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ART NOTES : The Modernism of Galka Scheyer : The German-born art patron who settled in L.A. brought attention to the famous 'Blue Four.' A Pasadena show takes a look at her collection.

November 13, 1994|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

The Norton Simon Museum is preparing to celebrate a proud but rather obscure chapter of Southern California's art- collecting history. Unlike the oft-lamented litany of treasures that might have been ensconced here but got away, this story is about an important collection that stayed.

The heroine is Galka Scheyer, a German-born art patron who settled in Los Angeles in 1928 and promoted the work of the Blue Four--Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

At her death in 1945, Scheyer left her collection to UCLA with the proviso that the university meet conditions of a 1944 gift of her friend Walter Arensberg's modern art collection. Arensberg's donation required UCLA to provide a building for his collection within five years; Scheyer further stipulated that the university must publish a modest catalogue of her collection. When UCLA failed to meet the conditions, the Arensberg collection went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while the fate of the Scheyer collection was left to a committee.

In 1953, the committee entrusted Scheyer's collection of 450 works by the Blue Four and other modern artists (plus a cache of 800 documents) to the Pasadena Art Institute, which evolved into the Pasadena Art Museum and moved to a new building on Colorado Boulevard. The late Norton Simon took over the facility in 1974 and fulfilled the Scheyer trust's provisions by publishing a catalogue of the collection.

A sampling of the Scheyer holding is frequently on view at the Norton Simon Museum, but the upcoming event is the largest single presentation to date and the first to examine Scheyer's role as a collector and proponent of modern art, according to museum director Sara Campbell.

"The Spirit of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in the New World," which opens on Thursday and runs through Nov. 5, 1995, will present more than 200 works in six galleries on the museum's lower floor. Works by the Blue Four will be shown with pieces by Pablo Picasso, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and other artists, all from the Scheyer collection.

Scheyer's commitment to the Blue Four began in 1915, when she first saw the work of Russian artist Jawlensky in Switzerland. She was so smitten with his Expressionistic painting that she looked him up and became his friend, model and agent. In 1921, on a trip to the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, Jawlensky introduced her to Feininger, Kandinsky and Klee, who were instructors at the avant-garde art school. Three years later, while Scheyer was preparing to travel to the United States, the four artists signed an agreement designating her as their American representative. The artists adopted the name Blue Four for the sake of marketing, rather than aesthetic affinity. Although the artists shared a devotion to modern ideas, their individual styles were quite divergent. Kandinsky suggested that they simply call themselves The Four, but they became the Blue Four, apparently because Scheyer equated the color blue with spirituality and unity.

Scheyer, who had lectured on Jawlensky's art and promoted his work through exhibitions and sales in Germany, initially took the Blue Four to San Francisco, where a local newspaper dubbed her the "prophetess of modern art." She moved to Los Angeles in 1928 and spent the last 17 years of her life writing, lecturing and organizing exhibitions for the artists. Feininger, who resided in New York from the late 1930s until his death in 1956, was the only member of the group who traveled to the United States.

The Norton Simon Museum has published three catalogues in conjunction with the exhibition. The new books--on Feininger, Kandinsky and Klee--join an earlier publication on Jawlensky in a now-complete boxed series on the Blue Four.

SECOND TIME AROUND: "LAX: The Los Angeles Exhibition" is back. The 1994 version of the citywide biennial, which made its debut in 1992, features exhibitions organized by 10 institutions. No overarching theme links the celebration of recent work by Los Angeles artists, according to LAX Director Edward Leffingwell. "With this many exhibitions, any theme would become meaningless," he says. However, a catalogue will provide maps to participating institutions and essays by exhibition curators. Among the offerings, the California Afro-American Museum and USC's Fisher Gallery will present "Take 2," a collaborative multimedia show featuring 13 female artists (Tuesday through Jan. 22). "The Layered Look: Toward an Aesthetic of Accumulation Among Six Los Angeles Artists," will be at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (Thursday through Jan. 15).

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