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ART REVIEW

Exhibition on Cooper is too wide in scope

March 14, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

"The exhibition bowls no one over, but hangs discreetly on the walls.... There is no shouting or bad taste." So wrote a critic for this newspaper in 1929 about a show of Colin Campbell Cooper's paintings in a Pasadena gallery. Much the same could be said of the current Cooper exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum.

It's a shame, really. The museum has made an admirable effort to restore recognition to Cooper (1858-1937), an American painter of the urban landscape who was widely exhibited and well reputed in his lifetime. It has published a catalog (in cooperation with the Irvine Museum) with essays by co-curators and Deborah Epstein Solon and William Gerdts. And it has mounted what is likely Cooper's most comprehensive show, with 68 paintings representing all phases of his career.

But in the end it feels like too much information. The retrospective treatment doesn't do Cooper any favors. A dozen or so fresh, invigorating paintings get bogged down by four times as many that are merely competent and conventional. "East Coast/ West Coast and Beyond: Colin Campbell Cooper, American Impressionist" would have been better off sticking with the East Coast. The New York paintings alone would make a tight, revelatory show and a convincing case for the artist's rehabilitation.

Cooper was born in Philadelphia, studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and traveled frequently to Europe. He worked in a loosely Impressionist manner, attentive to the nuances of light, color and atmosphere. The milestones of his biography are typical of a moderately successful late 19th century American artist: inclusion in a few Paris Salons, summers in Brittany, election to the National Academy of Design in New York.

A wonderfully subdued, introspective portrait of a woman, painted around 1900, shows a side of Cooper's talent that never reappears. Later figurative works are awkward, trite or both. Numerous small figures populate most of his paintings, but the bulk of his attention settled on architecture and forms of transportation, the changing shapes of urban infrastructure.

Cooper's most distinctive contributions and the exhibition's unqualified high points are his paintings of a growing, technologically evolving Manhattan, where he settled in 1904. Buildings were soaring taller, vehicles were moving faster, and Cooper's paintings convey vividly the texture and pace of the moment.

"The Rialto," from 1907, exemplifies the vitality of his city scenes. The Times tower rises heroically up the center of the canvas, gleaming in golden afternoon light. A flag on its rooftop stirs the clouds. To left and right, shorter buildings in purplish shadow anchor the scene and draw the eye down to street level, where pedestrians, streetcars and horse-drawn carriages fill the avenue. Signage on the storefronts adds to the bustle and flavor. Cooper even paints in his own calling card around a second-story window: "Colin Campbell Cooper: American Pictures."

A strong nationalistic streak courses through these paintings -- evident in the abundant flags fluttering from rooftops and facades, the occasional military parades and the overall tenor of optimism, pride in the country's progress.

Cooper painted the elegant, wedge-shaped Flatiron building shortly after it went up and numerous scenes of the newly burgeoning financial district as it took shape. His paintings add their own distinctive note to the broad chronicle of city life compiled in the work of fellow painters Childe Hassam, Joseph Oppenheimer, Everett Shinn and others as well as in the grainy gravures of turn-of-the-20th-century pictorialist photographers.

In his travels, to India, Burma and elsewhere, Cooper often painted comparable scenes of people moving about amid stately architecture. Many are pleasant enough, but none have the verve of the New York work, its dynamism and complexity.

A year after his wife died in 1920, Cooper resettled in Santa Barbara, where he remained until his death. He taught a bit and continued to paint, gravitating toward garden views, lovely and chromatically rich but again, no match for the distinctive work of his New York years.

By the end of the exhibition, inclusion of such a range of work feels like an unjustified inundation. The show and catalog are too generous in some respects, skimpy in others. Detailed readings of the paintings, for instance, focus almost entirely on identification of the architecture and rarely discuss the social dimensions of the activity at street level.

In one of Cooper's greatest paintings, "Broad Street Canon, New York" (1904), a man in Uncle Sam-like garb stands in the middle of a busy street with a sign reading "American Art for [Americans?]." What did Cooper mean by this editorial comment? Where else does his sense of humor show up? This show may saturate, but regarding the rare and rich particularities of its subject, it doesn't satisfy.

*

`East Coast/West Coast and Beyond'

'Colin Campbell Cooper, American Impressionist'

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, extended to 9 p.m. the first Thursday of each month

Ends: June 3 | Price: $8 to $10

Contact: (949) 494-8971; www.lagunaartmuseum.org

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