Acts of Utopian art

Mark Robbins in front of the Arthur & Janet C. Ross Library at the American Academy in Rome. (photo by Gerardo Gaetani)

Mark Robbins in front of the Arthur & Janet C. Ross Library at the American Academy in Rome. (photo by Gerardo Gaetani)

In 1988, artist and architect Mark Robbins, while visiting Woodstock’s Byrcliffe Colony of the Arts for a summer residency, built an installation entitled “Utopian Prospect” in front of Eastover, one of Byrcliffe’s buildings. The structure, still in place after almost 30 years, was recently repaired under the direction of architect Les Walker, whose son Jess, as a teenager, helped Robbins build the installation.

Now president and CEO of the American Academy in Rome, which sponsors one of the world’s most sought-after residency programs, Robbins will speak at the Byrdcliffe Theater on Saturday, July 23, at 4 p.m. He will describe his youthful creation and discuss how residencies for creative people benefit both artists and society.


Robbins was six years out of graduate school and installing his art in East Village galleries when he received a grant to create a site-specific project at Byrdcliffe. “I became interested in the history of Byrdcliffe as a utopian art colony with deep American roots,” recalled Robbins.

Going back to the 1850s and 60s, there were two basic strands of thought about how to create a utopia, Robbins explained. One theory espoused a return to nature, which would allow people’s essential, natural goodness to emerge, apart from the degrading effects of industrial civilization. The other branch of thought favored setting up new, humanistic rules for conduct and organization of the social group.

Byrdcliffe straddled these two concepts. Founder Ralph Whitehead subscribed to the ideas of John Ruskin, who believed personal, productive work, using the hands to create meaningful products, was the ideal basis for a community that included equality of the sexes, a radical notion in 1902. The location Whitehead chose for his utopia was the landscape that had fueled the Hudson River School of painting, with its approach to nature as spiritual inspiration.

Robbins created an artwork that allowed the viewer to experience both aspects of Byrdcliffe’s utopian dream. One part of the installation is a cinder-block wall, roughened on one side and containing two windows. “I was influenced by the old foundations of ruined houses at Byrdcliffe,” he said. “If you walk around, you find rough rubble walls and the remains of chimneys. The creation of a wall allowed me to think about the way we frame views of ourselves.” Looking through the windows of his wall from one side reveal views of the distant mountains, while the opposite view frames the buildings of Byrdcliffe.

A second structure resembles a chimney with a sort of weathervane, a piece that spins, with arms that hold a small window at one end and a mirror at the other. “When looking at the piece moving in the wind, sometimes you see your own reflection,” said Robbins. “If you’re looking toward the hills, the reflection includes the house behind you.”

His lecture will include photographs taken during the period of the piece’s construction. Les Walker, who supervised the recent repairs, said it has taken on “a medieval look. The metal parts are rusted, and the concrete block has aged. It looks better now than it did 30 years ago.”

Since 1988, Robbins has gone on to a number of high-profile positions in the art world, including first Curator of Architecture, 1993-99, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, director of the Design Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, 1999-2002, dean at the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, 2004-12, and Executive Director at the International Center of Photography, starting in 2012.

In 1996, he was awarded a Rome Prize, allowing him to spend a year in Rome under the auspices of the organization he now heads. He credits that experience, enriched by access to the history and culture of Rome, with crystallizing his understanding of his career, which is a hybrid of art and architecture, and helping him to move forward in both worlds. In Rome at the time was poet and essayist Mark Strand, also a prize recipient, who often visited his studio. “It was great to have discussions with him, to talk about each other’s work,” Robbins remembers. “Scholars and artists got to mix and learn from each other. It was such an open environment.”

His lecture will address how both the Rome experience and his Byrdcliffe residency launched him into other work. “I’ll talk about the ways in which arts colonies help to fuel the future of our culture here in America and, we hope, around the world,” he said. “Our artists and scholars need support, which often seems like a luxury, something we should do only when everything is perfect in the world. That attitude loses sight of the impact from visual art, music, literature, art history, which all allow us to participate in the world in deeper ways and make life more satisfying. It’s not a luxury, it’s essential, and support is more and more difficult to come by.”

Robbins gave the example of composer David Lang, who received a Rome Prize in 1990. He later started Bang on a Can, an innovative group that supports experimental work and brings together musicians from different countries — often from places immersed in conflict — to play together in orchestras. The co-founders have written, “We started this organization because we believed that making new music is a utopian act.”


Mark Robbins will speak at the Byrdcliffe Theater on Saturday, July 23, at 4 p.m., in an event sponsored by the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Attendance requires an RSVP to