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A Painter’s Many Layers

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Stanton Macdonald-Wright may be Southern California’s quintessential Renaissance man. Make that eccentrically quintessential. A pioneering, if little-known, painter who lived from 1890 to 1973, he is credited with bringing Modern art to Los Angeles. But that is only the most visible layer of his persona.

While turning out a color-oriented body of work--ranging from muscular abstractions to ethereal fantasies--he also organized exhibitions, administered WPA art projects, taught at Chouinard Art Institute, the Los Angeles Art Students League and UCLA, and wrote art textbooks, criticism and essays.

Venturing intrepidly into other fields, Macdonald-Wright tried his hand as a playwright, actor and set designer; guitarist, vocalist and composer; Zen Buddhist student; engineer and gourmet cook. He was also a linguist who was fluent in French and had a working knowledge of Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

Macdonald-Wright was endowed with an ego to match his talents, but he only expected to achieve immortality as a visual artist. “There have only been four great American painters: Whistler, Ryder, Russell and Wright,” he said a few years before his death as he contemplated his place in history.

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The writers of standard art history books haven’t come up with that same short list. James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who transformed academic realism with evocative color and mood, still looms large, while Albert Pinkham Ryder is widely revered as a visionary romantic. But Morgan Russell and Macdonald-Wright are fodder for trivia tests.

It takes a specialist to peg the two artists’ primary claim to fame: as co-founders of Synchromism. In 1913, while living in Paris, they established the short-lived movement, based on a theory of painting that equates color with sound and uses color scales to organize compositions.

That situation may change, if “Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism” has the desired effect. Opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the traveling exhibition of about 60 paintings, drawings and prints is the first full retrospective of the artist’s career. The Los Angeles engagement (to Oct. 28) is the second stop in a three-city tour. It began in March at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and will end at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Dec. 2 to Feb. 24, 2002).

“I have a hope for this show,” said art historian Will South, who got hooked on Macdonald-Wright in the late 1970s, when he first saw a painting by the artist at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Now curator of collections at the University of North Carolina’s Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, he organized the exhibition with John Coffey, chief curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and wrote most of the catalog.

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“It’s hard for me to be objective about Macdonald-Wright’s place in history because I have been so submerged in his life and art for so many years,” South said, “but my hope is that now he can enter mainstream discussions of American art.”

But first things first, and that meant getting the facts straight in an authoritative publication, he said. “We wanted to provide an accurate biography because there wasn’t one.” It was also essential to include a clear explanation of Synchromist theory and practice because much of what has been written is wrong, he said.

As for selecting works for the exhibition, the curators wanted to track Macdonald-Wright’s career and “help people get a summary feeling for who he was,” South said. “All the shows in the past had either focused on the early work or were weighted toward the late stuff. And none of them ever traveled the country in a systematic way. This show is meant to give everybody an opportunity to get a good look at Stanton Macdonald-Wright.”

Those who catch the exhibition in Los Angeles will see a version enhanced for the local audience by Ilene Susan Fort, a curator of American art at LACMA. To fill out the picture of Macdonald-Wright’s multifaceted presence here, she has added examples of design projects, woodblock prints, working drawings, and glazed tiles used in murals, along with photographs and ephemera.

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“What I am trying to do is show that he was more than just a painter,” Fort said.

Those who knew the artist aren’t likely to argue with that.

“There was nothing he put his hand to that he did not do extremely well,” said Anne Summerfield, a Los Angeles-based collector who, with her husband, John, has lent six works to the exhibition. “Regardless of what medium he used in his art, he went into it as if he had years of experience.”

The Summerfields met Macdonald-Wright in the 1960s at his home in Pacific Palisades. “He was like a count--elegant, suave, continental,” Anne Summerfield recalled. Instead of finding him intimidating, they became close friends of the artist and his wife, Jean Sutton Macdonald-Wright. “He had a personal demand for perfection in everything he did, including cooking,” Summerfield said. “He had a nose that was unbelievable. He could smell what was on the stove and tell you what the ingredients were.”

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The artist who followed his instincts in an astonishing number of directions essentially grew up in luxury hotels, owned and managed by his father, Archibald Davenport Wright. Born in Charlottesville, Va., Stanton and his older brother, writer Willard Huntington Wright, enjoyed a permissive lifestyle and derived much of their early education from private tutors. (The family name was Wright, but Stanton merged his middle and last name with a hyphen.)

The boys spent their early childhood at the Virginia Hotel in Charlottesville, until their father became smitten with Southern California. In 1899 he sold the Virginia Hotel and moved his family to Santa Monica, where he bought a large beachfront property, Hotel Arcadia.

As a teenage hotel resident, Stanton was introduced to the joys of haute cuisine and fine wine. He also cultivated an interest in art and painted his first picture, a Santa Monica landscape, when he was 13. He was a good student when it suited him, but he developed an abhorrence of authority, with the encouragement of his brother.

Stanton’s education hasn’t been completely documented, but it’s clear that he enrolled at the Los Angeles Art Students League in 1906 and gained a reputation as a party boy. His father approved of his desire to become an artist but grew tired of financing his indolence. In 1909--after various abortive attempts to buckle down and study or hold down a job--Stanton married Ida Wyman, a wealthy woman 10 years his senior, and departed for Paris with his new wife and mother-in-law.

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The marriage was ill-fated, but the sojourn in Paris launched Macdonald-Wright’s career. Immersed in the art world’s mecca, he met fellow American artists Thomas Hart Benton and Morgan Russell, French artists Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, and Canadian painter and color theorist Percyval Tudor-Hart, among many others.

Macdonald-Wright and Russell, who shared an interest in color as a subject in and of itself, studied with Tudor-Hart and began the research into color and sound that led to Synchromism. The first exhibitions of their Synchromist paintings took place in Munich and Paris in 1913, and in New York in 1914. In accompanying text, they discussed harmonious color relationships and the notion of paintings that reveal themselves to viewers “like music, in time,” rather than merely existing in space.

“They were the first Americans to found an abstract painting movement in Europe,” South said. “These two artists believed that color had sound equivalents, and that by painting in color scales in the same way that one composes with musical scales, you could create paintings that would evoke musical sensations.” The movement’s name, Synchromism, comes from “synchromy,” meaning “with color,” he said.

World War I and a lack of financial support forced Macdonald-Wright to return to the United States in 1915. He settled in New York, living in poverty while making connections with the art community. Although his work won the approval of Alfred Stieglitz, and he had several exhibitions, including one at Stieglitz’s avant-garde 291 Gallery, his life in New York was a constant struggle. Disappointed with the art scene and his lowly place in it, he returned to Los Angeles in 1918.

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It was much easier to be a star in Los Angeles, and Macdonald-Wright soon achieved that status. His first major achievement was to organize Southern California’s debut exhibition of Modern art. With the help of his brother and Stieglitz, Macdonald-Wright presented “Exhibition of Paintings by American Modernists"--including his own work and that of Russell, Benton, Arthur Dove, Marsden Harley and John Marin. It appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park in 1920.

Reviews in the local press were largely disparaging, but Macdonald-Wright had established himself as one of the West Coast’s leading advocates for Modern art.

Despite his own rejection of formal training, he also became an educator. His first teaching job was at Chouinard Art Institute in 1923. The same year, he began teaching at the Los Angeles Art Students League and soon took over as director. Twelve years later, amid the Great Depression, he became a leader of the Works Project Administration’s Federal Art Project.

He painted an ambitious mural cycle at the Santa Monica Public Library in 1934-35. The largest artistic project of his career, it was designed to depict the intellectual and spiritual development of mankind in separate narrative streams. The two would then “coalesce and fuse in what perhaps holds the greatest potentialities for art expression invented by man--the medium of the moving picture,” the artist wrote in a catalog explaining the project.

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When the mural was complete, he became the Federal Art Project district supervisor for Los Angeles County. In that capacity, he oversaw 230 projects in post offices, schools and other public buildings. His Santa Monica Library murals, painted on movable panels, were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1964, when the library moved from 5th Street to its present building on 6th Street.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, Macdonald-Wright played the dual role of advocate for advanced art and, increasingly, member of the establishment. He joined the art faculty of UCLA in 1946. By then, he had been a prominent figure on the local art scene for two decades, but his role as an adventurous leader was over. He retired from the university at the end of 1954 and was elevated to the rank of professor emeritus.

Macdonald-Wright never stopped painting, but his later “synchromies” are generally dismissed as weak imitations of his early work. Although his present obscurity can be attributed to his move to California, it can be difficult to get a handle on his artistic achievement. What to make of an artist whose work encompasses dynamic abstraction, heroic figuration and--as time passed and he spent more and more time in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, Japan--a large dose of Eastern philosophy, mysticism and Asian subject matter?

It’s time to examine such conundrums, said Fort, who has gained new respect for Macdonald-Wright’s late paintings and suggests that they be interpreted as a Zen experience. “In these works, he was striving for something that’s a lot more difficult to understand than his color theory,” she said.

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Carving a larger place in art history for Macdonald-Wright is “a tall order,” South said. “It’s hard to break into the ranks of who gets shown in classrooms, who gets put in the survey books. And yet that’s my hope, because with Macdonald-Wright comes California Modernism.

“He is the central figure in that story, and it’s a story that--until the last 10 years or so--nobody knew much about. Even now, it’s pretty much restricted to California. It always slays me how the history of American art is the history of East Coast art, with a little bit of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton thrown in for regional flavor. That’s got to change.”

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“Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to Oct. 28. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday, noon-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Adults, $7; students and seniors, $5; children older than 5, $1. (323) 857-6000.

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