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Eclectic Sampling : 'California Art Since '45' Comes To Newport

July 22, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

In 1950, the painter Richard Diebenkorn opened a museum catalogue and saw a startling photograph of a new work by his longtime friend, San Francisco painter David Park. The unexpected image was of two boys on bicycles.

During most of the 1940s, the two men shared a devotion to abstract Expressionism, a movement that shunned use of the human figure and gave U.S. painters a new freedom from Europe's artistic dominance.

"David's painting was a shock," recalled Diebenkorn, 65, in a telephone interview from his Santa Monica home. "One thought in those days that no painter worth his salt would turn tail in that way. Some people did see it as a betrayal."

But Park pressed on in his figurative style, which can be sampled at the Newport Harbor Art Museum through July 29, in a show called "Highlights of California Art Since 1945: A Collecting Partnership," composed of 21 works owned by local collectors associated with the museum and 50 pieces from Newport's own holdings.

Diebenkorn, who visited the exhibition that displays three of his paintings with a prominence in keeping with his importance, said it clearly outlines the period.

"It's not encyclopedic," Diebenkorn said of show. "But it has a cohesive historical flavor. It is certainly fair to say that."

Museum director Kevin Consey said the current show, which he called the largest display to date drawn from the museum's permanent collection of 1,900 works, "contains about 60% of our best stuff."

The show's range extends from the abstract Expressionism of Hassel Smith to the perceptualist experiments of Robert Irwin, from a wall-sized narrative drawing by William Wiley to the glossy, minimalist planks of wood and fiberglass by John McCracken.

The pictures sometimes defy their limit as the sole representative of an artist's work by permitting certain comparisons. For example, a picture by well-known Los Angeles artist John Altoon--a painting with vivid splashes of color and seascape shapes--is part of Altoon's Ocean Park series and hangs near two quite different pictures from Diebenkorn's series by the same name.

Single works can tell a lot about the emotional climate of a time. Bruce Conner's 1959 assemblage piece, "Bedroom," a six-month-old acquisition the museum is showing for the first time, is a delicate combination of a bird's nest, two eggs, fur, scraps of cardboard within a wood frame and covered by a piece of a nylon stocking. The 53-year-old artist said in a recent interview that the work reflects his feelings about the "tenuousness of existence and of art" in the nuclear age.

"Fragility is a characteristic of the work," Conner said from his home in San Francisco. "I figured that the world was going to blow up with an atomic bomb pretty quick."

Several pieces in the show echo Conner's concern about man's self-destruction, including Chris Burden's 1983 work "Large Glass Ship," with its armada of several toy-like submarines hanging from the ceiling, "submerged" in the air. They flank slabs of glass that represent the ship. The glass is covered with tiny, silvery soldiers.

Among the most recent pieces in the show is Santa Monica artist John Baldessari's 1986 photo collage "Ordered Thought." It contrasts right-side-up and upside-down images of men and buildings and animals, black-and-white pictures of different sizes set within one rectangular frame. In the center is the picture of a car on its side in front of the New York Stock Exchange.

"What I'm doing," Baldessari said, "is pitting the Western idea of chaos against a Western idea of order. If a society that relies on order is apparently in chaos, then the car that is on its side is given the same kind of structure and order as the stock exchange has. I'm demoting the order of the stock exchange building."

Schimmel acknowledged that the show--and the museum's collection--lacks a certain depth. For example, Diebenkorn himself returned to figurative painting about 1955, before eventually forging his own, distinct abstract style. The Newport owns no figurative Diebenkorns.

Schimmel said the museum is negotiating with a publisher to start work on a catalogue of the museum's holdings, in the hope of delineating its strengths and convincing people that the works deserve more of a reputation than he believes they have now.

"You're looking at a collection that is very young," he said. "But we're ambitious for the future, and part of the value of this show is that it maps out the direction in which we're going."

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