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Her mellow? Not a chance

Times Staff Writer

“I think I run on indignation,” June Wayne says.

Well, that’s a relief. The artist known for reviving lithography, pushing aesthetic boundaries in a large body of prints, paintings and tapestries -- and speaking her mind on politics, feminism and art world issues -- has not mellowed with age.

And age is a sore point.

Wayne doesn’t deny that she will turn 90 on Friday. But she’s so full of energy and ideas that getting old is “a terrible handicap,” she says. “Nobody makes business deals with someone my age. . . . A show is not less than a year away always, and sometimes three or four. If I want to take on a big project, people look at me and ask, ‘Is she going to be around?’ ”

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With a keen sense of justice and a compulsion to articulate her ideas, Wayne has been visibly and audibly “around” for a long time. A champion of free speech and artists’ rights -- and a thorn in the side of conservative politicians -- she joined an artists’ union in 1938 and testified before a congressional committee on behalf of a failed effort to preserve Works Progress Administration art programs as permanent agencies.

Fifty-two years later -- in 1990, when the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack for funding exhibitions deemed offensive by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and others -- she delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of the College Art Assn., the nation’s largest organization of visual arts professionals. The anti-censorship lecture, “Obscenity Reconsidered,” brought thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Wayne’s activism has often overshadowed her art. But she is still ensconced in the light-filled industrial building in Hollywood where she has lived and worked for decades. And the petite artist with a cap of white hair has much to celebrate.

Rutgers University, which established the June Wayne Archive and Study Center in 2002 when she donated a large collection of graphic works, recently published “June Wayne: The Art of Everything.” The richly illustrated, 464-page book documents her work from 1936 to 2006. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a complete set of her prints. Individual works are in dozens of other public collections, and she has compiled a huge international resume of exhibitions.

But she still has much to do.

She’s searching for a home for a dozen large tapestries woven for her in France in the 1970s, which have remained in her possession. Unrolled, one by one, on the floor of her central living space, they compose a parade of intricate, boldly colored abstractions. Like much of her other work, the tapestries reflect her abiding interest in science as they explore waves, winds, genes and natural patterns.

“I have decided to keep them together,” Wayne says, “and am now quietly scouting the country for a museum that is likely to be in business 50 years from now and that has the scholarship and conservatorship to take care of them.

“I want to see to the safety of my work before I kick off,” she says, then stops, annoyed. “There, I brought it up again, just what I don’t want to do.”

But she does want to add that focusing on the tapestries has given her “the most impossible appetite to do some more. If there is anyone out there who wants to commission a huge tapestry, I’m really hungry to do one.”

Her trademark

One project already in process is a suite of lithographs with images of her trademark dark-rimmed eyeglasses serving as frames for self-portraits. “I have worn glasses for decades, and I am very attached to them,” she says. “I’ll choose a few from different decades and include an image of what I was doing at the time I was wearing those glasses. I have worked out the approach technically. It’s only a matter now of going out and doing it.”

Wayne also has a group of paintings in mind: “I’m thinking of them as four short stories, sort of Chaucerian. A kind of Everyman narrative. Every girl? Every person.”

Yet another venture is a small group of assemblages -- wood boxes filled with medications, credit cards and photographs that belonged to her husband, Hank Plone, who died in 2003. “We were together 40 years,” she says. “He wasn’t my first husband, but he was by far the best.”

Mentally checking off her list of pursuits, she adds: “I’m also writing. I’m always writing letters of indignation.”

Among things that get her going are cellphones that don’t work, computers that crash, museum boards that don’t include artists or their representatives and an art world that’s mired in bureaucracy.

“For most of my life,” she says, “a museum director or curator would say, ‘Let’s do a show.’ We would talk to each other, set a date and confirm it in a letter. The day would come when the paintings would be picked up and everything would be nice. Now it’s easier to get an earmark into the annual budget than it is to locate somebody who feels that they can make a commitment just by saying it.”

As for women’s status in the art world, it seems to have risen, she says. “But to give a reliable answer, there is nothing like getting some hard data. I believe if you look at the number of shows and the prices that works by women are bringing, you will find big differences still. When it is no longer necessary to have women’s shows like ‘WACK!’ we will know that there is some parity. If you have to run around and show what women can do, then you are not equal.”

Wayne also has issues with The Times, the diminished width of its pages, for one. “It’s the size of a two-way stretch girdle that you could buy for 99 cents in the ‘30s in Chicago,” she says.

The girdle analogy comes naturally for a native of Chicago whose mother, Dorothy Kline, supported herself, her daughter and her mother as “a traveling saleslady in the corset business,” as Wayne puts it.

A model of female independence, “she made certain decisions that freed me,” Wayne says. “She and my father broke up as soon as I was born, and she made the cut so clean that I was never torn between two parents. In those days, nobody would hire a divorcee, so Dorothy lived under her maiden name as Miss Kline. When there were strangers around, I would pretend to be Dorothy’s sister and my grandmother would pretend to be our mother. We were a family of three women that was very careful what it did and said because our livelihood depended upon Dorothy being perceived as an old maid.”

An avid reader who liked to draw and became bored with school, the young June Wayne began to spend entire days at Chicago’s Clark Street Library instead of going to classes. She dropped out of high school at 15, got a factory job, decided to become an artist and had her first exhibition at 17.

Wayne arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 as the wife of George Wayne, a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, but she had already established herself as an artist, partly through a painting sojourn in Mexico and a stint with the Easel Project of the WPA in Chicago. In 1944, the Waynes had a daughter, Robin, and moved from one air base to another, returning to Los Angeles in 1945. But the marriage began to fail in 1947, and June rose to prominence independently.

She put herself on the art world’s map in 1960, when she secured a Ford Foundation grant to establish Tamarind Lithography Workshop, which played a major role in reviving a form of printmaking that had all but died in the U.S. Throughout the ‘60s, the workshop attracted a stream of prominent artists who produced works with the help of a master printmaker. Wayne devoted a decade to the project, then got another grant to transform the workshop into the Tamarind Institute of the University of New Mexico.

Building on themes

Although still strongly identified with Tamarind, Wayne has spent most of the last 40 years on her own work. As “The Art of Everything” reveals, she has produced many series of works that span several years. The 1948-49 “Kafka Series” of paintings, lithographs and drawings was inspired by one of her favorite writers. The 1975-79 “Dorothy Series” of lithographs is a visual biography of her mother. The 1992-95 “Quake Series,” abstract paintings made of Styrofoam packing “peanuts,” was a response to local earthquakes.

The final work in the book is “Sects in the City,” a digital print that reflects her concern about a proliferation of what she calls “rapture religionists” in Hollywood. A collage-like image incorporating photographs, brochures, lists of religious establishments and a map, it’s the result of a research project and considerable trial and error. Wayne conceived of the work as a lithograph but couldn’t get the colors she wanted. Then she tried silk screen and collage before settling on a digital print with illusionistic effects, including shadows of tacks pinpointing places of worship.

Wayne isn’t a big fan of computer art, though. She finds its color systems lacking, and says that “we have to protect the sensual interface of the arts and when we get very slick about our methodology, we sacrifice that.”

Still, “Sects in the City” brings a new dimension to her work.

“I’ve always had a problem with the fact that I don’t have a signature image,” Wayne says. “If I have already addressed a problem, I move it along. That’s a terrible mistake. When I advise young artists, I say to them, if you want to be successful, develop one thing and do it all the time. But you must teach it to a lot of other people who are not quite as good as you are. They go out and educate the masses to your image and you come along, having done it slightly better, and you make the money. The artist needs not only a signature image but a lot of imitators. And since I keep changing, I obviously have not taken my own advice.”

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com


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