June Wayne retrospective celebrates an artist who loved science

A new retrospective of work by June Wayne is opening at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and science lovers will want to check it out.

Wayne was an artist who counted rocket scientists at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory among her close friends and who frequently referenced scientific research in her work.

Among the 79 lithographs, tapestries and paintings included in the show are pieces inspired by solar flares, genetics, tsunamis, earthquakes and the cosmos.

The images are not a direct representation of the specific scientific phenomenon that fascinated the artist, but rather her interpretation of it, said Jay Belloli who co-curated the show.

“She realized early on that science could be an inspiration, but the work had to be her response to it,” he said. “None of these works are like an image out of a textbook, but the inspiration is clear.”


If you click through the gallery above -- a sample of some of the works in the show -- you’ll see what he means.

Wayne was born in Chicago in 1918 and had her first exhibition when she was just 17 years old. Over the course of her 75-year career she lived and worked in Mexico City, New York and Paris, but she did most of her work in Los Angeles, where she resided from the 1940s until her death in 2011 at age 93.

Read: Her mellow? Not a chance. A 2008 profile of June Wayne.

She showed an interest in optics and perception early in her career with the 1949 oil painting “The Tunnel,” in which she tried to depict the mesmerizing experience of driving through the 2nd Street tunnel in downtown Los Angeles. (You know, the one with the shiny ceramic tile that takes your breath away.)

But it wasn’t until the 1960s, after she had befriended Caltech nuclear physicist Harrison Brown and scientists at JPL, that science started to make its way into her work.

Her first piece inspired directly by scientific research was the 1965 celestial lithograph “At Last a Thousand.” As Belloli writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, “this work marked her move into art influenced by the cosmos.”

Wayne once said that simply living in California nurtured her interest in science.

“The quality of light we have here ... the vast expanses of sky ... I think that took me off the Earth and got me interested in space,” she told Betty Ann Brown, a co-curator of the exhibit and the author of the book “Afternoons With June.”

Wayne also had a fascination with fingerprints, and was inspired by the shapes of DNA and RNA, and waves and the peculiar patterns left in the wake of earthquakes. They all show up in various ways in her work.

Belloli used to run an art gallery at Caltech, and said he first met Wayne at the home of a scientist from the university.

“She was a brilliant woman,” he said. “You always learned something from her every time you saw her, whether it was about politics or art or science.”

“June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries” will run from May 4 through Aug. 31 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

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