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Her mellow? Not a chance

June Wayne may be near 90, but the outspoken L.A. artist still wants to be heard. A new book catalogs her protean work over 70 years.

March 02, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"I think I run on indignation," June Wayne says.

Well, that's a relief. The artist known for reviving lithography, pushing aesthetic boundaries in a large body of prints, paintings and tapestries -- and speaking her mind on politics, feminism and art world issues -- has not mellowed with age.

And age is a sore point.

Wayne doesn't deny that she will turn 90 on Friday. But she's so full of energy and ideas that getting old is "a terrible handicap," she says. "Nobody makes business deals with someone my age. . . . A show is not less than a year away always, and sometimes three or four. If I want to take on a big project, people look at me and ask, 'Is she going to be around?' "

With a keen sense of justice and a compulsion to articulate her ideas, Wayne has been visibly and audibly "around" for a long time. A champion of free speech and artists' rights -- and a thorn in the side of conservative politicians -- she joined an artists' union in 1938 and testified before a congressional committee on behalf of a failed effort to preserve Works Progress Administration art programs as permanent agencies.

Fifty-two years later -- in 1990, when the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack for funding exhibitions deemed offensive by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and others -- she delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of the College Art Assn., the nation's largest organization of visual arts professionals. The anti-censorship lecture, "Obscenity Reconsidered," brought thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Wayne's activism has often overshadowed her art. But she is still ensconced in the light-filled industrial building in Hollywood where she has lived and worked for decades. And the petite artist with a cap of white hair has much to celebrate.

Rutgers University, which established the June Wayne Archive and Study Center in 2002 when she donated a large collection of graphic works, recently published "June Wayne: The Art of Everything." The richly illustrated, 464-page book documents her work from 1936 to 2006. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a complete set of her prints. Individual works are in dozens of other public collections, and she has compiled a huge international resume of exhibitions.

But she still has much to do.

She's searching for a home for a dozen large tapestries woven for her in France in the 1970s, which have remained in her possession. Unrolled, one by one, on the floor of her central living space, they compose a parade of intricate, boldly colored abstractions. Like much of her other work, the tapestries reflect her abiding interest in science as they explore waves, winds, genes and natural patterns.

"I have decided to keep them together," Wayne says, "and am now quietly scouting the country for a museum that is likely to be in business 50 years from now and that has the scholarship and conservatorship to take care of them.

"I want to see to the safety of my work before I kick off," she says, then stops, annoyed. "There, I brought it up again, just what I don't want to do."

But she does want to add that focusing on the tapestries has given her "the most impossible appetite to do some more. If there is anyone out there who wants to commission a huge tapestry, I'm really hungry to do one."

Her trademark

One project already in process is a suite of lithographs with images of her trademark dark-rimmed eyeglasses serving as frames for self-portraits. "I have worn glasses for decades, and I am very attached to them," she says. "I'll choose a few from different decades and include an image of what I was doing at the time I was wearing those glasses. I have worked out the approach technically. It's only a matter now of going out and doing it."

Wayne also has a group of paintings in mind: "I'm thinking of them as four short stories, sort of Chaucerian. A kind of Everyman narrative. Every girl? Every person."

Yet another venture is a small group of assemblages -- wood boxes filled with medications, credit cards and photographs that belonged to her husband, Hank Plone, who died in 2003. "We were together 40 years," she says. "He wasn't my first husband, but he was by far the best."

Mentally checking off her list of pursuits, she adds: "I'm also writing. I'm always writing letters of indignation."

Among things that get her going are cellphones that don't work, computers that crash, museum boards that don't include artists or their representatives and an art world that's mired in bureaucracy.

"For most of my life," she says, "a museum director or curator would say, 'Let's do a show.' We would talk to each other, set a date and confirm it in a letter. The day would come when the paintings would be picked up and everything would be nice. Now it's easier to get an earmark into the annual budget than it is to locate somebody who feels that they can make a commitment just by saying it."

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