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The Shock of the Old

A fading mural is revealed as a Philip Guston, and with careful work, regains its former brilliance.

June 07, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

The City of Hope will unveil an astonishing sight next Sunday at the public opening of its new visitors center. Those who enter the refurbished, 70-year-old Spanish Revival building in Duarte will encounter an ambitiously conceived, meticulously executed mural that depicts a sweeping progression of human life--from pudgy toddlers to ravaged elders. Inspired in part by Luca Signorelli's fresco series painted around 1499-1504 at the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy, the mural has a cast of nude and draped characters painted in a mannerist style and staged in a Renaissance space. Harking back to a time when art was expected to portray heroic themes and figure drawing was a required skill for artists, the mural might not be so surprising at a WPA-vintage U.S. post office, but it's about the last thing one might expect to find at a Southern California medical center.

The T-shaped painting depicts more than 30 figures in an illusionistic architectural framework that reaches from floor to ceiling, spans the upper half of one interior wall and wraps around an arched doorway. Scenes on the left side portray the vigor and promise of youth; figures on the right epitomize decline and disappointment. Bridging the door and linking the two sections is an intertwined figure group representing the arts. The work is dated August 1935 to July 1936 and signed by Reuben Kadish and Phillip Goldstein.


The mural would be captivating even if it were only what meets the eye: a masterful interpretation of a big idea by two obscure artists. But--unbeknown to all but a few art historians and insiders at the City of Hope National Medical Center and Beckman Research Institute--the artwork is actually a fascinating footnote of local history because it's a rare, early work by an artist who rose to prominence in New York, after changing his style and personal identity.

As it turns out, Goldstein is none other than Philip Guston, a leading Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 1980. He became known in the 1950s and '60s for juicy, heavily textured, nonobjective paintings; during the 1970s he shifted to cartoonish depictions of the Ku Klux Klan but retained his painterly touch. Meanwhile, Kadish, who never rose to fame, gave up art in the mid-1940s and worked as a dairy farmer for about 15 years. He re-created himself as a sculptor in the late 1950s but gained little notice.

Goldstein is remembered--as Guston--for paintings so different from the City of Hope mural that few would guess he is one of its creators. Born in 1913 to Russian immigrants in an impoverished Jewish section of Montreal, he was the youngest of seven children. In 1919 the family moved to Los Angeles, where Phillip's father made a living by collecting refuse on a horse-drawn wagon. The boy had little contact with fine art, but he had an aptitude for drawing and loved comics. In an early validation of his talent, at 15, he won a cartooning contest for teenagers run by The Times.

When his winning cartoon was published in the newspaper, Goldstein was a budding artist at Manual Arts High School. One of his classmates was Jackson Pollock, who became the most celebrated figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Rebellious and openly critical of everything from traditional teaching methods to social injustice, the two teenagers were expelled in 1928 for distributing satirical pamphlets about the school's English department and lodging protests against the athletic program and ROTC.

Pollock finished high school after his ouster, then moved to New York in 1929, studied painting at the Art Students League and urged his buddy to join him. Goldstein refused to go back to Manual Arts but stayed in L.A. He worked at odd jobs and in 1930 won a year's scholarship to Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). Finding the teaching insufferably pedantic, he left after a few months but forged connections in the art community, partly through his friendship with Kadish, whom he met at Otis. Lorser Feitelson, an influential painter and teacher, became Goldstein's mentor and took him to see the collection of Walter and Frances Arensberg, who had moved their vast avant-garde holding of modern art from New York to Hollywood.

Goldstein also fell under the spell of Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros, who had come to Los Angeles to paint a wall on Olvera Street, and Jose Clemente Orozco, who had been commissioned to paint a fresco of Prometheus at Pomona College in Claremont. An outspoken leftist who used his artistic skills to protest racism and other social evils, Goldstein wanted to do public projects on a heroic scale. Around 1931 he and Kadish traveled to Morelia, Mexico, where they painted "The Struggle Against War and Fascism," a 40-by-25 1/2-foot mural in Maximilian's summer palace, under the sponsorship of Siqueiros.

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