The “Pacific Standard Time” exhibits that currently light up the Southland draw post-war Los Angeles artists into sharp focus.
Hip, iconoclastic, sometimes wacky renegades like Wallace Berman or John Altoon were emblematic of a Western maverick aesthetic. But another creative enclave served as a grounded counterbalance to the L.A. rebels. Out in the Inland Empire, woodworker Sam Maloof was an old-world craftsman addressing modern design and functional concerns. Though they received far less press and documentation, these artists shaped a consensus aesthetic that was revolutionary in its own way.
The Huntington Library hosts a quietly spectacular show that spotlights Maloof and the gifted men and women who taught at the Claremont colleges and pursued their respective crafts after World War II. While the bohemian artists of Laurel Canyon and Venice were essentially hedonists, Maloof and his circle of ceramicists, painters, enamellists, sculptors and fabric artists had generally stable home lives and concentrated on their work.
A Lebanese American, Maloof drew the attention of Walt Disney in his teens. He studied with painter Millard Sheets, the patriarch painter/educator of Scripps. Maloof was profoundly influenced by the unadorned function of Danish Modern furniture. His own pieces used gently curved variations on the DM hard geometry. Maloof’s chair arms subtly yet ingeniously angle and yield to the human form. Design was paramount to him, yet never at the expense of real-world application.
This exhibition is pitch-perfect, offering many examples of Maloof’s home pieces in the company of work by his Pomona Valley contemporaries. A low table with tapered legs supports elegantly contoured ceramic bowls by Otto and Gertrude Natzler. They used traditional Japanese techniques, and the tableau echoes the interest in Japanese design often seen in SoCal in the 1950s.
Maloof conceived his pieces with the specific requirements of his friends and clients, yet a design and operational vocabulary pervades his work. Hard edges and right angles can seldom be seen. A latch on a walnut desk hutch — at once modern and traditional — looks like the work of a violinmaker.
Like the Greene Brothers before him, Maloof hid his technical struggles. If wood screws or hinges are a part of the piece, they are unseen by the eye. Tongue-and-groove and pegs are sometimes visible, but they always enhance the design in subtle ways. Though a traditionalist, he used new technologies. A freestanding walnut cradle uses heat-form plywood ribs for its bay. The plumb uprights, uniform spacing and contour of the ribs invites the scrutiny of a level and micrometer.
It would be a mistake to see this creative group as a hermetically sealed shtetl; its influence traveled far and wide. Poor imitations of Paul Soldner’s ‘50s stoneware vessels populated many a ‘70s crafts fair; Karl Benjamin’s hard-edge paintings provided color schemes for two generations of interior and fashion designers; the elemental shapes of Harrison McIntosh’s ceramics presaged the interest in Oceanic art by contemporary artists; a hanging fabric piece by Kay Sekimachi anticipated the macramé vogue; the voluptuous design of John Svenson’s carved redwood “Sea Sprite” harkened back to the decorative arts of the ‘20s, though art deco was still a dirty word in ’67.
In the show’s concluding room, a lone chair sits in the middle of the floor, with no restrictions on access. Anybody who can resist running their hands over its sleek undulations and silky finish must be made of wood.
What: “The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985”
Where: Boone Gallery, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Through Jan. 30. Closed Tuesdays.
Info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org