It wasn't until well after World War II that the cozy artists colony of Laguna Beach began to open up to the outside world. And the art began to wake up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep in the realm of plein-air painting.
As late as 1954, a jury of out-of-towners (including prominent abstract painter Lorser Feitelson) appalled the Festival of the Arts leadership by choosing work by progressive artists for the popular summer festival. Modernist exhibitions were few and far between until at least the mid-'60s at the Laguna Beach Art Assn., the museum's precursor.
"Facing West: Art in Laguna Beach After 1945," the latest installment of curator Susan Anderson's vest-pocket exhibitions of local art history at the Laguna Art Museum (through Nov. 28) introduces the postwar era in a briskly informative way, with works that are either already part of the collection or "promised gifts."
Works by artists who were part of the great breakthrough of Southern California art of the '60s tend to come off best. Pieces by artists who flowered just before or after these painters are generally more interesting today as documents of particular moments in the history of style.
That's partly the luck of the draw--because the works the museum owns may not necessarily represent the artists' best efforts--but also a matter of geographic and cultural circumstance. Remote and relatively inaccessible from Los Angeles, Laguna Beach was too sleepy, artistically conservative and self-satisfied to become a center of contemporary art.
During the '60s, Venice became the epicenter of exciting experiments in light and space, leaving Laguna Beach to wallow in nostalgia and tourist traffic.
Sueo Serisawa, Keith Finch and Paul Darrow represent a transitional generation whose careers date back to the '30s or '40s.
Yokohama-born Serisawa's ties with Laguna Beach are rather tenuous (he never lived there but taught at the Laguna Beach School of Art--now the Art Institute of Southern California--beginning in the late '70s).
His soberly academic painting of a wistful child riding a toy horse in front of a blackboard with faint traces of diagrams ("Hobby Horse," from 1947) may be a veiled allusion to the oppression of Japanese-Americans during the war years, which Serisawa himself spent in an internment camp.
Finch, whose abstraction surely owes a lot to the overblown style of Los Angeles modernist Rico Lebrun, was in his middle 30s when he painted "Woman in Orange and Brown" in 1954. The faceted figure holds a glowing white sphere that is tempting to read as radioactive matter.
Darrow, a student of Serisawa at Claremont Graduate School in the '40s, preceded him as a teacher at the Laguna Beach School of Art in the '60s. Darrow, just 11 years younger than his mentor, developed a gestural abstract style flavored by an interest in Asian philosophy. His 1965 collage "Japan II" is a muted affair, with layers of brown paper and tissue delicately spattered, abraded and torn.
In contrast to the clubby aura of earlier days, members of the younger generation of Laguna Beach artists frequently were "commuters"--dashing up the coast to teach at various colleges and universities--and some were notably reclusive.
The most famous--and famously reclusive--of the lot was John McLaughlin. He was born in 1898 in Massachusetts and apparently self-taught as an artist (though he studied Asian painting and was briefly a dealer in Asian prints in Boston), and he served in the Army and spent time in the Far East.
In 1946 he moved to Dana Point with his wife, where--with the exception of a few years in Laguna Beach--he lived until his death in 1976.
Soon after he arrived in Southern California, McLaughlin traded his landscape style for an abstract approach distantly related to Suprematism, the "pure" geometrical style invented 30-odd years earlier by Russian painter Kasimir Malevich. McLaughlin's geometric forms are meant to be viewed without reference to possible symbolic meanings or real-world equivalents.
By the mid-'50s, McLaughlin had eliminated everything from his paintings except rectangular forms strictly aligned with the top and bottom of the canvas. He was said to rearrange cutout pieces of colored construction paper to achieve whatever elusive balance of shapes and colors he was after, and then precisely duplicate the composition in paint.
The untitled McLaughlin painting from 1956 in the present exhibition is a vertically oriented arrangement of white, black, light blue and pale brown rectangles of subtly varied sizes.
It is possible to read an abstracted landscape into these muted shades. But the net effect of the painting is one of gentle harmony, a sustained chord of undirected reverie. McLaughlin's interest in Zen Buddhism inspired the studied neutrality of his paintings, a sort of mental stage set or visual mantra for the viewer's expanding consciousness.