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Surprise sprouts from a 'Seed'

An exhibition revisits Asia's lessons to L.A.'s Art Students League.

January 26, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles built the foundations of its singular metropolitan identity. The construction of a deep-water port, a regional transportation network and an aqueduct to bring water to the semi-arid desert laid the groundwork for a rapid, quarter-century transformation. L.A. went from small town to the nation's largest municipal territory. Fueled by a torrent of more than 1 million new residents, most from the Midwest, the city became, in H.L. Mencken's memorable words, "Double Dubuque."

Which is another way of saying: a gigantic conservative hick town. Which is also a way of saying: not a place where Modernist art was likely to find a congenial level of curiosity and support, except among a tiny cohort. And so it stayed until late in the 20th century.

At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a modest yet intriguing new exhibition does a fine job of unearthing an important sliver of that early history. "A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953" assembles more than 50 paintings and a like number of works on paper -- most notably, watercolors -- to tell the largely forgotten story of a crucial forebear of today's numerous important L.A. art schools. It comes with an excellent catalog, written by guest curators Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten and art historian Will South.

The Art Students League pretty much fell apart as a force by World War II, but it limped on until the early 1950s. If the show is not jam-packed with rediscovered masterpieces, it is replete with surprises.

Perhaps the most fascinating is the degree to which Asian aesthetics had a profound, still not fully understood impact on the early development of Modern L.A art. John McLaughlin, the first major abstract painter to emerge here after World War II, was deeply knowledgeable about Asian art, so the depth of the connection earlier in the century is provocative.

A thumbnail history of the Arts Students League goes like this. In April 1906, seven short months after voters approved an ambitious bond issue to pay for the Owens River aqueduct, two artists opened a school on the top floor of a downtown building on Broadway near 2nd Street. Hanson Puthuff, a commercial sign painter by trade, and Antony Anderson, who worked part-time as The Times' art critic, offered courses in life drawing from nude models -- a somewhat scandalous practice -- three days a week. Soon, classes in sketching outdoors from nature were added.

The curriculum hardly sounds radical. But in a period when the norm was pretty, picturesque landscape paintings derived from decades-old French precedents, the infusion of a grittier Realism, akin to New York's Ashcan School, spoke to an incipient refusal of establishment codes.

Rex Slinkard's large, untitled male nude is the most arresting picture from the show's earliest period -- an erotic composition rendered in sensuous slathers of oil paint. Impressionist it's not.

Slinkard was extravagantly talented, but his death at age 30 in the 1918 influenza pandemic cut short a potentially influential career. Enter Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Returning to L.A. from Paris after making some of the first fully abstract paintings by an American artist, he became the school's director.

Macdonald-Wright was its most historically memorable instructor, at least until his Parisian colleague Morgan Russell arrived for a brief tenure in 1931, and Lorser Feitelson began classes in 1932. In Paris in the early teens, Macdonald-Wright and Russell concocted a form of rhythmic abstraction in which pure color was the visual equivalent of music and sound. A muscular drawing style derived from Michelangelo provided the armature -- and an unnecessary, even distracting historical pedigree.

In Los Angeles the emphasis on color assumed a more personal, often dynamic role.

The Symbolist undercurrent that runs through early American Modern art strove for distinctive individual expression. Chromatic splendor fit that bill. Nicholas Brigante's 1931 "Porcelain and Oranges" -- perhaps the most beautiful in the exhibition -- is emblematic.

Like Cezanne, Brigante created a tabletop still life that echoes a natural landscape, while arranging fruit, napkins, a vase, two porcelain Foo dogs and other elements to open a Cubist space of shifting planes. Luxurious color carries the work, seamlessly uniting its disparate parts. The checkered table runners, in complementary violet and golden orange, twist the space like a visual strand of DNA, while a transparent amethyst vase puts a mysterious void at the center of an extravagantly fertile image.

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