Surprise sprouts from a 'Seed'

Times Staff Writer

Between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles built the foundations of its singular metropolitan identity. The construction of a deep-water port, a regional transportation network and an aqueduct to bring water to the semi-arid desert laid the groundwork for a rapid, quarter-century transformation. L.A. went from small town to the nation's largest municipal territory. Fueled by a torrent of more than 1 million new residents, most from the Midwest, the city became, in H.L. Mencken's memorable words, "Double Dubuque."

Which is another way of saying: a gigantic conservative hick town. Which is also a way of saying: not a place where Modernist art was likely to find a congenial level of curiosity and support, except among a tiny cohort. And so it stayed until late in the 20th century.

At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a modest yet intriguing new exhibition does a fine job of unearthing an important sliver of that early history. "A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953" assembles more than 50 paintings and a like number of works on paper -- most notably, watercolors -- to tell the largely forgotten story of a crucial forebear of today's numerous important L.A. art schools. It comes with an excellent catalog, written by guest curators Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten and art historian Will South.

The Art Students League pretty much fell apart as a force by World War II, but it limped on until the early 1950s. If the show is not jam-packed with rediscovered masterpieces, it is replete with surprises.

Perhaps the most fascinating is the degree to which Asian aesthetics had a profound, still not fully understood impact on the early development of Modern L.A art. John McLaughlin, the first major abstract painter to emerge here after World War II, was deeply knowledgeable about Asian art, so the depth of the connection earlier in the century is provocative.

A thumbnail history of the Arts Students League goes like this. In April 1906, seven short months after voters approved an ambitious bond issue to pay for the Owens River aqueduct, two artists opened a school on the top floor of a downtown building on Broadway near 2nd Street. Hanson Puthuff, a commercial sign painter by trade, and Antony Anderson, who worked part-time as The Times' art critic, offered courses in life drawing from nude models -- a somewhat scandalous practice -- three days a week. Soon, classes in sketching outdoors from nature were added.

The curriculum hardly sounds radical. But in a period when the norm was pretty, picturesque landscape paintings derived from decades-old French precedents, the infusion of a grittier Realism, akin to New York's Ashcan School, spoke to an incipient refusal of establishment codes.

Rex Slinkard's large, untitled male nude is the most arresting picture from the show's earliest period -- an erotic composition rendered in sensuous slathers of oil paint. Impressionist it's not.

Slinkard was extravagantly talented, but his death at age 30 in the 1918 influenza pandemic cut short a potentially influential career. Enter Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Returning to L.A. from Paris after making some of the first fully abstract paintings by an American artist, he became the school's director.

Macdonald-Wright was its most historically memorable instructor, at least until his Parisian colleague Morgan Russell arrived for a brief tenure in 1931, and Lorser Feitelson began classes in 1932. In Paris in the early teens, Macdonald-Wright and Russell concocted a form of rhythmic abstraction in which pure color was the visual equivalent of music and sound. A muscular drawing style derived from Michelangelo provided the armature -- and an unnecessary, even distracting historical pedigree.

In Los Angeles the emphasis on color assumed a more personal, often dynamic role.

The Symbolist undercurrent that runs through early American Modern art strove for distinctive individual expression. Chromatic splendor fit that bill. Nicholas Brigante's 1931 "Porcelain and Oranges" -- perhaps the most beautiful in the exhibition -- is emblematic.

Like Cezanne, Brigante created a tabletop still life that echoes a natural landscape, while arranging fruit, napkins, a vase, two porcelain Foo dogs and other elements to open a Cubist space of shifting planes. Luxurious color carries the work, seamlessly uniting its disparate parts. The checkered table runners, in complementary violet and golden orange, twist the space like a visual strand of DNA, while a transparent amethyst vase puts a mysterious void at the center of an extravagantly fertile image.

"Porcelain and Oranges" is a watercolor. That medium stands out as key to achievements in American Modernist painting, including works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Demuth in the first half of the 20th century and Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis in the second half. As a vehicle for fluid, transparent color, it's ideal. Here, its relationship to Japanese and Chinese brush painting is significant.

Twelve of the show's 59 artists are first- or second-generation Asian Americans, mostly Japanese. Aside from downtown proximity, the Art Students League was composed of artists who stood outside establishment social precincts, which made for a seamless fit with Angelenos of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the loathsome Executive Order 9066 in 1942, artists Benji Okubo and Hideo Date even continued teaching Art Students League classes while incarcerated at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a concentration camp near Cody, Wyo.

Date's 1930s "Still Life" shows a jade porcelain fruit dish and a vase with a dragon design, both on a tabletop set before an atmospheric landscape. The pale palette is starkly different from Brigante's, while the pigment is oil rather than water-based. Most important is the distinctive space; rather than being traditionally Cubist, it's transparent. Every solid form -- the peach in the foreground, the vase in the middle ground, the mountain in the distance -- reads simultaneously as a void.

In Western art a void tends to be associated with the abyss, a chasm of emotional darkness. In Eastern painting a void is typically the spiritual complement of the material world, as full and sensuously mysterious as any physical object.

A sizable number of works include the depiction of Asian artifacts or subjects, such as cats and flower arrangements. But, for what Art Students League painters called Asian-fusion art, the conception of spatial fullness is most meaningful. After World War II, it became the linchpin for McLaughlin's truly radical brand of geometric abstraction.

The show is divided into useful sections. They include the school's beginnings, the variety of Asian influences, participation by artists in the WPA, and traditions of portraiture, still life and figure drawing. Because many works are undated, specific chronology can be difficult to sort out.

A poignant segment chronicles Heart Mountain, anchored by a remarkable little canvas showing an aerial view of the camp. The barracks are blunt gray bars lined up across a gray-brown field, while the distinctive mountain in the distance is seen in pale pink profile. It's as if the artist, Shingo Nishiura, was floating in the sky at the pinnacle's height, getting his bearings and leaving behind the grim reality below. As a work of imaginative flight, it's quietly gripping.

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christopher.knight@latimes .com

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'A Seed of Modernism'

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Ends: April 13

Price: $6

Contact: (626) 568-3665

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