Finally Giving California a Fair Shake

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

'California, from an eastern perspective, has generally been seen as another country on the far edge of America, only tenuously attached to what is understood as Western civilization," Paul J. Karlstrom writes in the introduction to a new book on art in California. Furthermore, because the state has been identified with Hollywood and popular culture, it has been denied its rightful place in the mainstream of Modernism, he argues.

"On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950," a collection of essays by 11 authors, is Karlstrom's attempt to correct misperceptions and "deal with the art of California in its own aesthetic and sociological terms." Contributors address various aspects of Modernism that evolved from the West Coast's particular brand of regionalism.

The book grew out of two symposiums sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. The first program, "The Visual Arts and the Myth of Southern California, 1900-1950," organized by art historian Stella Paul, was presented in 1986 at the Huntington Library in San Marino. The discussion centered on Modernist art, artists and institutions that defy characterizations of Southern California as a provincial outpost.

That symposium inspired Karlstrom, the archives' West Coast regional director, to organize "Earthquake to Albright: Modernism in Northern California, 1906-1945" in 1988 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. A dozen participants provided Northern California's part of the story, up to the point of the late San Francisco critic Thomas Albright's book "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980."

For the new book--published by the University of California Press, in association with the archives and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--Karlstrom asked some of the symposiums' participants to rework their papers and invited other writers to address additional topics. The result is a rather electic compilation on everything from mural painting to photography, film and architecture.

Among the essays, Susan Landauer writes about "Painting Under the Shadow: California Modernism and the Second World War"; Peter Selz discusses "The Impact From Abroad: Foreign Guests and Visitors," including Marcel Duchamp's California sojourns; and Margarita Nieto has contributed a piece on "Mexican Art and Los Angeles, 1920-1940."

Bram Dijkstra deals with painters Lorser Feitelson, Edward Biberman, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Dorr Bothwell, Henrietta Shore and a score of other distinctive pioneers in a particularly readable chapter, "Early Modernism in Southern California: Provincialism or Eccentricity?"

Accounting for a general lack of knowledge about Southern California's art history, Dijkstra writes: "Our critics' preoccupation with New York--centric, and very narrowly defined, conceptions of American Modernist art--has left many of us with the mistaken impression that California's artists did not enter significantly into the realm of modern experimentation until after the Second World War. But the artists themselves, by refusing to relinquish their independence of spirit, clearly also helped undermine their chance for wider recognition. A disinclination to self-promotion is as unprofitable in art as in business."

In conjunction with the recent release of the book, Los Angeles art dealer Jack Rutberg is presenting an exhibition at his La Brea Avenue gallery (to Feb. 1). The selection of about 60 pieces by 40 California artists ranges from Cubist and Surrealist art from the 1930s to 1950s abstraction. Richard Diebenkorn, John McLaughlin, John Altoon, David Park, Helen Lundeberg and Henrietta Shore are among artists represented.

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BROTHERLY DEBUT: In another West Coast publishing venture, Greg and Jeff Colson, a pair of Southern California artist brothers who have long since established themselves on the gallery scene, are making their debut as illustrators of children's books. Greg has provided lighthearted drawings for "The Red String," Margot Blair's tale of a piece of string that winds its way around the world, indulging in one adventure after another. Jeff has drawn colorful images of a charming dragon who wins hearts while wreaking havoc in "Morris and the Kingdom of Knoll" by T.L. Hill.

Designed as part of a series that commissions artists as illustrators, the books have been published by the Children's Library Press of Venice, in cooperation with the J. Paul Getty Museum. To introduce the new publications to the public, Greg will give a lecture Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the museum's auditorium in Malibu. He and Jeff--the shy one--will be on hand to sign books after the program. The lecture is free, but reservations are required: (310) 458-2003.

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AUSTRALIAN CONNECTION: The 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica has expanded its international artist-in-residency exchange program, thanks to the support of Village Roadshow Ltd., a major Australian film production and entertainment company. The local nonprofit arts facility has hosted visiting Australian artists for the past four years, in cooperation with the Australia Council for the Arts. Village Roadshow's sponsorship provides funds to send a Los Angeles-based artist to Sydney for the first time.

Karen Atkinson, an installation artist and founder of Side Street Projects, an artist-run organization housed at 18th Street, will inaugurate the Australian program in February. Among other exchanges in the works at the Harts center, Los Angeles performance artists Dan Kwan and Denise Uyehara are going to Dublin and Belfast, respectively, in the spring.

A support group, International Circle, has been established to provide additional funds for Los Angeles artists to travel and study abroad. Membership rates begin at $150. Information: (310) 453-3711.

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CYBER-MOCA: The Museum of Contemporary Art has been slightly behind the times, digitally speaking, but now it has a World Wide Web site, MOCA Online, at http://www.MOCA-LA.org.

You'll find highlights from exhibitions and the permanent collection, information about educational programs and special events, plus directions to the museum and parking. For those who would rather eat or shop than look at art, there are menu suggestions from Patinette at MOCA, the museum's cafe, and items available for purchase at the MOCA Store.

To encourage Web surfers to actually visit the museum, MOCA Online has a special offer: Print out any page from the Web site and bring it--with a friend--to the box office for two-for-one admission.

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FACE LIFT FOR PACASIA: Don't let the mess deter you from visiting the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. The historic Chinese-style building--built 70 years ago as the home and gallery of Asian art collector and dealer Grace Nicholson--recently started a three-month restoration, but it will remain open. Plans call for painting the building, reconstructing the tile roof and renovating original design elements on windows, stairways and balconies. On view during the restoration is "Collectors' Choice: An Exhibition in Honor of Grace Nicholson."

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RUSSIAN 'ROM: Most tourists wouldn't think of visiting St. Petersburg without going to the Hermitage, which usually requires battling crowds to get a glimpse of the collection, but few have even heard of the nearby State Russian Museum, where one can walk right in and see an amazing repository of Russian art.

Under the Soviet regime, the museum seemed to deserve its all-but-invisible status because works by Russia's most interesting and innovative modernists were locked away in storage. But even though the Kandinskys, Rodchenkos and Maleviches have reappeared, the museum attracts only about 40,000 visitors a year.

Now the collection is likely to become better known, thanks to "1,000 Years of Russian Art," a new CD-ROM containing images of 1,200 artworks from the museum's collection. It's published by Digital Arts & Sciences Corp. of Alameda, Calif., and priced at $40. Information: (510) 814-7200 or (510) 814-6100.

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