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Finally Giving California a Fair Shake

A new collection of essays attempts to put the state's art into context and give it its rightful place.

December 08, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

'California, from an eastern perspective, has generally been seen as another country on the far edge of America, only tenuously attached to what is understood as Western civilization," Paul J. Karlstrom writes in the introduction to a new book on art in California. Furthermore, because the state has been identified with Hollywood and popular culture, it has been denied its rightful place in the mainstream of Modernism, he argues.

"On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950," a collection of essays by 11 authors, is Karlstrom's attempt to correct misperceptions and "deal with the art of California in its own aesthetic and sociological terms." Contributors address various aspects of Modernism that evolved from the West Coast's particular brand of regionalism.

The book grew out of two symposiums sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. The first program, "The Visual Arts and the Myth of Southern California, 1900-1950," organized by art historian Stella Paul, was presented in 1986 at the Huntington Library in San Marino. The discussion centered on Modernist art, artists and institutions that defy characterizations of Southern California as a provincial outpost.

That symposium inspired Karlstrom, the archives' West Coast regional director, to organize "Earthquake to Albright: Modernism in Northern California, 1906-1945" in 1988 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. A dozen participants provided Northern California's part of the story, up to the point of the late San Francisco critic Thomas Albright's book "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980."

For the new book--published by the University of California Press, in association with the archives and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--Karlstrom asked some of the symposiums' participants to rework their papers and invited other writers to address additional topics. The result is a rather electic compilation on everything from mural painting to photography, film and architecture.

Among the essays, Susan Landauer writes about "Painting Under the Shadow: California Modernism and the Second World War"; Peter Selz discusses "The Impact From Abroad: Foreign Guests and Visitors," including Marcel Duchamp's California sojourns; and Margarita Nieto has contributed a piece on "Mexican Art and Los Angeles, 1920-1940."

Bram Dijkstra deals with painters Lorser Feitelson, Edward Biberman, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Dorr Bothwell, Henrietta Shore and a score of other distinctive pioneers in a particularly readable chapter, "Early Modernism in Southern California: Provincialism or Eccentricity?"

Accounting for a general lack of knowledge about Southern California's art history, Dijkstra writes: "Our critics' preoccupation with New York--centric, and very narrowly defined, conceptions of American Modernist art--has left many of us with the mistaken impression that California's artists did not enter significantly into the realm of modern experimentation until after the Second World War. But the artists themselves, by refusing to relinquish their independence of spirit, clearly also helped undermine their chance for wider recognition. A disinclination to self-promotion is as unprofitable in art as in business."

In conjunction with the recent release of the book, Los Angeles art dealer Jack Rutberg is presenting an exhibition at his La Brea Avenue gallery (to Feb. 1). The selection of about 60 pieces by 40 California artists ranges from Cubist and Surrealist art from the 1930s to 1950s abstraction. Richard Diebenkorn, John McLaughlin, John Altoon, David Park, Helen Lundeberg and Henrietta Shore are among artists represented.

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BROTHERLY DEBUT: In another West Coast publishing venture, Greg and Jeff Colson, a pair of Southern California artist brothers who have long since established themselves on the gallery scene, are making their debut as illustrators of children's books. Greg has provided lighthearted drawings for "The Red String," Margot Blair's tale of a piece of string that winds its way around the world, indulging in one adventure after another. Jeff has drawn colorful images of a charming dragon who wins hearts while wreaking havoc in "Morris and the Kingdom of Knoll" by T.L. Hill.

Designed as part of a series that commissions artists as illustrators, the books have been published by the Children's Library Press of Venice, in cooperation with the J. Paul Getty Museum. To introduce the new publications to the public, Greg will give a lecture Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the museum's auditorium in Malibu. He and Jeff--the shy one--will be on hand to sign books after the program. The lecture is free, but reservations are required: (310) 458-2003.

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