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Heavy Criticism Unfair to 'California Light'

November 03, 1990

It's a mystery to me why The Times would send such a primly orthodox critic as Cathy Curtis to review the show "California Light, 1900-30" at the Laguna Art Museum ("Exhibit of Ho-Hum," Calendar Oct. 17). When Ms. Curtis studied art history at college she (must have) learned that no art can be a bit significant unless it is avant-garde. As she points out, the California impressionists used "techniques pioneered by artist in France more than a generation earlier." This by itself makes the whole show just dreadful.

Ms. Curtis seems a little at a loss for anything else to say about the show until she runs across the Marxist platitudes of UC San Diego Prof. Bram Dijkstra in the catalogue (Marxism has for some time been the "correct" attitude for most chic American academics). It seems to annoy Prof. Dijkstra (and copycat Curtis) that the portraits of women in the show depict these bourgeois parasites just sitting around. One painting is, according to Ms. Curtis, "a semi-nude image of a young thing staring smugly at her manicure." One has the feeling that if the "young thing" had been depicted with clenched fist taking part in a protest demonstration, it would have been acclaimed the best painting in the show.

Criticism of this sort is nonsense. Using this criterion, the great majority of portraits of women painted since the days of the Roman empire would be condemned as depicting a degenerate "upper class," as the great majority of portraits depict women as doing nothing at all.

True, the California impressionists were provincial, but provinciality was the significant fact about Los Angeles in those days; for that matter, it was the significant fact about all American cities before World War II. Paris was the great center of art. The leader of the School of Paris was Henri Matisse, who proclaimed that art should make people feel comfortable like an easy chair and that it should reflect joy. This also was the spirit of the California impressionists who were painting at exactly the same time as Matisse. It was not an outmoded philosophy then and it is not an outmoded philosophy now.

Ms. Curtis speaks of "California Light" as "yet another show" devoted to these dreadful artists "who scarcely suffer from underexposure." I have kept up with shows devoted to these artists through the years, and to my knowledge this is the only major museum show that has ever been done. There was one very small show at the Pomona College Gallery almost 20 years ago, and that's it, period. Those who mounted this show are to be congratulated for their originality. People whose minds are not closed, who do not spout yet again the trite orthodoxy of the '70s, can learn a good deal about the real history of Southern California from this show.

ALSON CLARK, Pasadena

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