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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

He painted an ambitious mural cycle at the Santa Monica Public Library in 1934-35. The largest artistic project of his career, it was designed to depict the intellectual and spiritual development of mankind in separate narrative streams. The two would then "coalesce and fuse in what perhaps holds the greatest potentialities for art expression invented by man--the medium of the moving picture," the artist wrote in a catalog explaining the project.

When the mural was complete, he became the Federal Art Project district supervisor for Los Angeles County. In that capacity, he oversaw 230 projects in post offices, schools and other public buildings. His Santa Monica Library murals, painted on movable panels, were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1964, when the library moved from 5th Street to its present building on 6th Street.

During the 1930s and '40s, Macdonald-Wright played the dual role of advocate for advanced art and, increasingly, member of the establishment. He joined the art faculty of UCLA in 1946. By then, he had been a prominent figure on the local art scene for two decades, but his role as an adventurous leader was over. He retired from the university at the end of 1954 and was elevated to the rank of professor emeritus.

Macdonald-Wright never stopped painting, but his later "synchromies" are generally dismissed as weak imitations of his early work. Although his present obscurity can be attributed to his move to California, it can be difficult to get a handle on his artistic achievement. What to make of an artist whose work encompasses dynamic abstraction, heroic figuration and--as time passed and he spent more and more time in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, Japan--a large dose of Eastern philosophy, mysticism and Asian subject matter?

It's time to examine such conundrums, said Fort, who has gained new respect for Macdonald-Wright's late paintings and suggests that they be interpreted as a Zen experience. "In these works, he was striving for something that's a lot more difficult to understand than his color theory," she said.

Carving a larger place in art history for Macdonald-Wright is "a tall order," South said. "It's hard to break into the ranks of who gets shown in classrooms, who gets put in the survey books. And yet that's my hope, because with Macdonald-Wright comes California Modernism.

"He is the central figure in that story, and it's a story that--until the last 10 years or so--nobody knew much about. Even now, it's pretty much restricted to California. It always slays me how the history of American art is the history of East Coast art, with a little bit of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton thrown in for regional flavor. That's got to change."


"Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to Oct. 28. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday, noon-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Adults, $7; students and seniors, $5; children older than 5, $1. (323) 857-6000.

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