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Sunset as a Quality of Light, Not Life : A show of Helen Lundeberg’s works from the 1980s, created in a prolific period after her husband’s death, ‘offers a spiritual oasis for peaceful contemplation’

<i> David Colker is a Times staff writer. </i>

Helen Lundeberg, one of the seminal figures in the history of Los Angeles art, has not done a painting since 1989. She has not done so much as a sketch in almost a year.

But any suggestion that Lundeberg, 83, is in retirement--or even slowing down--is not met with pleasure by the artist.

She was sitting on the sofa in her Park La Brea apartment when she first saw the brochure for a show of her works that opens today at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery in Los Angeles. The artist, looking thin and frail, leafed through it until she saw the title of the show, “Helen Lundeberg: The Sunset Years, 1980-1990.”

She raised her head to look across the room toward Moss, her longtime dealer. “The Sunset Years?” Lundeberg asked in a quiet but crystal-clear voice.

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She added caustically, “Well, I like that .”

Moss hurried toward her, saying, “Helen, it’s not what you think. It’s because there is a sunset in all of these paintings.” Moss pointed to a picture of a still-life Lundeberg did in 1986.

It shows, through a window frame, wisps of pale colors that suggest a sky above a mountainous desert landscape. “With the position of the light, you can see it is from the setting sun,” Moss said.

Like all her work, no matter how different the medium or subject matter, the picture radiated a sense of calm and order.

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“All the paintings in the show are end-of-the-day paintings,” Moss continued, “that’s why I associated them with sunsets. That is why it’s called, ‘The Sunset Years.’ ”

The feisty artist finally acquiesced. But it was clear that although her work imparts calm, no one should ever consider her a pushover. These serene paintings have a foundation in the intellect and art history.

Lundeberg was born in Chicago in 1908 to second-generation Swedish parents who loved reading and who passed that on to their daughter. In 1912, the family moved to Pasadena, where her father worked for real estate and stock brokerage companies.

She so excelled as a student that she was chosen to be a part of a study of gifted children conducted by Stanford University. But she did not study art until 1930, when a bookkeeper in her father’s office offered to pay her tuition for a course at the Stickney Memorial School of Art in Pasadena.

At first, she did not take to the classes at the small school. “I learned something in the first two or three months, but not very much,” she said in an interview taped for the video documentary “Helen Lundeberg: American Painter,” released in 1987. That all changed when the composition teacher left the school and was replaced by a young painter, Lorser Feitelson.

It was the most important meeting of Lundeberg’s artistic and personal life. With Feitelson as her teacher, she quickly blossomed as a painter, and only a year after she entered the school, one of her works was accepted for an exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego.

The teacher and student were also falling in love. “That was something that went on for the rest of our lives,” Lundeberg said.

They were married, and in 1933, formulated an art theory called New Classicism, which fused the fantastical style of the Surrealists with the formal structure of Renaissance painting. “In New Classicism alone do we find an aesthetic which departs from the principles of the decorative graphic arts to found a unique order, an integrity of subject matter and pictorial structure unprecedented in the history of art,” wrote Lundeberg in a brochure they issued.

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That same landmark year she had her first one-person show and was chosen to participate in the Public Works Art Project, a program sponsored by the federal government to give artists work during the Depression.

She created several huge murals, some of which can still be seen. The biggest is a 240-foot wall mosaic in Centinela Park in Inglewood that depicts the history of transportation in California. There is also an outdoor mural at Canoga Park High School.

Her indoor murals include one that still can be seen in the Venice High School library and one for the Fullerton City Hall (now the city police headquarters) that is undergoing extensive restoration.

Meanwhile, she, Feitelson and a group of colleagues continued to exhibit New Classicism works. Her paintings were shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As the years went on, her work deviated more and more from her husband’s. Whereas his work eventually became more geometrical and abstract, hers remained rooted in reality. She did a number of landscapes, but always from memory.

“I like being out-of-doors, looking at nature,” she said at her apartment. “But I don’t like to work out-of-doors.

“The time I tried it, the wind blew, and everything fell over. It was a mess. I thought, ‘This is not worth it. I can look at it now and paint it later.’ ”

Her work also became more about the act of painting itself--often including paintings within paintings--and autobiographical. One of her best-known works is “Double Portrait of the Artist in Time,” which is in the collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington. It’s a depiction of herself as a little girl, sitting before a self-portrait of herself as an adult.

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“I am more interested in her work than that of her husband,” said Donna Stein, a local curator who recently received a grant from the Richard A. Florsheim Art Fund to do a complete catalogue of Lundeberg’s works.

“I suppose that it is because of the intense relations to mood and feeling in her work. I enjoy the way in which she references reality in both subtle and obvious ways. And she is a great colorist.”

Those colors are muted, no matter what the subject matter. “She has never been interested in the primary colors,” Stein said. “Red, white and blue--forget them. She works in a very close range of tones, using two or three pigments and augmenting them by using black and white.

“It gives her works a sort of mysterious quality.”

She and Feitelson were inseparable. They also seemed content to stay in Los Angeles, which at that time was considered by the art establishment to be a remote outpost.

“We liked our relative isolation out here,” she said in the video. “We were a sort of group of two and went our own way.”

They lived in two storefronts on Beverly Boulevard that had been converted into living and studio spaces. They worked on the same wooden easel, with Lundeberg using it during the day and Feitelson at night, after he got home from teaching.

“Lorser and Helen complemented each other exactly,” said Moss, who met them in 1973. “She was a quiet, inward person. He was gregarious, charismatic, outgoing. He shielded her. He gave her the confidence to experiment, to go further in her work. It was hard to imagine the two of them apart.”

It was unimaginable for Lundeberg, too. “I always hoped that . . . maybe we’d be lucky enough to go together in a plane crash or car crash or some other catastrophe,” she said in the video documentary.

Feitelson died in 1978 at the age of 80.

“People expected that Helen would be nothing without him,” Moss said, “and it was hard for her. But as an artist, she continued to blossom.”

The 1980s were a prolific decade for Lundeberg. She produced a body of stark works that “mediates on space, light and color and offers a spiritual oasis for peaceful contemplation,” wrote Stein for the “Sunset Years” brochure.

The last few years have not been easy for the artist, however. Her health suffered at times. And in 1990, when the building in which she had been living and working for 29 years changed hands, she was forced to move.

“For someone with her sense of order,” Moss said, “it was not easy to relocate.”

The worn wooden easel that stands near the window, unused, seems out of place in her carpeted apartment. But she would not think of replacing it or putting it away.

“When I think of easel , I think of that,” she said.

“I have not used it in a while, but very often a pause in a career is a good thing. I don’t change what I am, but I do change the way I look at things, the way I paint.”

Talking about painting gave her a boost of energy. “Ideas are percolating now,” she said. “I’m getting ready.

“I hope that soon I’ll be painting again.”


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