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On the Brink of Modernism in a Long-Ago L.A.

'Circles of Influence' captures the modest advances of inventive artists uneasy with the establishment.

August 06, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

Imagine: It's 1910, you're living in a furnished flat at the corner of Hill and 3rd streets in downtown L.A., and you've got an overwhelming desire to become the next great modern painter. What should you do?

Should you: (A) Hock granny's silver and book passage to Paris (or maybe Munich), where you can engage with a large, flourishing and influential community of inventive artists; (B) hock granny's silver and book passage for New York, where you can engage with a small, struggling and not yet influential community of inventive artists; or (C) polish granny's silver and stay home, secure in the knowledge that there must be some other inventive artists like you around town and that, besides, here in relative isolation you'll be able to develop an art that's free and individualistic--and isn't that what modern painting's all about?

If you picked C, then go straight to the Orange County Museum of Art, where you're likely to find the exhibition "Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art, 1910-1930" to be a sumptuous feast. The show brings together 67 paintings and three watercolors by 29 artists, including four Easterners--William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri and Edmund Tarbell--whose largely Realist sympathies were especially influential here.

In fact, even if you picked A or B, the show is informative. Well-researched and chosen with care, it's aesthetically dull but historically interesting. Curator Sarah Vure and catalog contributors Kevin Starr and Nancy Moure sort out the ebb and flow in L.A.'s art scene from 1910 to the moment the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.

Wisely, the show leaves out the pleasant yet profoundly conservative plein-air and Impressionist landscape tradition practiced by William Wendt, Elmer Wachtel and so many other successful painters of the period. Their conservatism is at odds with the more progressive ethos the show means to chart, and it was against that so-called California Impressionism that many of these artists aligned themselves. The Impressionists had the California Art Club and the ear (and eye) of the local establishment, so the budding moderns formed their own shifting alliance of clubs and painting societies.

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Still, it's important to be careful here with terms like "conservative" and "progressive." In truth, most of the artists in the Orange County exhibition are conservative too. They're just less so than the establishment they sought to pry open. It's sort of like the national political situation today: The Republican Party is right wing, but the Democratic Party is main-stream conservative, not left wing. Here, the Impressionists are "Republican," the moderns "Democratic."

To understand how fundamentally conservative these early 20th century "modern artists" in Los Angles actually were, all you have to do is note what's not in the show: Not a single nonfigurative abstraction will be found. Abstraction, when it's ventured, is always tied to a recognizable person, place or thing.

New Yorker Arthur Dove is generally regarded as having made the first nonfigurative paintings in American art, and he made them in 1910--the year this show selects as its starting date. In L.A, such a thing remained unthinkable for decades.

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The Eastern artists who were so influential here--Chase, Hassam, Henri and Tarbell--were talented painters but not exactly the cutting edge of modernity. Some exerted influence through visits to California, some through participation in exhibitions like those in San Francisco and San Diego in 1915 celebrating the Panama Canal and some through teaching students in Boston and New York who later came West. Their Realist emphasis is noteworthy.

So is one particular subject that dominates this exhibition. Henri was fond of saying that for art, subject matter was secondary to the way a picture is painted. Yet one subject is so prevalent in the galleries that it's worth pointing out: Thirty-eight of the 67 paintings--well over half--are pictures of women.

Portraits, domestic scenes, idylls in the garden--the equation being made between painting and femininity is unmistakable. Partly it's a function of these artists' conviction that beauty was art's noblest aim, and for most of the male artists, and maybe some of the females, the highest beauty was readily found in the human object of their desire.

Partly the link between art and femininity is something else: Of the 25 L.A. artists surveyed here, one-quarter are women. It would be interesting to see whether a similarly bracketed show of early American Modernism in the Northeast would have the same ratio of female to male artists. (Somehow I doubt it.) But the feminization of culture that developed in America in the wake of the Industrial Revolution is clearly reflected here. And, apparently, the 1970s feminist watershed in Southern California art has roots that go deep.

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