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Symphonies of Color

TIMES ART CRITIC

Between his arrival in Santa Monica with his family as a 10-year-old in 1900 and his death at home in Pacific Palisades in 1973, Stanton Macdonald-Wright spent all but nine years of his life as a painter working in Los Angeles. It simply isn’t possible to understand 20th century art in L.A. without understanding Macdonald-Wright’s work and career. And because it’s not possible to understand 20th century art in general without understanding art made in L.A., the retrospective of Macdonald-Wright’s paintings that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an important--and welcome--event.

“Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism” is the first exhibition to fully survey the painter’s work. It is also a fascinating, appropriately concise presentation, punctuated by a few surprises and accompanied by an exceptionally good catalog that finally fills in the artist’s hitherto sketchy biography.

Macdonald-Wright is most often remembered--when he’s remembered at all--for the radically inventive style of abstract painting he developed in Paris between 1911 and 1913. A dozen of the show’s 42 easel paintings date from those years, or from the period in New York between 1914 and 1918 when he further elaborated the style that his fellow American expatriate and European adventurer, Morgan Russell, had dubbed Synchromism.

Synchromism is most easily (if misleadingly, as we shall see) thought of as “Cubism in color.” Picasso and Braque had largely banished color in Cubism’s early phase, to concentrate on the structural armature of perceptual form. Cubism had galvanized Parisian art circles by the time the Americans arrived, and Macdonald-Wright (like Russell) was soon elucidating form and volume through fractured, rhythmically arrayed planes of pure, saturated color. In a sense, Matisse’s color was wedded to Picasso’s structure.

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But the retrospective doesn’t stop there, as shows of American Modernist painting that acknowledge Macdonald-Wright typically do. “Color, Myth and Music” instead follows the artist back to Los Angeles in the fall of 1918.

The exhibition chronicles the increasingly figurative turn his painting took, at first based on the muscular bodies of Michelangelo, and his steady fusion of Modernist principles with traditional Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. It includes eight panels from an imaginative mural of mythological scenes painted for the old Santa Monica Public Library, which recalls his lengthy involvement with the Work Projects Administration art program during the Depression. (The mural was dismantled in 1964 and has not been shown here since; look for “Titanic” star Gloria Stuart as one panel’s ingenue.) It charts his periodic return to still life painting in the manner of Cezanne and Braque, which had inspired him in Paris, as well as his own reprise of Synchromist color-abstraction in a lighter, airier, more organic vein in the 1950s.

What makes the show important, though, is not that it overturns previous assessments of Macdonald-Wright’s achievement. The great work remains the pure Synchromist abstractions of 1912 to 1916, in which dazzling patches of dense or transparent color are composed in opposing patterns of curves that--without ever depicting human anatomy--recall Renaissance figures in graceful, contrapposto repose. Everything else is elaboration or variation, sometimes quirky, frequently jejune.

Instead, by putting this astonishing early work within the larger context of Macdonald-Wright’s career, the show accomplishes two things: Revealing a distinct continuity throughout his life, it changes our understanding of what the artist was actually up to in the early paintings--pictures that still have the power to startle--and, in so doing, it clarifies the larger project of early American Modernism.

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Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism, Suprematism, Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism--the ‘teens in Europe were the age of the “ism.” Macdonald-Wright and Russell needed one and knew it. (No fools, these Americans.) So, with all sincerity, they invented Synchromism.

Synchromy--the term literally means “colors together"--was coined by Russell on the analogy of “symphony.” The aim was to establish for painting a visual equivalent to the aural abstraction of music. Macdonald-Wright developed a formal system of color scales that correspond to musical scales, and each color found its place in a visual orchestra. The show does a good job of explaining the method through diagrams that compare the spectrum with piano keys, the artist’s own color wheels and some simple text.

It turns out, however, that their creation was in fact the most radical extrapolation to date of a well-established, even mainstream “ism"--Symbolism, the movement in literature and art that flourished from around 1885 to about 1910. Anti-materialist and anti-rationalist, Symbolist artists like Gauguin and Redon rejected literal representation of the world in favor of suggestive evocation. Their work repudiated the naturalistic aims of the Impressionists.

As the French poet Jean Moreas put it in an 1886 manifesto, Symbolists wanted “to clothe the idea in sensuous form.” Color was a primary agent, typically rendered in broad areas and in flattened forms. Correspondences between color and sound were desirable, often expressed in musical terms. Mysticism, mythology and eroticism proliferated--along with a faith in the creative potential of narcotics.

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Synchromism pushed this critically important precedent for 20th century art to its logical conclusion.

Certainly Cubism was important to Macdonald-Wright. It gave him a formal structure for his chromatic experiments. Rather than “Cubism in color,” though, the radically abstract style he developed is more correctly described as “Symbolism in pure color.” Everything Macdonald-Wright painted for the next six decades was a variation on this late-19th century theme.

The precocious artist was just 22 when he made his first Synchromist painting in Paris. He was barely 28 when he came back to L.A. Imagine the moment.

The horror of World War I was just over, and the boom was beginning in Southern California. Here was a virtual kid--hugely ambitious, but still a kid--penniless, worldly and (like any good Symbolist) an opium addict. When he left Santa Monica in 1910, the seaside resort claimed fewer than 8,000 souls, and when he got back eight years later the population had doubled--but it was still small-town America. Well under a million people were scattered throughout the entire sprawling county of Los Angeles.

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Adventurous painting was locally dominated by versions of Impressionism, which had peaked in France 40 years before (and which Symbolism decisively brought to an end). Macdonald-Wright--who had originated a Modernist idiom to controversial reception, shown at Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, commiserated with Stieglitz in New York and helped to organize the first substantive show of avant-garde American painting (1916’s Forum Exhibition)--was in a singular position.

His trajectory went like this: In Paris he was a little fish in a very big pond, which offered a useful mix of total freedom and sheer, desperate necessity that was good for his art; in New York he was a mid-size fish in a mid-size pond, unable to get much traction (just like everyone else); and, in L.A. he was a big fish in a tiny pond--practically a puddle--and it made further artistic growth impossible.

Macdonald-Wright became a walking paradox: L.A.'s officially sanctioned avant-garde maverick, a bohemian with portfolio. Temperamentally equipped with an outsized ego--and finally sober--he played the role to the hilt.

He organized museum and gallery shows, took over the Art Students League, became district supervisor for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, won a Fulbright scholarship to Tokyo, joined the faculty at UCLA and more. His work moved in lateral directions for the rest of his career--always technically adept and conceptually static.

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Symbolist art certainly remained the most important philosophical armature for early American Modernism, in ways that have yet to be fully explored. For the rapidly growing pond of Southern California, little-fish painters such as Henrietta Shore and Agnes Pelton moved Symbolist art in the most provocative, unexpected and thus satisfying directions.

Macdonald-Wright, on the other hand, became a kind of “odd man in .” The exhibition at LACMA, deftly organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art, shows what a strange and anomalous place that was to be. It should not to be missed by anyone with a serious interest in Modern art.

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“Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., through Oct. 28. Closed Wednesdays. (323) 857-6000.

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