The life of Helen Lundeberg spanned the 20th century, almost exactly. In the first full-scale retrospective exhibition of paintings by the Los Angeles artist, who died in 1999 at the age of 91, the midpoint of that century quietly emerges as a decisive pivot in her work.
Artistically, the swing did not work out for the best.
At the Laguna Art Museum, "Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective" offers a revisionist look at her career. Conventional wisdom has it that the work from the 1930s and '40s is her best, while the show argues that her 1960s paintings are the finest that she produced. But the proposed revision is unconvincing.
Among the assembled 58 paintings, most of the dozen that date from the 1930s to the end of World War II are captivating — exceedingly strange, not in flashy or dramatic ways but as murmuring enigmas.
Take "The Red Planet" (1934). Inside a small room, a black-and-white photograph of a comet shooting through the night sky is propped up on astronomy books stacked on the floor. The books are next to a pedestal table with an odd, sky-blue circular top.
The composition is primarily a Constructivist-style arrangement of flat planes of color — floor, wall, baseboard, door, tabletop, books. Two glowing orbs of vivid color draw your eye.
The smaller orb is crimson, a thickly painted dot whose bottom edge is rimmed with a violet shadow. It appears to rest on the table below the larger orb — golden, like the sun, and hovering above in space.
It only takes a moment to realize that the golden sphere is actually the knob on a pale-green door behind the table, opened to an unseen exterior.
Lundeberg breathes miraculous space into the tightly organized picture through the deft deployment of shadows. Initially they don't seem to line up in a logical way. The big one cast on the rear wall by the door suggests light flooding in from the side, but it seems at cross-purposes with the angled shadows cast by the table legs below and the stacked books opposite.
Shadows push away from one another, opening up the relatively contained interior space of carefully balanced colors. The light source for these subtle visual pyrotechnics is initially puzzling — but not for long. The shadows radiate outward. The light source is the sunny doorknob.
The bright glow of this common household "sun" casts deep shadows, including that violet arc beneath the "red planet" dot on the table. The doorknob, a conventional bit of domestic hardware, becomes a mysterious symbol of imaginative liberation — a metaphor for opening a door between interior and exterior worlds.
Lundeberg transforms an ordinary small room into a virtual solar system. Microcosm meets macrocosm — as another of her paintings is titled — and the membrane between them blurs.
Lundeberg had a precocious interest in French poet André Breton, German painter Max Ernst, Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí and — perhaps most important — Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico. She knew his work firsthand from the great Louise and Walter Arensberg collection of Dada and Surrealist art, which filled their Hollywood house.
De Chirico's brilliant civic landscape "The Soothsayer's Recompense," with its sun-blasted classical piazza, hung over the Arensbergs' living room sofa. Among its more haunting features is a double image.
Amid raking shadows, a background pair of palm trees framed within a foreground archway and behind a brick wall creates the hallucinatory specter of an ancient Corinthian helmet. It looks away as a locomotive chugs by, the past watching the present as much as we are watching both.
The show's guest curator, Ilene Susan Fort, also co-organized the compelling 2012 survey "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is on the curatorial staff. She notes that European Surrealists prized spontaneity and free-association in making art. Given the cruel failures of an Enlightenment age that ended in the slaughter of World War I, inventing a new way of thinking was essential.
Lundeberg took on their proposition.
However, she regarded chance as a serious flaw in the European Surrealist ointment. She set about crafting a remedy — buoyed perhaps by the fearlessness of youth (she was all of 26), her physical distance from fractured Europe and the grinding experience of the Great Depression.
She knew life's vicissitudes. Her family was comfortable, but her father was a stockbroker. When Lundeberg started painting, she used cheap wallboard instead of canvas.
Like De Chirico, she looked to the triumph of the Renaissance. One of her first works is a lovely portrait in pale hues showing her sister Inez in profile, seated before a compressed landscape and dressed in a simple chemise that recalls a Greek chiton. The serene painting is an unmistakable echo of 15th century portraits by Ghirlandaio or Piero della Francesca.
Lundeberg's aim, marvelously achieved in "The Red Planet" and elsewhere, was to fuse classical structure with the imaginative power of enigma. The result is a Surrealism unlike any other — including the grander version by Lorser Feitelson, her teacher at Pasadena's Stickney Memorial School of Art in and later her husband.
It further unfolds in several self-portraits — veiled and otherwise. One is a De Chirico-like figure cobbled together from a chair, a seashell and a sheet of torn paper, its "head" a mirror reflecting a light bulb.
In another she shows herself painting a remote planet using the model of a sphere held in one hand, its shadowed side transforming the ball into the image of a cylinder that visually punctures the picture plane. In a third — probably her most famous work — she links self-portraits at the age of 2 and 26 with a tall, thin shadow, the child's body below billowing into an ethereal, self-created picture of womanhood above.
Oddly, the exhibition chronology makes a big jump from 1946 to 1957 without ever fully explaining the decade-long gap. What happened?
Lundeberg was occupied with civic mural projects and faced difficult family issues — her mother's death, her two-decade affair with Feitelson finally being resolved with his wife's death and more. I suspect, however, that her classical revision of Surrealism before World War II may have seemed intellectually unsustainable in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The road ahead was unclear.
Her eventual solution was geometric abstraction — flat planes of smooth color in abstract shapes that unfold as landscapes. Double images abound.
A wide, horizontal wedge might suggest the sea glimpsed over the crest of a hill. Tall rectangles become outdoor walls across which light plays. A window emerges from a dark square abutted by a skinny rectangle, both inside a second plane of color.
The compositions can get intricate. An arc rising over an interlocking pattern of lines delineates a bridge lifted over city streets, while a skinny wedge dissolves into a desert highway disappearing into the distance.
Lundeberg soon stopped making modest easel paintings and instead began to work with 5-foot-square canvases, often using acrylic paint rather than slow-drying oils. A square format erases both landscape and figure associations that are built into horizontal and vertical canvases. Abstract painted geometry must carry the theme.
More than half the show dates from the 1960s, which the catalog asserts was Lundeberg's "finest and most productive period." Yet these pleasant paintings, always self-assured but mostly bland, are hemmed in as simply problems in graphic design.
Also needing mention is an obvious problem with the exhibition's installation, especially in the final room. An inadequate museum lighting system directs disfiguring spotlights onto some paintings' surfaces, ruining the painted subtleties. These paintings would better be left out, the wall kept blank, rather than displaying them in a manner that does a disservice to the art.
Still, the late work is essentially "The Red Planet" minus the mind-altering mystery. Some designs are more complex than others, but none is especially dynamic.
Incongruity has been replaced by orderly, classical restraint. The quiet enigma that animates the marvelous early work is gone, and the paintings are poorer for it.
'Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective'
Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach
When: Through May 30. Closed Wednesdays.
Info: (949) 494-8971, www.lagunaartmuseum.org