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Art & Architecture

Reading Beyond the Fine Prints

June Wayne is best known for her far-reaching art-world contributions. But a new retrospective at LACMA sheds light on her own artwork, as this enduring and often overlooked innovator embarks on her ninth decade.

November 08, 1998|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

But she had paid a price professionally. Given her close association with Tamarind, says Neuberger Museum director Lucinda H. Gedeon, "June lost momentum in terms of the visibility for her own creative work. People didn't know or hadn't paid due attention to the fact that she was also a wonderful painter and colorist and translated so many of her images into tapestry designs."

Wayne's images come from everywhere: One lithograph reflects the coronas of light she saw as a child looking up into the horse-drawn wagon that came through her neighborhood selling waffles. "My work is peppered with references I draw on as I need them," she says. "They are timeless. They have a utility beyond the moment."

Wayne's interest in space, for example, is reflected in the images in her 1958 book of lithographs inspired by John Donne poems. Sputnik inspired her, as did the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the space program. "All these things caused or retriggered my interest in the nature of energy, the universe, magnetic fields and such," says Wayne. "I sit by a lot of riverbanks, and, sooner or later, things that I'm interested in float by."

Her "Burning Helix" series, sparked by a fascination with DNA, is in the collection of UCLA's Institute of Molecular Biology. And an article in Newsweek magazine a few years ago led to a series on "knockout mice--lab mice from whom the geneticists have knocked out this or that gene in order to be able to determine the role played by that."

Few of her pieces, in fact, are so personal as her frequently exhibited "Dorothy Series" of 1975-79. Wayne's artistic biography of her mother, Dorothy Kline, a traveling saleslady, "is a personal and yet paradigmatic story of so many American immigrants," observes Nancy Berman, museum director at the Skirball Cultural Center, which mounted an exhibition of that series in 1996. "Her mother's struggle, competence and mastery was a model for June in her own career."

As illustrated by the "Dorothy Series," which is included in the LACMA retrospective, Wayne also learned activism from her mother. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her defense of artistic freedoms. Wayne, who would later call the arts "the rain forests of society," went to Washington, D.C., in 1938 to lobby against discontinuation of the WPA art project in Chicago. She took on McCarthysim in the 1950s, protesting a Los Angeles City Council resolution that she says called modern artists "tools of the Kremlin."

Wayne leavens her ferocity with wit and well-honed storytelling skills, but she has never been timid about what she believes in. "If something is happening to me, I know it's happening to a lot of other people," Wayne says. "I'm very attuned to what's happening to my own kind."

Feminist artist Judy Chicago recalls that when she was first organizing women's art programs, "June showed me what she had done at Tamarind. I admired her for the courage it must have required for her to hold her ground in an environment that was not only not supportive but openly hostile to women of aspiration. Strong women in that period were very unpopular in the art scene, and I remember being very impressed by what she had envisioned, organized and implemented. It was inspiring."

Wayne shows no signs of slowing down now. A writer of radio scripts in the 1940s and of a KCET television series on art she hosted in the '70s, she has been gathering her assorted writings together for an anthology. But with the Neuberger and LACMA retrospectives and their attendant events--the USC School of Fine Arts is sponsoring a print symposium Nov. 17, for instance--she's just "too busy to meet the publishing date this year," she says. "It'll come out next year."

More than 70 friends and colleagues who turned out to celebrate Wayne's 80th birthday earlier this year raised funds for LACMA to buy a recent Wayne artwork, says the event's co-sponsor, Robert Barrett, who is associate vice president of cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "June has mentored generations of artists, collectors and patrons," Barrett says. "She is a Los Angeles treasure."


"JUNE WAYNE: A RETROSPECTIVE," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Dates: Nov. 19-Feb. 15. Phone: (323) 857-6000.

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