Review: Roger Kuntz at Laguna Art Museum

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Reporting from Laguna Beach

Was Roger Kuntz the last American Scene painter?

That’s the unexpected thought that arises from seeing a large retrospective exhibition of work by the Los Angeles artist, who died in 1975 at the age of only 49. American Scene painting emerged from an anxiety-ridden period of national self-examination between the Great Depression and World War II. It pretty much petered out as the booming 1950s unfolded. But that’s just when Kuntz was getting started.


The Laguna Art Museum has assembled 63 paintings, 21 works on paper and 12 small bronze sculptures from all phases of Kuntz’s 25-year career. But guest curator Susan M. Anderson made the smart decision to put front and center a narrow slice of his strongest work — paintings of L.A. freeways and highway signs painted between 1961 and 1963. They make up fully one-third of the exhibition. Their prominent display shows Kuntz at his best, while deploying his earlier and later landscapes and domestic interiors in a supporting role.

So what’s the American Scene angle? That’s complicated.

In October 1962, just as the Cuban missile crisis erupted, Life magazine devoted a special issue to “The Call of California: It’s splendor, it’s excitement. Why people go, go, go there.” Along with features on show biz and scenic wonder and a “biography” of the state by novelist Irving Stone, another story looked at the bubbling emergence of an L.A. art scene. Before then, West Coast culture was popularly portrayed as the purview of San Francisco.

The story featured two L.A. elder statesmen — abstractionist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 72, one of the founders of American Modernism in the ‘teens, and geometric hard-edge painter John McLaughlin, 64, Southern California’s first postwar Modernist master. It also included three painters younger than 36 — Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin and Kuntz.

Photographed on the beach with his easel while wearing a wet-suit, Kuntz, blond and tan, epitomizes the Surf City stereotype then being created for L.A. in the national consciousness. Earlier that year he had given the new freeway paintings their debut at Felix Landau Gallery, and a Times critic enthused that a “major talent” had arrived. The next year fabled curator Walter Hopps gave him a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum, and influential critic John Coplans included his work in the Oakland Museum’s “Pop Art USA.”

Today, Kuntz is all but forgotten. Partly that’s because of his untimely death. Born in Texas and reared at Lomaland, the alternative commune of the Theosophical Society in Point Loma, San Diego, Kuntz developed a debilitating form of cancer when he was 46. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound three years later.

Partly, though, his relative anonymity stems from the nature of his work. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear Kuntz was not a Pop artist. His traditional oil paintings don’t use the pictorial language of mass media to critically undercut establishment ideas about Modern art, as did radical Pop artists like Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Instead, Kuntz renders the built environment with a traditional attention to optical naturalism.

Kuntz’s freeway paintings seemed Pop because they represent full immersion in unprecedented subject matter, which had rarely turned up before him. Edward Hopper, for example, painted the somewhat similar concrete canyon of a railroad approach into a city in 1946. But that’s the point: Like Hopper, Kuntz was an American Scene painter. What makes Kuntz’s work distinctive is its singular subject.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, American Scene painters generally represented the city as a brooding, even threatening place, or else they pictured the agrarian world as the nation’s epic heartland. The moral, cultural and social tensions between urban and rural life had been a theme for painters for hundreds of years. Kuntz swept all that aside. In its place he pondered something entirely new — the unique suburban model that Los Angeles was in the postwar throes of inventing.

Kuntz’s suburban American Scene focused like a laser on freeways — a sign-adorned structure that, perhaps more than any other, made the new model possible. The roadways’ strange, philosophical condition as a place of transition captivated him. And he merged the social transformation into suburbia with a spiritual metamorphosis.

Kuntz never painted traffic. He painted culverts, channels and over- and underpasses, often leading into dark interiors. The S-curve of “Concrete Canyon” looks down on empty pavement from above, its asphalt river flowing between high walls, half in sunshine and half in shade. “Baldwin Avenue” stacks underpasses atop one another, the dark mouths of the concrete entryways like gateways to a mysterious underworld or an interior space harboring the great unknown.

The freeway sign “San Diego” fills almost an entire 5-by-6-foot canvas, parallel to the picture plane. Two pathways — Interstate 5 or Highway 101—are offered, and the choice is yours. Crucially, Kuntz painted a narrow strip of background down the left side and across the bottom; the sign becomes a veil that can be lifted to reveal a hidden dimension beyond.

Always Kuntz rakes these canvases with stark light and deep shadow. The divisions record the California sunshine, but they’re also a casual, all-encompassing metaphor for opposing states of consciousness — enlightenment versus being in the dark, or even life and death. The freeway tunnels and underpasses recall tombs and passages through an underworld. Mortality is written all over these contemplative works, sometime literally.

Angled, passing illumination of the word “San Diego” picks out only the white letters “an Die” from the sign’s deep-green background. Pavement declarations like “stop” or “exit” dominate several large pictures, while arrows on asphalt present choices between divergent paths.

In the sign painting “Avenue Exit,” the shortened “ave” is positioned above the full word “exit.” Like a secular “Ave Maria,” this ‘ave exit’ proposes a Latin “welcome” to departure on (or from) life’s journey.

Kuntz’s youthful upbringing in a theosophical commune is of course the background to these adult musings on transformational states of consciousness. (He remained a lifelong student of Zen Buddhism.) He also studied art at the Claremont Colleges, where he later taught.

There, one prominent influence was Henry L . McFee, whose analytical Cubist still-lifes in the ‘teens made him an American Modernist pioneer like his friend Macdonald-Wright. Millard Sheets, Southern California’s leading American Scene-era painter, was the other. Mix them with Kuntz’s spiritual leanings, toss in his painterly facility, and the result is the strange and distinctive pictures that are the centerpiece of the revealing Laguna retrospective.

--Christopher Knight

Roger Kuntz: The Shadow Between Representation and Abstraction,’ Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Ends May 24. $10 .(949) 494-8971.