Drop in to the Salt Lake Art Center and see the stuff that dreams are made on. True, they’re Adam Worden’s dreams, not yours or mine—but if you look patiently, you might be inspired to make something of your own.
Born in Montana and reared in Idaho, Worden died in San Francisco in 1999. He was 63 and—judging by the artwork he left behind—one of the coolest guys on the planet. Thanks in large part to a niece—a professional Utah artist who never knew him—Worden’s remarkable collages are being shown publicly for the first time.
After earning a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1959, Worden headed for New York City to be part of the Beat movement, and would work primarily as an actor and film extra. His children say this was a time of experimentation for their father, which included writing, drawing, playing jazz trumpet and using amphetamines. He gave up acting and, in an effort to curb his use of pills, headed to Northern California. It was 1964, just a few years before the “summer of love,” and Worden found himself living smack in the middle of the Haight Ashbury district, surrounded by hippies.
That’s when his life as a visual artist began in earnest. He scavenged for collage material, even peeling wallpaper from the walls of the hotels he was living in. The tiniest works of fabric and paper are actually affixed to business cards; his somewhat larger works are glued onto masonite, cardboard and game boards. In the ’80s, he expressed his punk, new wave and Pop art urges through neon collages, using day-glo-paper advertisements “scavenged from fireworks stands late at night each year on the fifth of July,” his children recall. He even created entire decks of collaged playing cards.
Jim Edwards, curator of exhibitions for the Art Center, writes in the brochure accompanying Worden’s show that, “the techniques of assemblage and collage were the great innovation of the early 20th century. Found objects juxtaposed into new configurations and the reassembling of mass-produced printed material was practiced by nearly every major art movement,” from Cubism to Dada to Surrealism. Even some of the 20th century’s most influential poems, Edwards notes, “are the result of collage techniques, including T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland … and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Collage, as a means to collapse and condense both time and space while offering multiple points of view, became a popular way of contemplating the world.”
After a time spent living on San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, high rent and lack of money forced the family to move north to a town on the Russian River. There Worden’s life partner Bhavani, an herbalist, would continue her work, Adam his, and the couple would rear their two children, Lee and Anandi. Worden also gave up his given name of John, choosing to become known as Adam. After Bhavani’s death in 1986, the children moved away and Adam returned to San Francisco. His children write that the entire time they lived in the country, Worden kept up with the art world through the major art magazines, by going to galleries and museums in the city and sending out slides of his work in hopes of getting it shown.
It would be Worden’s niece, Jean Arnold, a popular Phillips Gallery artist, who would get him a show, some years after his death. Arnold never guessed she had a relative who so closely shared her interests until she met Lee and Anandi at a wedding a few years ago. She later went to San Francisco to see their father’s collages. “In looking at his work I had a sense that he absorbed some of the aesthetic that was in the air from the New York scene,” says Arnold, who studied art in New York under the second generation of abstract expressionists. She said she sensed a kind of East-West clash in her uncle’s work and also saw elements of Pop.
She not only worked to get this marvelous work—which Edwards describes as “visual poetry fashioned from the common and the extraordinary” exhibited—she was instrumental in the publication of a limited-edition book that combines some two dozen full-color collages with responses to each work by poets across the country. ORBIT, from Elik Press in Salt Lake City, is available at the Salt Lake Art Center for $10.
ADAM WORDEN COLLAGES Salt Lake Art Center, 20 S. West Temple, 328-4201. Through June 9