‘Millard Sheets: The Early Years 1926-1944’ at Pasadena Museum of California Art

Art Critic

Anyone who has driven around Los Angeles in the last 50 years knows Millard Sheets’ art, even if they don’t know his name.

For Home Savings of America, he designed the distinctive white marble branch banks and their artistic decorations, sometimes collaborating with others, starting in 1952. (Many of those buildings became branches of Washington Mutual and now Chase bank.) The stripped classicism of the architecture is enlivened by Sheets’ specialty: stylized mosaic murals and wall reliefs.

The décor has a certain period charm, even if the already shaky conceit of a prosperous, postwar American equivalent of Renaissance-era Medici bankers as art patrons has inescapably curdled in our era of too-big-to-fail banking scandals. But there was never any doubt that Sheets, who died in 1989, believed in the notion. He was by most accounts as conservative in his political outlook as he was in his art.

At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a useful if rather uninspiring exhibition of 23 oil paintings and 60 watercolors looks at the roots of Sheets’ undeniably prolific career.

An artistic prodigy born on a Pomona farm in 1907, he was institutionally well connected. Sheets taught at Chouinard Art Institute, Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School; helped choose participants in the Public Works of Art Project that employed artists during the Great Depression; directed (for a couple decades) the annual art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Fair, and was an illustrator and artist-correspondent for the U.S. Air Force and Life magazine. He ran Otis Art Institute, now Otis College of Art and Design, where the library is named for him.


Sheets got around. And he started young.

Extravagantly talented, he had his first solo show at 22, after Dalzell Hatfield moved his gallery from near MacArthur Park to the Ambassador Hotel. “Sycamores and Dry Creek” (1928), one of the show’s earliest works, overlays vertical slashes of color on a brusque, flattened perspective of dark hills and a cloudy sky. That the composition, sophisticated for an artist of 20 or 21, teeters on the brink of total abstraction without going all the way speaks of the buttoned-up temperament that limited Sheets’ work throughout his life.

How buttoned up? Consider three very peculiar features of “Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944).”

First, the grinding calamities of the Depression and World War II were the two most prominent social realities of the decades surveyed by the show, which chronicles an artist who made his name as the leading California exponent of so-called American Scene painting.

Yet you wouldn’t really know of such misfortune from looking at the generally bucolic pictures of farms, the shore, rural Mexico and Hawaii. Even Sheets’ urban tenement scenes are notable for their lively, often sunny disposition.

Second, Los Angeles’ population exploded from about 300,000 when Sheets was born to more than a million by the time the show begins, smack in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. But most of these pictures are pastoral. Horses, perhaps reminiscent of his grandparents’ farm where he was raised (Sheets’ mother died shortly after childbirth), turn up in nearly a third of the works.

Sheets’ horses are often stylized, with the curvilinear landscapes echoing the animals’ gracefully muscular contours. The combination functions as a classical symbol for nature’s harnessed power, which certainly describes the irrigated desert that made L.A. possible.

And third, Louise and Walter Arensberg arrived in Hollywood in 1921, bringing with them their incomparable, still-growing collection of French and American avant-garde painting and sculpture; soon they installed it in a hillside house that was open to just about anyone who asked to see it.

Perhaps Sheets did -- for many years he had a studio not far away -- but if so, the influence on his own art is almost undetectable. The Cubist, Dada, Surrealist, Mexican Modern, Pre-Columbian and other artistic masterpieces the Arensbergs assembled barely come to mind when looking at the painter’s Realist work.

If anything, a sumptuous Art Deco stylization is prominent -- sleek and sometimes aerodynamic, as in the elegant machine-forms of “Pan American Clippers” (1935), the sweeping hills of “California” (1935), or even the aerial vista of a humble farm in “The Homestead” (1938). A 1930s watercolor of “Horses Running From Lightning” recalls Indian rock paintings or the Paleolithic cave drawings at Altamira, Spain, remade as stylish decoration.

Sheets’ best paintings are his tenement views, such as the oils “Chavez Ravine” and “New High Street” and the watercolor “Sunset Tenements,” all from around 1930. Multistory dwellings on hilly streets are festooned with laundry and circulating people, rendered in even tones across a luxurious, painterly surface. They elaborate on George Bellows’ 1913 “Cliff Dwellers,” a gritty Ashcan School painting Sheets undoubtedly knew from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. (The Bellows was the first painting the museum’s art division bought, in 1916.) Sheets’ brightly colored tenements are notably less dour than the New Yorker’s gray-brown scene of the Lower Manhattan urban crush.

Oddly, the finest Sheets painting I’ve seen -- 1931’s “Angel’s Flight,” which shows two views of his new wife, Mary, on a landing overlooking the Victorian architectural canyons of downtown Los Angeles -- is not in the exhibition. (It and the Bellows are on view across town at LACMA.)

Painted for the 1931 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the first major show in which he was invited to participate, the aerial composition is closer to Cubist fractured space than anything in the show. It shows how good Sheets was at stylistic adaptation.

In fact, it even implies what I think of as Sheets’ affinity for a 20th century version of the picturesque. Scenic pleasure is his guiding principle, even when the scene is not a landscape view but an established stylistic technique, “fit for a picture.” (Echoes of Easterner Edward Hopper, Midwesterner Thomas Hart Benton and other Regionalist artists also turn up.) Guest curator Gordon McClelland usefully chronicles Sheets’ wide stylistic variations in one gallery, where the shifts among them seem less about probing and exploration than about skillful appropriation.

Think of changing clothes to fit the occasion.

Before his bank buildings, Sheets’ primary claim to fame came from his watercolors, the survey’s largest component. Looking at the lovely calibrations of natural and artificial light in “San Dimas Station” (1933), where a streetlight and an overhead lamp compete with a dusky gray night at a train depot, it’s easy to see why. They’re notable for their unusually large size and remarkable control of the medium, not to mention their traditional, picturesque restraint.