ART REVIEW : Originality Rolls In on a Timeless ‘Tide’

Share via

Los Angeles is once again in throes of dubious delight, calling itself America’s second-most important art center and waiting nervously for somebody to laugh. That last happened in the ‘60s when the town dawned on the world as a hot-rod hotbed for flashy contemporary art. By now a lot of folks tend to think that time was the genesis if not the exodus of the whole L.A. enchilada. It wasn’t.

Before there were Bengston Dentos, Bell boxes and elegant Irwin voids there were a couple of generations of lonely pioneers crying “Art!” in the wilderness. Lest we forget the Laguna Art Museum presents an unexpectedly important exhibition called “Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists, 1920-1956.”

On view to Sept. 16 and organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the show’s catalogue essays raise larger questions about Los Angeles’ cultural history. Has the town always been a philistine wasteland awash in the fleeting values of Hollywood? Is it a place with no sense of time, history or social togetherness? If so did that sense of anonymity, immediacy and the ephemeral create a climate of creative freedom? Did it make Los Angeles a post-modern city decades before the term was invented? That’s what essayist Paul Karlstrom thinks. He curated the show along with Susan Ehrlich and Barry Heisler.


Some questions are more interesting than answers.

The 80-work exhibition is organized in such fashion as to have an odd, timeless quality. You can’t tell when pictures were painted by looking at them. Tacked down, the dates could unmask them as provincial versions of styles invented elsewhere but there’s a local-vintage twist to their look that saves them. At least some of them. Lacking chronological guidelines there is no way to judge except by quality. The work divides into pictures that stand up handsomely and those that have turned into quaint period pieces.

But the show does prove there were at least 20 artists who took the avant-garde culture seriously when the Red Cars ran, the Richfield Building stood and Aimee Semple McPherson exhorted the faithful to pin their offerings to the velvet rope on the back of the pew.

That’s not very many but--particularly during World War II--there were high-level writers, musicians and filmmakers around from Thomas Mann and Igor Stravinsky to Jean Renoir and Aldous Huxley. Just how much cross-fertilization existed between the various arts is a question that’s beginning to be answered when we learn that the L.A. avant-garde created contact between architect Richard Neutra, bookseller Jake Zeitlin, director Joseph von Sternberg, photographer Edward Weston and painters such as Lorser Feitelson and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, among others.

The archly aristocratic Macdonald-Wright returned to Los Angeles in 1918 after inventing Synchronism in Paris and before a conversion to Oriental philosophy that would take him repeatedly to Japan. He became a linking figure symbolizing local absorption of European formalities and Zen spontaneity that remains operative to this day. Paintings on view look, naturally, like color-Cubist Chinese landscapes. Where but here could such exotic hybrids grow?

For awhile Macdonald-Wright headed the local division of the WPA where he met Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, among others. They evolved “Post Surrealism,” which exorcised Freudian weirdness and eventually involved Knud Merrild and Grace Clemens. The show finds the style evolving from Lundeberg’s “Microcosm and Macrocosm” of 1937 to Feitelson’s geometric-abstract “Magical Space Forms” of the ‘50s. For awhile he had a black-and-white PBS art-education show where he pushed the product with the fervor of a Madman Muntz car salesman. Pop culture meets cultivated culture.

Speaking of that and the supposedly nefarious influence of Hollywood, two of the most interesting artists on view both painted and made animated films, Oskar Fischinger and Jules Engel. Fischinger’s painting, like a number of the others here, bounces around too much, but his jazzy abstract animated film looks great on videotape and has the artistic density we associated with great Bauhaus work. Eventually critic Jules Langsner would dub the growing tendency to T-square composition as an indigenous style called “Hard Edge Abstraction.” It’s best-known and most subtle practitioner was John McLauglin but the term acts as a magnet for artists with purist tendencies from Karl Benjamin and Frederick Hammersley to June Wayne and Peter Krasnow. His pastel hues capture that L.A. light that gives one the impression that all the buildings have been freshly painted while we were out of town.


Naturally there had to be a corrective to all this crisp purism. It came under the mantle of various forms of figurative Expressionism practiced by Hans Burkhardt, Rico Lebrun, Howard Warshaw and William Brice. His abstract landscapes hold up heroically but generally this is the hardest work to link up to our ideas about Los Angeles’ cool hedonism. Maybe it proves that cities, like people, have lurking demons within.

High on the list of Los Angeles’ stereotypical quirks is its putative talent for fostering all manner of crackpot cults. That seriously suggests a lot of lonely people looking for something to believe in. Art itself has often been characterized as a kind of surrogate religion and several artists here betray specific leanings to mysticism.

Lee Mullican has long been noted for work that links to the metaphysic of Southwest American Indian culture. Two others are figures that dwelled in obscurity until recently, Henrietta Shore and Agnes Pelton. Both bear generic resemblance to Georgia O’Keeffe’s more abstract art. In this exhibition Pelton looks slightly more interesting in works that combine leanings to decadent symbolism with an exquisite execution that prefigures the best of Billy Al Bengston.

“Turning the Tide” leaves us with provocative hints suggesting the truth of a long-held hunch that the L.A. artistic sensibility has a real, if slippery, originality that matches the weird uniqueness of the place itself.