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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

The Summerfields met Macdonald-Wright in the 1960s at his home in Pacific Palisades. "He was like a count--elegant, suave, continental," Anne Summerfield recalled. Instead of finding him intimidating, they became close friends of the artist and his wife, Jean Sutton Macdonald-Wright. "He had a personal demand for perfection in everything he did, including cooking," Summerfield said. "He had a nose that was unbelievable. He could smell what was on the stove and tell you what the ingredients were."

The artist who followed his instincts in an astonishing number of directions essentially grew up in luxury hotels, owned and managed by his father, Archibald Davenport Wright. Born in Charlottesville, Va., Stanton and his older brother, writer Willard Huntington Wright, enjoyed a permissive lifestyle and derived much of their early education from private tutors. (The family name was Wright, but Stanton merged his middle and last name with a hyphen.)

The boys spent their early childhood at the Virginia Hotel in Charlottesville, until their father became smitten with Southern California. In 1899 he sold the Virginia Hotel and moved his family to Santa Monica, where he bought a large beachfront property, Hotel Arcadia.

As a teenage hotel resident, Stanton was introduced to the joys of haute cuisine and fine wine. He also cultivated an interest in art and painted his first picture, a Santa Monica landscape, when he was 13. He was a good student when it suited him, but he developed an abhorrence of authority, with the encouragement of his brother.

Stanton's education hasn't been completely documented, but it's clear that he enrolled at the Los Angeles Art Students League in 1906 and gained a reputation as a party boy. His father approved of his desire to become an artist but grew tired of financing his indolence. In 1909--after various abortive attempts to buckle down and study or hold down a job--Stanton married Ida Wyman, a wealthy woman 10 years his senior, and departed for Paris with his new wife and mother-in-law.

The marriage was ill-fated, but the sojourn in Paris launched Macdonald-Wright's career. Immersed in the art world's mecca, he met fellow American artists Thomas Hart Benton and Morgan Russell, French artists Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, and Canadian painter and color theorist Percyval Tudor-Hart, among many others.

Macdonald-Wright and Russell, who shared an interest in color as a subject in and of itself, studied with Tudor-Hart and began the research into color and sound that led to Synchromism. The first exhibitions of their Synchromist paintings took place in Munich and Paris in 1913, and in New York in 1914. In accompanying text, they discussed harmonious color relationships and the notion of paintings that reveal themselves to viewers "like music, in time," rather than merely existing in space.

"They were the first Americans to found an abstract painting movement in Europe," South said. "These two artists believed that color had sound equivalents, and that by painting in color scales in the same way that one composes with musical scales, you could create paintings that would evoke musical sensations." The movement's name, Synchromism, comes from "synchromy," meaning "with color," he said.

World War I and a lack of financial support forced Macdonald-Wright to return to the United States in 1915. He settled in New York, living in poverty while making connections with the art community. Although his work won the approval of Alfred Stieglitz, and he had several exhibitions, including one at Stieglitz's avant-garde 291 Gallery, his life in New York was a constant struggle. Disappointed with the art scene and his lowly place in it, he returned to Los Angeles in 1918.

It was much easier to be a star in Los Angeles, and Macdonald-Wright soon achieved that status. His first major achievement was to organize Southern California's debut exhibition of Modern art. With the help of his brother and Stieglitz, Macdonald-Wright presented "Exhibition of Paintings by American Modernists"--including his own work and that of Russell, Benton, Arthur Dove, Marsden Harley and John Marin. It appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park in 1920.

Reviews in the local press were largely disparaging, but Macdonald-Wright had established himself as one of the West Coast's leading advocates for Modern art.

Despite his own rejection of formal training, he also became an educator. His first teaching job was at Chouinard Art Institute in 1923. The same year, he began teaching at the Los Angeles Art Students League and soon took over as director. Twelve years later, amid the Great Depression, he became a leader of the Works Project Administration's Federal Art Project.

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