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ART : OUT OF THE RUT : In Laguna, a Show by Eight Who Rebelled Against "the Puerile Repetition of the Maters"

July 19, 1990|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES ORANGE COUNTY ART CRITIC

You probably know something about the Southern California Impressionists of the early 1900s and the cool dudes who put Los Angeles on the art map during the 1960s. But what happened in between, and should you care?

Well, in between there was one hell of a struggle to get out of the rut of the old-fashioned, Sunday-painter styles that dominated Southern California--and much of the rest of the nation--decades after Europe had hurtled through the revolutionary artistic changes of the early 20th Century.

Los Angeles was a pretty strange place to be an artist in those days. There were no bohemian hangouts, the few art museums were largely ignoring the art of their time, and hardly anyone cared one way or the other about Capital-C culture.

On the other hand, there was all that sunshine and wide-open space. And--until the Red-baiters went wild in the conservative late '40s--there was a lot of freedom to do your own thing, even if no one with clout or influence was interested in it and the public simply laughed.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 1990 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 25 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Barry Heisler co-curated the Laguna Art Museum exhibit "Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists, 1920-1956" with Susan Erlich. The co-curator was misidentified in OC Live! on Thursday.

The growing movie industry provided not only entertainment but jobs for people who could paint yet couldn't live on sales from their paintings. To feed the soul, there were any number of new and old religious and spiritual movements from which to choose--and there was nothing against inventing your own.

For visual kicks, there was the wacko architecture of roadside restaurants that looked like burgers or ice cream cones. For visual enlightenment, there was the nature-oriented architecture of visionaries like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. Not to mention glimpses of the heavens at Griffith Observatory.

So there was a strange kind of promise for artists in Southern California, a chance to invent themselves almost from scratch.

"Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists, 1920-1956" at the Laguna Art Museum aims to tell the story of this era with work (primarily paintings) by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lorser Feitelson, his wife, Helen Lundeberg, Rico Lebrun, John McLaughlin, Oskar Fischinger, Peter Krasnow, Knud Merrild, Hans Burkhardt, William Brice and June Wayne, as well as lesser-known artists of the period.

Macdonald-Wright was the first of these artists to achieve prominence. His stylistic approach was unique, but his spiritual interests, restlessness, and interest in the creations of popular culture and technology seem to have set the tone for many of his younger colleagues.

A Virginian who moved to California as a child, Macdonald-Wright was only 17 when he zipped over to Europe with his bride to study at a potpourri of art academies. In Paris in 1912, he developed a movement called Synchromism in collaboration with another American artist, Morgan Russell.

The first American movement in modern painting, Synchromism drew on Impressionist brushwork, Cubist fragmentation and the vivid, unreal colors of the Fauve painters. The new style was supposed to be the key to a higher aesthetic harmony in which the juxtaposition of colors was equivalent to the juxtaposition of notes in music.

After moving to Santa Monica in 1919, Macdonald-Wright eventually grew impatient with the rules and regulations governing his new style. He got interested in Tao and Zen philosophy, worked on murals for the Federal Art Project and developed an additive color process for motion pictures.

Still, he was the natural leader of the first rebel group of modernists, the Group of Independent Artists, whose ranks included artists working in styles inspired by Surrealism, Expressionism and Cubism. Unlike their colleagues in Northern California, the Southern California modernists were not inclined to rally around any one approach to making art.

But they did want to proclaim their distaste for traditional painting. "The puerile repetition of the surface aspects of the Masters has ceased to interest any intelligent man," Macdonald-Wright thundered in his catalogue essay for the group's 1923 exhibit.

"The modern artist striving to express his own age," he continued, "cannot be expected to . . . drag forth by the aid of necromantic stupidity the corpse of an art inspired and nourished by a period environment. . . . Let our final work affect you as it will, but at least let your final opinion not be the result of a preconceived antagonism."

Public ridicule and the close-mindedness of small-time academic painters was one thing. But in the late '40s, "preconceived antagonism" from one vocal quarter became a real threat. At the same time that the House Un-American Activities Committee was blacklisting suspected Communist sympathizers in the film industry, local conservatives targeted Modernist artists for supposedly incorporating secret references to communism in their work. In 1947, for example, a potato and a kitchen utensil in a still life by Brice was bizarrely interpreted by the right-wing Sanity in Art Society as the Communist sickle and the Russian bear.

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