Terry Schoonhoven, a painter and printmaker who became one of the nation’s premier muralists after co-founding the Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad in 1969, died Friday at home in Larchmont Village after a long struggle with cancer. He was 56.
Schoonhoven painted more than 40 murals during his career, occasionally for private clients but more commonly as corporate commissions and public art projects under civic percent-for-art programs.
Perhaps his most famous is one of his earliest. “Isle of California” (1970-72), painted on the back of a four-story West Los Angeles building for ham heir Geordie Hormel, caused a sensation. The apocalyptic image, developed and executed with Schoonhoven’s Fine Arts Squad co-founder, Victor Henderson, shows a vertiginous chunk of broken freeway overpass looming precariously on a precipice over a pounding Pacific surf and beneath a placid, Tiepolo-like sky.
The post-earthquake scene of unimaginable devastation followed by an almost nerve-racking sense of sunny normality plays off the vernacular joke about California falling into the ocean after “the big one” strikes. Although it preceded the Charlton Heston/Ava Gardner pot-boiler movie, “Earthquake,” by two years, the vast scale, sharp photographic realism and dramatic composition of the 45-by-63-foot mural had definite cinematic overtones. Schoonhoven’s aesthetic emerged as an unlikely variant of Pop Art.
The apocalyptic mural found an echo in 1979 in “Downtown Los Angeles Underwater,” a monumental painting now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“It remains one of the few portable works by Schoonhoven,” said Stephanie Barron, the museum’s vice president and senior curator of modern and contemporary art. “It was painted on linen, and then a scrim was attached to the surface to give an aura of underwater murkiness.”
Barron included Schoonhoven in a 1981 exhibition of specially commissioned works, for which he painted a temporary mural beneath the Ahmanson Building arcade at LACMA.
“Isle of California” and “Downtown Los Angeles Underwater” both incorporate a device that Schoonhoven would often revisit: an almost surrealist elasticity of time, in which boundaries among past, present and future get blurred or even erased.
For the 1984 Olympics, he painted a mural above the 6th Street bridge over the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles that knits the Roman Colosseum and Greek sculpture into a mirror image of the city’s skyline.
In a 1993 tile mural--an unusual material for the artist--at a subway entrance at Union Station, a Spanish galleon lies shipwrecked in the desert before a squatting American Indian, while a 1930s movie starlet sits forlornly on her suitcase at the train station. As the viewer prepares to board the subway, time travel becomes the quirky subject.
One of Schoonhoven’s most graceful examples is a 1978-79 mural on the east side of a former apartment building on Windward Avenue in Venice. An exact mirror image of the tatty storefronts and walkways of the beach-side enclave, the “St. Charles Painting” froze a moment for eternity, while the world it faithfully reflected slowly changed.
Schoonhoven was raised in Freeport, Ill., and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and did two years of graduate work at UCLA, where he also taught lithography.
In 1969, he teamed up with Henderson to start the Fine Arts Squad, and they were briefly joined by two of Schoonhoven’s former UCLA students, Jim Frazen and Leonard Koren. The collaborative team was dissolved in 1974.
Initially, Schoonhoven resisted the mural genre. “Murals always seemed to stand for mildewed WPA causes,” he told The Times in 1979, shortly after completing the 52-by-102-foot “St. Charles Painting.”
“I’m not interested in political or social symbolism, even though I believe some Mexican murals by [Jose Clemente] Orozco and [David Alfaro] Siqueiros are important,” Schoonhoven said. “I don’t want my work to stand for something other than what it is.”
The decision to paint public murals was partly driven by a desire to get art out of the confines of the studio, gallery or museum, as well as to separate it from contingencies of the commercial marketplace. Both urges were common in the restive American art world of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Henderson fondly recalled that his former painting partner had a gift for public presentation of their work, which helped reassure potential clients. “We were green when we started out,” Henderson said, “but Terry knew how to talk like he was the press secretary for the president of the United States.”
Schoonhoven also wrestled with volatile and transient materials, since most of his work was executed outdoors. “Isle of California” was painted in enamel on stucco and has faded badly, now existing only as a faint shadow.
“Venice in the Snow,” a fantasy mural depicting a startling seaside anomaly, was covered up when a building was erected on the adjacent property. “Beverly Hills Siddhartha,” an elaborate homage to the once-fashionable German writer Herman Hesse that covered the exterior of the old La Cienega Boulevard nightclub the Climax, and an interior scene at Plaza Pasadena were demolished when the buildings were razed.
Schoonhoven’s Olympics mural was painted with a new mineral pigment that was tested for 75 years’ durability. The tile mural at Union Station also is secure. In 1995, he completed “The Muralists,” a work on the theme of freedom of expression, for the Metrolink station at Cal State L.A., and in 1999 he executed a panoramic mural for the Harvey Morse Auditorium at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on “Jewish Contributions to Medicine.”
In addition to local projects, he completed murals in Minneapolis, San Antonio and St. Louis.
Schoonhoven is survived by his wife, Sheila; a son, Aaron; a daughter, Nisa; his parents, Harold and Peg Schoonhoven of Freeport; and a brother, Dennis of Poway, Calif.
A memorial will be held at noon Jan. 4 in Morse Auditorium at Cedars-Sinai.