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PORTRAIT OF PROGRESS : '75 Works' Gives Brief Overture of Early Years, Then Shifts to 'New Age'

April 01, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

With 3,120 art objects in the collection at their disposal, the powers that be at the Laguna Art Museum must have had a hard time selecting a symbolic 75 for "75 Years, 75 Works," opening April 2 (through July 11).

For more than 30 years, the collection--initiated in 1941 by the Laguna Beach Art Assn., the artists' group that was a forerunner of the museum--served as little more than a memorial to the founding members. A whopping 90% of the works in the present collection were acquired after 1972, when the association formally became an art museum. With the new title--and new nonprofit status--came the formal duties of collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting art for the public.

Museum director Charles Desmarais explains in his introductory essay for the exhibition catalogue that "75 Works, 75 Years" is limited to paintings and sculpture "for the sake of visual consistency," which doesn't make any particular sense to me. (What would have been inconsistent about including photographs or drawings?) He also says the works selected are not necessarily the most important pieces in the collection.

Hmm. So why were these vastly different works brought together? Partly, it seems, to represent the temporal range and stylistic breadth of the museum's holdings. (The earliest work in the show dates from 1850--Juan Buckingham Wandesforde's bucolic "Mountain Lake," while the most recent piece is Diane Gamboa's "Painted Lady," from 1990).

Yet the selections for this exhibition do indicate a certain discreet editorializing on the part of museum staff. The show moves briskly through the "California Impressionist" years, whizzes through the early years of modern art, and emphasizes holdings that date from the flowering of California art on the national art scene in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

After a brisk overture (a sprinkling of pre-1900 paintings--landscapes, a still-life, a portrait), California landscapes from the 'teens and '20s by art association members offer a romantic divertissement.

Among the 11 artists represented are association founder Edgar Alwyn Payne ("Sierra Slopes"), Anna Hills ("Golden Hillside, Hemet, Calif."), Granville Redmond ("Silver and Gold"), Guy Rose ("The Sycamores--Pasadena, Calif.)" and William Wendt ("Spring in the Canyon").

Then there's a brief fanfare paying homage to the '30s, '40s and '50s, a period that encompasses the homey realism of American Scene painting as well as American variants of Angst -ridden European abstraction. Highlights include an early work ("Three Violinists," from 1939) by David Park, who would blossom into a leading Bay Area Figurative painter in another decade or so.

The centerpiece of the program--let's call it a "New Age" oratorio--features 18 contemporary artists. Soloists include DeWain Valentine (the deliciously visceral sculpture, "Pink Top"), conceptual wizard Ed Ruscha ("Uncertain Frontier"), John McLaughlin (the meditative canvas, "No. 2"), abstract lyricists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson, and iconoclasts working in paint and clay (Llyn Foulkes, Robert Williams and Robert Arneson).

It's worth noting that, of the 75 works on view, only seven were actually purchased by the museum, or given by the Contemporary Collectors or the Historical Collections councils. The rest are gifts to the museum from the artist (or the artist's heirs), or from private collectors or foundations.

As it turns out, honoring 75 years of collecting also means giving thanks to the numerous artists and collectors who chose this cozy local landmark as a repository for their art.

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