Painter Helen Lundeberg, a seminal figure in Los Angeles art history who in 1933 co-founded the New Classicism art movement, died here Monday of complications from pneumonia. She was 91.
New Classicism, also known as Post-Surrealism, fused the fantastical style of Surrealism with the formal structure of Renaissance painting. As former Times art critic William Wilson wrote in 1995, it was work purged of Surrealism’s “weirder overtones.”
Created with a palette of muted hues, Lundeberg paintings are known for radiating a sense of calm and order, an intimate understanding of the laws of nature. A lover of nature, she painted many landscapes, but always from memory; she did not like to paint outdoors. “The time I tried it, the wind blew, and everything fell over. It was a mess,” she once said.
“She has never been interested in primary colors,” Los Angeles curator Donna Stein once said of Lundeberg’s work. “Red, white and blue--forget them. She works in a very close range of tones, using two or three pigments and augmenting them with black and white. It gives her works a sort of mysterious quality.”
Lundeberg, whose career spanned 60 years, founded New Classicism with Lorser Feitelson, her art teacher who became her husband. They issued a printed manifesto that read: “In New Classicism alone do we find an aesthetic which departs from the principles of the decorative graphic arts to found a unique order, and integrity of subject matter and pictorial structure unprecedented in the history of art.”
Feitelson died in 1978 at age 80.
“She was a person who helped put California on the map in the years when people were not looking to the United States at all as an arts center, and certainly not looking to California,” said Carol Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which hosted the exhibition “A Birthday Salute to Helen Lundeberg” in 1988.
In an interview Tuesday, Eliel called Lundeberg’s work “psychologically revealing, I think, beautifully painted; her technical execution was superb.”
Lundeberg’s paintings have been exhibited in prominent museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. The National Museum houses one of Lundeberg’s best-known paintings, the autobiographical “Double Portrait of the Artist in Time,” a self-portrait as a little girl, sitting before a self-portrait as an adult. Her work often contained paintings within paintings.
Eliel noted that while Lundeberg is best known for her paintings of the 1930s, her work recently has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as the art world focuses on contributions of California artists to the American art scene.
In 1990, Lundeberg’s work was included in “Pacific Dreams: Currents of Surrealism and Fantasy Art in California” at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood. In 1994, her name was back in the news when a refurbishing effort at Venice High School drew attention to two panels of a forgotten Depression-era mural in the school library. The 1941 mural was created by a team of Los Angeles historians, illustrators and painters led by Lundeberg and funded by the federal government’s Works Project Administration.
Lundeberg had a long association with the WPA, whose public art projects provided many artists with the only work they could get at that time. Another WPA-funded Lundeberg mural still exists in the Police Department briefing room in Fullerton City Hall. The artist also created several huge outdoor murals, the largest of which is a 240-foot-tall mosaic in Inglewood’s Centinela Park.
The Tobey C. Moss Gallery in Los Angeles has presented several Lundeberg retrospectives in recent years.
“She was very quietly witty,” Moss said Tuesday. “She was a quiet and retiring person who really never sought the podium.”
Born in Chicago in 1908 to second-generation Swedish parents, Lundeberg moved with her family to Pasadena in 1912, where her father worked for real estate and stock brokerage companies.
In her youth, she was selected to be part of a study of gifted children conducted by Stanford University. Intending to become a writer, she did not begin to study art until her early 20s, 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.
Lundeberg was at first uninspired by the art classes, but that changed when Feitelson joined the faculty and became her teacher. She blossomed under his tutelage, and also fell in love. Only a year after she entered the school, one of her paintings was accepted for an exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego.
After Feitelson’s death, the devastated Lundeberg retreated from the canvas, but returned for a prolific comeback in the 1980s with two major series, the “Grey Interiors” series, followed by the “Wetlands” landscapes. Her last painting, “Two Mountains,” was done in 1990. In a 1992 Times interview, she expressed the wish to begin painting again, but failing health prevented it.
Over the years, Lundeberg experimented with abstract forms, but always returned to a base of reality. As she once said: “I have never been interested in pure, non-objective abstraction; I love, too much, the forms, perspectives, and atmosphere of our natural world.”