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When Art Came West

Modernism, as It Developed in Southland, Had a Unique Flavor, as Illustrated in Orange County Museum's Exhibit


Modernism in the encyclopedia is neatly bracketed: 1880 to 1945. A period after Impressionism, before Postmodernism, that includes a number of art movements: Expressionism, Fauvism, Dadaism, Cubism and Surrealism.

A lot of -isms, and a neat linear art history.

Yet, art, like history, is more loopy than linear, as a new exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art illustrates.

Curator Sarah Vure wanted to show the transition from Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California, and to that end gathered more than 70 paintings, including work by local artists Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Mabel Alvarez, Donna Schuster, and East Coast artists such as Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase and Edmund Tarbell.

But rather than treating the Modern movement as the inevitable outgrowth of Impressionism, Vure shows how artists influenced each other between coasts and across continents, creating their brand of Modernism in Southern California.

The exhibition illustrates how the "circles of influence" spread like rings in the water, as artists developed visual responses to each others' work.

Vure, an East Coast transplant, said the idea for the show came when she began to study Southern California art.

As she found connections between the East and West Coast artists, the "circles" began to become apparent, Vure said.

"It was an era that was much more complex and diverse than has previously been thought. There were a lot of connections between artists, between different regions," Vure said.

"The artists are dealing with the same issues--their external and internal environments--[but] quite a number of them responded to a Southern California environment, and that's what makes [the period] unique."

Born in the Midwest, Robert Henri was one artist whose influence rippled through Southern California art circles.

On several occasions during the 1910s and '20s, teachers and artists, such as Henri, visited California, bringing new ideas, and establishing schools and independent exhibitions.

Henri who strongly believed in "a virile, truly democratic American art" encouraged the nascent art community to embrace the avant-garde aesthetic.

In 1914, Henri was quoted in The Times:

"You have the opportunity here to advance in your own way, because you are happily removed from any large center of conservative traditions. Compelled to blaze your own trail you will grow fearless and strong. You won't go wild because you are already civilized, and because there will be an infusion of eastern blood from time to time, just enough for the right sort of life."

In the exhibition catalog, Vure describes how Henri's imprint on local artists wouldn't show for a couple of years but eventually, the cross pollination between East and West Coast artists produced a new aesthetic, particular to Southern California.

Two artists who adopted Henri's ideas were Meta and Bert Cressey. They were among the founding directors of the Los Angeles Modern Art Society--an independent, progressive group formed in 1916 as an alternative to the traditional, conservative art scene. The group's first exhibition was held at a second-floor gallery in Los Angeles, and more than 700 attended the opening, Vure writes.

The show included paintings by the Cresseys as well as their mentor, Henri, whose influence can be found in Meta Cressey's "Oriental Lady." The painting, which is included in the OCMA exhibit, is a portrait study that echoes Henri's "Segovia Girl" in its expressive, spontaneous and fluid style, as well as its bold colors.

Bert Cressey's "Contentment," also in the OCMA show, is another example of a more experimental, almost Fauve-like style. The girl, her goats, and the barn in the painting are rendered in clear pastel hues, and the idyllic pastoral is almost abstract in its simplified, flat forms.

But Bert Cressey was not alone in adopting elements from Fauvism. There was also Macdonald-Wright, who co-founded Synchromism--a style that fused the color of Fauvism with the formal and spatial structure of Cubism and Futurism. (Synchromism simply means "with color.")

Macdonald-Wright's "California Landscape," (1919) is an example of how influences from abroad (Cezanne and Cubism) combined with local influences (the coastline) and became elements in a new Southern California aesthetic.

His landscape painting, which is in the OCMA show, is Cubist. Rendered in clear, vibrant colors, it illuminates the new architecture along the coast, and the turquoise water beyond.

Macdonald-Wright, who studied color theory in Paris with Canadian painter and scientist Percyval Tudor-Hart, returned to Southern California, bringing with him the concept of Synchromism and other avant-garde ideas. When he was named director of the Los Angeles-based Art Students League, those ideas shaped an even wider circle of artists, including Alvarez, who studied with the famous painter.

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