Walker Art Center

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Introducing… Phil Larson

Besides being a longtime Walker member, you’re also an artist whose work in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden has been enjoyed by visitors for almost 25 years. How did that piece come into being?

The Walker Art Center commissioned two benches for the then-new Sculpture Garden in 1988, designed by two local artists: my good friend Kinji Akagawa and I. I used Minnesota rainbow granite, quarried outside of the tiny town of Morton, which I had driven through many times. Morton is the only place this four-billion-year-old granite is close enough to the present surface to harvest. Its distinctive black and pink volcanic swirls made it an Art Deco hit here, with relief sculptures facing the total-deco telephone buildings in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

For my work, I imagined two polished granite slabs with cast iron crystals or leaves or flowers in between. I ordered up slabs with spectacular pink agate inclusions, like a constellation of the night sky when the Earth’s volcanic surface gradually cooled down to encase its core in molten iron. It was a long wait, but it worked.

What else were you doing in the 1980s?

After seeing our two perfect girls born, now up and running, Miriam and I decided to stay on in Minneapolis. I became Dr. Philip Larson, Professor of Art and Architectural History, Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I continued contributing to Art News and The Print Collector’s Newsletter. In 1986, with my twin brother Paul C. Larson, I did my last curatorial stint with a massive exhibition and catalogue: Prairie School Architecture in Minnesota Iowa Wisconsin for the Minnesota Museum of Art in St. Paul. That eventually led to a major commission: a two-by-eight-foot brass Apostolic Clock for the 1911 Purcell & Elmslie–designed library in the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis.

During the explosive, if brief, population surge of art galleries in the Minneapolis warehouse district, I showed regularly with the Glen Hanson Gallery and the Thompson Gallery, out of which Walker sensibly acquired the cast iron ensemble The Three Anasazi. Annual participation in the Chicago Art Fair made for few sales, but the 1981 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibition 19 Artists: Emergent Americans was a great gift, with the museum acquiring The Four Wells.

What was the 1980s art scene like in the Twin Cities?

The warehouse district galleries became a social collision space, a great place to party, with more than a dozen galleries showing credible work by artists from the area. New photographs appeared in the mix, and a few dealers had enough stash to frame prints and drawings and light them properly. Twin Cities corporations, law firms, even banks purchased a lot of new art. General Mills remained the most generous and most wise under Minnesota’s finest corporate curator Don McNeil.

What were, for you, the most pressing questions that artists faced or addressed in that time?

Can new art survive here without blue-chip New York commercial support? Or at least interest? Why is it that curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art were instructed to make the Twin Cities a fly-over?

You have a special relationship with the Walker. What does it mean to you to be a member?

As an enchanted world near downtown, it’s a wonderful place to take an upbeat visitor—my retired English professor sister, my architect daughter, a long-lost artist friend—to see a temporary show or a little-known movie, then barrel down Franklin Avenue to True Thai and talk about a ride in the country.

Phil Larson

City of Residence: Minneapolis
Level of Membership: Dual
Member Since: Forever