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Revisiting a Talent That Was Los Angeles’ Own

TIMES ART CRITIC

The end of a millennial century approaches. The event seems to have roused Los Angeles to awareness of possessing a tangible past. Serious histories and critiques of the urban fabric appear regularly along with exhibitions reminding us that there was L.A. art before it got famous in the 1960s.

The latest such event is Pomona College’s “Rico Lebrun: The Drawings for Genesis.” Housed in the Montgomery Gallery and organized by its director, Marjorie L. Harth, the exhibition draws attention to an all-but-forgotten artist once considered the resident Angel town genius.

Born in Naples, Italy, in 1900, Rico Lebrun died in Los Angeles in 1964. Immigrating to New York as a commercial artist, he moved to L.A. in 1930 and taught drawing to fledgling Disney animators at Chouinard Art Institute. By the end of World War II, he’d retooled himself into a dedicated fine artist. He was a lean, handsome guy, short of stature but long of nose. An impressive draftsman and, by all accounts, a charismatic lecturer, his style was a melange of Michelangelesque drawing, Picasso structure and Abstract Expressionist gesture.

He inspired something of a school. It included such painters as William Brice and Howard Warshaw and sculptors Jack Zajac and Robert Cremean, among others. They formed what amounted to a West Coast version of a European postwar “Monster” school, whose inspiration numbered such figures as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon. The style represented a horrified Existential recoil against the Holocaust and the continuing threat of nuclear apocalypse. Lebrun pronounced himself a humanist follower of Sartre, Kafka and Camus.

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In 1958, Lebrun finalized a commission from Pomona College to execute a mural on Frary Hall, which houses the institution’s picturesque medieval dining room. Lebrun was attracted to the site because it contains another landmark mural, “Prometheus,” executed in 1930 by the great Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.

Lebrun undertook the biblical subject of Genesis. Painted in tones of black on a false white wall, it surrounds the inside of an arch leading to the hall staircase. Its central figure is a battered post-deluge Noah protectively embracing a child amid the rubble of the ark. Reading counterclockwise from the lower left, one sees the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Cain and Abel fused into a single body, the corpses of Sodom and Gomorrah, a crippled, angry Job, and, finally, doomed figures trying to escape the flood. Lebrun seems to have been trying to imagine Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” as if painted by Goya. The figures have an odd, ectoplasmic translucence that adds to general grimness.

This exhibition of preparatory drawings and some related sculpture is on the whole impressive. Lebrun liked to work in washes on big pieces of butcher paper. When he wanted a correction, he’d just bandage on a new piece and work ahead. The practice lends the drawings a muscular spontaneity and displaces the space into implied Cubist facets.

Buffs like to argue about whether Lebrun really drew as well as his reputation claims. Reasonable grounds for this doubt are evidenced in big sketches for the mural, such as “Horse of the Apocalypse.” The problem arises from the fact that it’s almost impossible to do a probing anatomical drawing and make a dramatic abstract gesture at the same time.

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In a related installation of illustrations for Dante’s “Inferno,” Lebrun worked at normal draftsman’s scale. In examples like “Tormented Shades,” his anatomical description is both elegant and accurate.

As an artist, Lebrun was trying heroically to graft Old Master skills to Modernist forms. That he succeed as well as he did is admirable. Taken on its own terms, his art constitutes significant accomplishment. Lebrun was the first Southland artist to clearly articulate the expansive, Baroque sensibility that would come to fruition in the work of his successors, Ed Kienholz and Robert Irwin.

Why then has his contribution been so obscured? There was plenty of sniping from his rivals, but that barely counts. What really hurt Lebrun was a historic aesthetic sea change after the war. Lebrun wanted to perpetuate a legacy of European humanism, literate and frankly grounded in established old world conventions. Victorious Yankees wanted all that translated into the American argot. Lebrun’s art spoke with too foreign an accent.

He also had a geographic problem. Artistically and otherwise, Los Angeles has a long history of denying life’s tragic factor. Why look at all that gruesome stuff when it’s so nice at the beach?

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* Pomona College, Montgomery Gallery, 333 N. College Way, Pomona, through March 29, closed Mondays, (909) 621-8283.


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