and Art History, to ask him to help finish the painting, which had been moved into the Union Building in four sections, to be completed on site. Winters agreed, in spite of having to travel from Midway near Park City to the U of U campus almost every weekday for the month of August and into September.

“I like Tony’s work and I like Tony—we get along well—so I took it on,” explains Winters. “But it’s still Tony’s work. All I did was extend his reach a bit.” (Landscape painter Kathy C. Wilson, owner of Sego Art & Frame in Salt Lake City, also assisted in the early stages of the project.)

The painting, according to Rasmussen, is a continuation of the graduate program he began at the U in 1972, although his early and later works seem, at first glance, somewhat disconnected. Yet a closer look reveals that there is, in fact, creative continuity across the arc of his career.

Shortly after returning from a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1970s, Rasmussen put together a proposal for his master’s thesis. Since his mother was a psychiatric nurse and his uncle a physician, he had always been fascinated with microscopic images, he says, and the uncanny way that bacteria in a Petri dish resemble an abstract painting. At the same time, he was taking evening courses from Lennox Tierney, now a U of U emeritus professor of Asian art history, and “got hooked on” line art, bamboo brush painting, and Zen Buddhism. “I got very excited,” Rasmussen recalls, “because I had an intuitive knowledge about nature, and that’s what the Zen Buddhists teach.”

Along with Zen, he researched Japanese ink brush painters, which piqued his interest in emulating the philosophy and the process—preparing brushes and grinding pigment to make ink, then meditating before a sheet of white rice paper before applying brush to surface. The Japanese artists claim to act as conduits in translating meditative thoughts into art.

Marcus Hall
Anton Rasmussen

Rasmussen’s own variation on this routine included running for an hour—“to get my endorphins going,” he explains—and then sitting before a canvas, meditating, waiting for “things” to happen. When they did, he would begin slapping paint on canvas. “I started isolating things, painting out elements that didn’t fit in,” he says. “And before I knew it, the paintings were growing before my eyes, and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m really doing Zen here.’ ” He admits, however, that “there was a lot of self-delusion back then, but that’s okay.” All part of the development process.

Rasmussen’s early work was strongly influenced by science. Flipping through a medical book on photomicroscopy, he would see abstract landscape-type images in cancer cells that he used as inspiration. He was also fascinated with aerial views—as a result of flying with the Coast Guard—and incorporated them into his paintings.

Marcus Hall
Nathan B. Winters

The artist’s work headed in this direction until something “serendipitous” happened to change the course of his artistic expression. While concentrating on what he calls his “amoeba” paintings, Rasmussen, along with other local artists, received an invitation to decorate the walls of the newly expanded Salt Lake International Airport. Initially, the artists invited were given free rein to express their individuality, but later, it was decided that the work had to focus on Utah landscapes, painted in “traditional” fashion. Other artists balked at this new restriction, but Rasmussen, rather than abandon the prospect and, he admits, the remuneration that went with it, transformed himself into a landscape painter, which, as it turned out, wasn’t much of a stretch, but did present him with new challenges.

Up to that time, Rasmussen had never been to Zion National Park—unbelievably, he acknowledges, having been born and raised in Utah. Now, he had good reason to visit. When he did, he was awestruck by the monumental scope of the landscape. Traveling through the Virgin River valley looking upward at the sandstone formations that towered above, sun reflecting off the burnished rock, Rasmussen says he had a true religious experience. “It was like being inside a cathedral.”

Rasmussen presented a painting of Zion’s west facade to the Airport Authority for consideration and was ultimately offered a contract to paint all seven of the airport panels, a truly daunting task and one that caused consternation about his “going commercial.” To allay his doubts, he called Alvin Gittins, asking the noted portrait painter and U professor of art, “Am I selling out? Is this the end of my career?” Gittins replied by posing a rhetorical question of his own: Did Michelangelo sell out by agreeing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

As expected, the airport project proved an enormous undertaking, involving stretching and gluing canvas on huge panels (the largest was 24’ x 18’), and eventually getting them hung properly “so they wouldn’t fall off the wall.”

Another challenge, notes Rasmussen, “was to capture the particular glow of southern Utah’s red-rock formations. The only thing I could think of that would reproduce that effect was glazing.” He hadn’t had much experience with the technique, which entails spreading a transparent layer of oil wash over a dried layer of opaque paint, resulting in a stained glass effect—as if a light were shining through the paint’s surface.

“The first couple of landscapes were fun,” says Rasmussen. “People who knew me would say, ‘Ah, I see you’re still painting the little bugs from your abstract work.’ In fact, the only way I could figure it out was to utilize the components from nature that I’d used in my [earlier] abstracts.”

With the completion of his airport paintings, which took five years, Rasmussen became widely regarded as a serious landscape painter. He continued in this vein, producing a large body of work; his paintings, prints, and murals of southern Utah’s landscapes can be found in many private collections and museums throughout Utah and beyond, including the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau and the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Senator Robert F. Bennett. But his story doesn’t end there.

Marcus Hall

Rasmussen has always been influenced by a variety of philosophies and theories, which flow from the same wellspring that produced his “Petri dish” paintings—from Moorish architecture to mathematics, string theory and popular physics, and from Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity to Divine Proportion and its offspring, the Golden Triangle, the Golden Spiral, Phi, and the Fibonacci numbers (in which each number in a series is the sum of the two preceding numbers; thus, 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 3 + 2 = 5, and so on). The Divine Proportion has been referenced for thousands of years and is found in simple patterns throughout art, architecture, music, nature, and science—in seed fruits, the pyramids of Egypt, the human body, gothic cathedrals, Renaissance paintings, and seashells, to name only a few samples.

“I tried to bring all of the things that I enjoy into this painting,” says Rasmussen. “The first thing I did was put down the star shape that is the basis of the Divine Proportion”—he points to the middle of the painting with a laser light. “Then I did the spiral, and from the leg of the star, over and up”—again, the laser. “Everything I’ve done over my lifetime is included,” he says. “All that intricacy seems complex, but, in fact, is very simple. It’s like a DNA double helix. It looks intricate, yet one little variation can create a dog, or a plant, or a human being, which goes back to my original thoughts about Zen Buddhism—about oneness and universality.”

The painting is a kind of “Find the Hidden Objects” puzzle, challenging viewers to locate the Golden Spiral, the Star of David, the Moorish pattern, and other elements repeated throughout. “They’re all there,” says Rasmussen.

“What a neat thing for me... After working through Tony's brain day after day, week after week, I started to see things through Tony's eyes... Driving home, I look at the sky and see Tony's big, angular clouds.”

Winters’ participation in the project was crucial to its completion, and he adapted easily to Rasmussen’s style. “Tony would use a laser pointer and say, ‘Let’s put some coral over there; a little darker green there,’” explains Winters. “Our techniques would mesh, and I was able to do it because I knew what he was after.”

Rasmussen would sometimes accept Winters’ suggestions, and sometimes not. “I’d say to Tony, ‘Let’s not lose this violet color,’ and he would counter, ‘Well, sometimes you have to sacrifice the part you love the most,’ and away it would go.” Winters laughs at the recollection. “Then the next day, he’d apologize.”

For Winters, working alongside Rasmussen was a singular experience. “What a neat thing for me,” he says. “After working through Tony’s brain day after day, week after week, I started to see things through Tony’s eyes. Someone once said to me, ‘If you look at enough LeConte Stewarts, you’ll see Utah through his eyes after that.’ And I think that’s true with Tony. Driving home, I look at the sky and see Tony’s big, angular clouds.”

Rasmussen, in a last-minute flurry of inspiration, or perhaps doubt, was still working on the painting the night before the opening of the new Student Lounge, according to Luthi, who frequently accompanied the artist on his trips to and from the U of U campus. “I just had to do it,” insists Rasmussen, while also hinting that the painting may, in fact, not really be finished. (When to declare a painting finished has always been a conundrum for artists. Leonardo da Vinci hauled the Mona Lisa around with him for many years, reputedly finishing it only just before he died. But was it, in fact, really finished?)

The following day, the painting was hung in the Student Lounge—still wet, without a title, but in time for the opening reception.

Says Whit Hollis, director of the Union Building, “The Union has always had a strong relationship with the arts. We have one of the largest collections of Utah artists anywhere, and we’re so fortunate to be able to add a piece of Tony’s work. We get four and a half million people through here every year, and it’s an amazing opportunity for everyone, especially the students, to be exposed to such a fine piece of art.”

Finished or not.

— Linda Marion BS’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

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