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A Painter's Many Layers

A show recalls the wildly diverse yet influential career of forgotten L.A. pioneer Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

August 05, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Stanton Macdonald-Wright may be Southern California's quintessential Renaissance man. Make that eccentrically quintessential. A pioneering, if little-known, painter who lived from 1890 to 1973, he is credited with bringing Modern art to Los Angeles. But that is only the most visible layer of his persona.

While turning out a color-oriented body of work--ranging from muscular abstractions to ethereal fantasies--he also organized exhibitions, administered WPA art projects, taught at Chouinard Art Institute, the Los Angeles Art Students League and UCLA, and wrote art textbooks, criticism and essays.

Venturing intrepidly into other fields, Macdonald-Wright tried his hand as a playwright, actor and set designer; guitarist, vocalist and composer; Zen Buddhist student; engineer and gourmet cook. He was also a linguist who was fluent in French and had a working knowledge of Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

Macdonald-Wright was endowed with an ego to match his talents, but he only expected to achieve immortality as a visual artist. "There have only been four great American painters: Whistler, Ryder, Russell and Wright," he said a few years before his death as he contemplated his place in history.

The writers of standard art history books haven't come up with that same short list. James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who transformed academic realism with evocative color and mood, still looms large, while Albert Pinkham Ryder is widely revered as a visionary romantic. But Morgan Russell and Macdonald-Wright are fodder for trivia tests.

It takes a specialist to peg the two artists' primary claim to fame: as co-founders of Synchromism. In 1913, while living in Paris, they established the short-lived movement, based on a theory of painting that equates color with sound and uses color scales to organize compositions.

That situation may change, if "Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism" has the desired effect. Opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the traveling exhibition of about 60 paintings, drawings and prints is the first full retrospective of the artist's career. The Los Angeles engagement (to Oct. 28) is the second stop in a three-city tour. It began in March at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and will end at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Dec. 2 to Feb. 24, 2002).

"I have a hope for this show," said art historian Will South, who got hooked on Macdonald-Wright in the late 1970s, when he first saw a painting by the artist at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Now curator of collections at the University of North Carolina's Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, he organized the exhibition with John Coffey, chief curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and wrote most of the catalog.

"It's hard for me to be objective about Macdonald-Wright's place in history because I have been so submerged in his life and art for so many years," South said, "but my hope is that now he can enter mainstream discussions of American art."

But first things first, and that meant getting the facts straight in an authoritative publication, he said. "We wanted to provide an accurate biography because there wasn't one." It was also essential to include a clear explanation of Synchromist theory and practice because much of what has been written is wrong, he said.

As for selecting works for the exhibition, the curators wanted to track Macdonald-Wright's career and "help people get a summary feeling for who he was," South said. "All the shows in the past had either focused on the early work or were weighted toward the late stuff. And none of them ever traveled the country in a systematic way. This show is meant to give everybody an opportunity to get a good look at Stanton Macdonald-Wright."

Those who catch the exhibition in Los Angeles will see a version enhanced for the local audience by Ilene Susan Fort, a curator of American art at LACMA. To fill out the picture of Macdonald-Wright's multifaceted presence here, she has added examples of design projects, woodblock prints, working drawings, and glazed tiles used in murals, along with photographs and ephemera.

"What I am trying to do is show that he was more than just a painter," Fort said.

Those who knew the artist aren't likely to argue with that.

"There was nothing he put his hand to that he did not do extremely well," said Anne Summerfield, a Los Angeles-based collector who, with her husband, John, has lent six works to the exhibition. "Regardless of what medium he used in his art, he went into it as if he had years of experience."

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