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'S Marvelous : Three Surrealist Artists Provide a Portal to Another Realm

October 04, 1990|Cathy Curtis | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Prepare to enter . . . the fourth dimension. Dee do dee do dee do dee. . . . Too bad newspapers don't have soundtracks. You'll have to imagine the mixture of mysticism, physics, psychology and social commitment surrounding "Pursuit of the Marvelous" without benefit of gimmicks.

The show, which opens Friday, investigates the work of three surrealist artists active in California during the 1940s: Englishmen Stanley William Hayter and Gordon Onslow Ford, and American Charles Howard, all of whom were active in surrealist circles in England at the outbreak of World War II.

In San Francisco--a temporary base for Howard, a summertime hangout for Hayter and an adopted home for Onslow Ford--the three artists helped to invigorate an art scene that was in the process of throwing off its allegiance to realist painting and beginning a brief love affair with abstraction.

Hayter, who was born in 1901 to a family of artists, studied chemistry and geology before concentrating wholeheartedly on art. Printmaking was his passion and challenge. In Paris in the 1920s he founded a print workshop where he developed several innovative processes. He also became intrigued by the subconscious investigations of the surrealists.

Fiercely intense in his commitment to a cause, whether it was communism or a new theory of art, he wanted, as he wrote, to merge "the unconscious element from which inspiration comes, and extremely rational control of the methods of execution."

Using clashing, acid-toned colors (considered bizarre at the time), deliberately ambiguous superimposed images and webs of line as intricate as diagrams of the human nervous system, Hayter aimed to fuse the concepts of space and time, creating a sphere extending limitlessly into space that included both the work of art and the viewer. He expected viewers who entered the energized fabric of his prints to find themselves peering into their "own internal reality," as if whisked away by a new form of sci-fi time travel.

Howard was born in 1899 in New Jersey to a family of artists who resettled in Berkeley when he was an infant. In his early 30s he married British painter Madge Knight and moved to England, where he stayed until 1940 and would return after the war.

A buddy of mobile artist Alexander Calder, Howard was also intrigued by making abstract forms move in space; a critic once called his work "dynamic architecture." But his mature paintings, begun during his years in London, deal primarily with the struggle to find formal clarity in the midst of chaos. His abstract forms, suggestive of biological and organic imagery, are encroached upon by vast expanses of darkness, reflecting the gulf between dreams of a new social order and the reality of fearsome totalitarian power.

Ford left England for the artist's life in Paris in 1936, when he was in his early 20s, and became a member of the official surrealist group. Under his and Chilean artist Matta's influence, the new wave of surrealists rejected the type of figurative "dream" imagery associated with Salvador Dali's work in favor of abstract explorations of the cosmic unknown.

Ford's paintings contained all manner of circles, whorls, floating planes, lines of force, disembodied shadows and blobby forms--each floating freely through space and laying bare, as he claimed, "the secrets contained in the universe of the human mind."

Quicker access to those secrets occured when the subconscious took over--when paint was poured freely on the canvas and the patterns could be scrutinized, like tea leaves, for their special portents and meanings.

When the war started, surrealism ended as an official movement. But Ford, who is still painting, went on to experiment with rhythmic patterns of dots--like atomic particles--that aerated the canvas in a visionary way. Art was to be a way of meditation, a portal leading from ordinary life to the realm of the marvelous.


"Pursuit of the Marvelous: Stanley William Hayter, Charles Howard, Gordon Onslow Ford," an exhibit of surrealist paintings.


Oct. 5 through Jan. 13, 1991. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.


Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.


Take the Santa Ana or San Diego freeways to Laguna Canyon Road, which becomes Broadway and dead-ends at Coast Highway. Turn right, drive two blocks, and the museum will be on your left.


Admission is $2 general, $1 seniors and students, free for children under 12.

Where to call

(714) 494-6531.

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