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Staking a claim for an idiom of Los Angeles

November 26, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

With just 24 paintings -- four each by six artists -- "The Los Angeles School" is a thumbnail sketch of a powerful period for Abstract art. On the 40th anniversary of the landmark survey exhibition, "California Hard Edge Painting," organized in 1964 for the old Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) by the insightful and influential art critic Jules Langsner, the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design has assembled the show as a small but potent homage.

The earliest work is an untitled 1952 geometric composition by John McLaughlin (1898-1976), which uses squares and rectangles of flat color to divide planar space into a field of dynamic equilibrium. The most recent painting is a 1983 work by Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999), whose flat, undulating shapes in tones of gray and peach recall a quiet landscape populated only by the observant viewer. (The painting is titled "Wetlands II," and it does suggest a watery marshland stretching toward the distant horizon beneath a flat gray morning or evening sky.) McLaughlin's pure abstraction and Lundeberg's allusion to the visible world are both achieved with uninflected color laid down in crisp, clearly defined shapes -- hence the term "hard-edge" painting.

The show's sweep of three decades demonstrates how long this type of painting endured in Los Angeles, and it implies how influential it was to be on subsequent artists of very different means. However, guest curator Dave Hickey has dispensed with the established term "hard-edge" painting, and it's easy to see why. He wants to emphasize this art's emergence as a distinctly local idiom -- as the vernacular dialect of postwar art in Los Angeles.

Langsner originally coined the term in 1958, in an essay for an exhibition called "Four Abstract Classicists" that stood as a stark contrast to the gestural, painterly qualities of Abstract Expressionism. Since then, however, hard-edge has been absorbed into wider critical discourse as a generic description for a painting method, typified by such artists as Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland. By contrast, calling it the Los Angeles School stands in sharp distinction from the New York School.

The Otis show employs savvy installation design to articulate the work. The gallery walls are painted a deep taupe-green, rather than standard-issue white, and the color stops at a strip of molding several feet below the room's high ceiling. Three cubic alcoves have been built within the rectangular space of the room so that each artist is separate and can be seen as a distinct voice. The alcoves are placed in an asymmetrical pattern (two on one wall, one on the other). No labels interrupt the walls, but a printed handout maps the installation for a visitor.

In short, the installation divides the planar space of the gallery with color, creating a dynamic equilibrium, while text is subordinate to perceptual experience. Design is elevated as a value. These are intrinsic qualities of Los Angeles School painting, and they drive the extrinsic environment in which they are being displayed. From there it's a short hop, conceptually speaking, to the Light and Space art of Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and other artists who are a legacy of the show's hard-edge painting.

The paintings by the six artists are installed in suggestive pairs, opposite one another in the room. McLaughlin holds one end-wall, with the equally pure abstractions of Frederick Hammersley at the other. Lundeberg is opposite Karl Benjamin, whose interlocking forms suggest architectonic landscapes rather than her organic ones.

Finally, intimations of motion and expanding space created without traditional devices of Illusionist painting describe the final pairing of canvases, by Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978) and June Harwood. In their work, surface shapes kiss, peel away and twist in space, solely through calibrations of color, scale and design.

"The Los Angeles School" is a fully satisfying exhibition, not least because it resonates against the provocative abstract painting being made today by such younger artists as Monique Prieto, Kevin Appel and Darcy Huebler. Still, it cries out for a full-scale retrospective consideration by a major museum; the Los Angeles School, Light and Space art and recent Abstract painting describe an important, if overlooked aesthetic arc over the last half-century.

Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 665-6905, through Jan. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays (and Thanksgiving weekend).


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