The small canvas, propped against the gallery wall, evoked the feel of a dusty street on a blistering day: buildings reduced to mostly white and tan masses beneath the blue sky, with a splotch of yellow in the middle that resembled the sun's glare caught on a viewer's glasses.
As E. Gene Crain peered down to look at the 1969 painting by Rex Brandt, titled "Sunlight — San Miguel Allende," he recalled its journey to this spot at the Laguna Art Museum. It was a journey that Crain, a longtime friend of the artist, helped to guide himself — from his home in Corona del Mar, where Brandt stopped by one day to show him the work, to the Newport Beach law office that Crain turned into an unofficial Brandt museum for years.
"When I owned the building where I hung all these things, I've had artists come just to look at that painting," the Emerald Bay resident said, then studied it closely as he sized it up: "Very thinly painted of pigment. Use of white paper. Great, great imagination — leaving a lot to almost accidental stuff, I would say."
The sunlight that drenched "Allende" was a motif throughout the gallery: morning on the ocean, surfers silhouetted by dusky yellow, sails' outlines bleached white and blended into the sky. For that matter, the paintings had recently taken their own journey into the light, even if it was electric museum light and not the California sunshine that Brandt meticulously captured.
In recent years, the works in Crain's collection have spent most of their time packed away — at his home, in storage, with friends. It's rare for him to see them displayed together. But when the Laguna Art Museum planned "Rex Brandt: In Praise of Sunshine," a career retrospective of the late artist, Crain ended up contributing nearly half the pieces.
On this day, as the museum prepared to open the exhibit, bubble wrap and plastic tarp lay about the galleries; rugs supported the propped-up paintings, while pages taped to the walls showed where they would eventually hang. Crain brought a behind-the-scenes artifact of his own: a Brandt piece that he had recently acquired in Texas, though it wouldn't hang in the Laguna show.
"He is the only man I ever knew that I think may have had an original thought," Crain said of his longtime friend. "That's hard to come by."
Oh, yes, the dinner party. When Crain stopped by "Strong Light" and "Magic Night," a pair of paintings that appear side by side in the museum like a married couple, he recalled how marriage itself played a part in his acquiring them.
One night in the 1960s, Crain and his wife were enjoying dinner with Brandt and his wife — painter Joan Irving, a co-founder of the Orange County Museum of Art — and the conversation turned to Irving's brilliance.
"My wife and I were just raving about Joan's work — how good she was, how talented, sensitive, how well she did children," Crain said. "We were likening her to Mary Cassatt and blah blah blah, on and on and on. Rex just sat there.
"Finally, he'd had enough, and he tapped me on the shoulder, and he went back and showed me these two paintings. His point was well made."
As Crain stepped from room to room with curator Janet Blake in tow, he rattled off one story after another about how he had acquired the different pieces — some from Brandt himself, some from collectors. How many Brandt works does he have by now? He couldn't pinpoint the exact number, but it's in the triple digits.
Crain is no artist himself. Asked if he ever trained with Brandt, he replied with a laugh that "the last time I had a brush in my hand was in the eighth grade." For the California art world, though, he's a valued resource. The Laguna Art Museum once hosted an exhibit of works from Crain's collection, which spotlights Brandt as well as Depression-era peers Phil Dike and Millard Sheets, and he can name the other collectors whose hands the works have passed through.
"That one," he said, gesturing to an image of sailboats in the water, "is the property of the late Gerald Buck." Buck, a famously private man who also hailed from Newport Beach, died last year at age 73.
That image, 1986's "Afternoon Sun," evoked another memory for Crain.
"Rex owned boats and sailboats," he said. "He sailed. And he said, 'You can't really paint a sailboat unless you've been a sailor.' And he sailed a lot. He was a big man, about six-five, six-six, and strong — good tennis player, good athlete and very well conditioned all his life."
Crain has only vague memories of the first time he met Brandt. The details have slipped his mind, but he recalls the artist's presence — and how long, that day, he ended up being its audience.
In 1961, Crain, who rented a Corona del Mar apartment from Brandt's printer, found himself admiring a group of works at his landlord's home. The landlord suggested that Crain visit Brandt at home, which he did one morning. The tall man who answered the door, as Crain wrote in an essay in the Laguna show's catalog, looked suspicious that the visitor was there to sell encyclopedias or magazines.
When Crain mentioned their mutual friend, Brandt invited him in. And it was late afternoon before Crain finally left.
"Actually, Rex was quite deaf — not totally deaf, but he liked to talk," Crain said. "And he was always interesting. He never had anything dull to say, and he just mesmerized me. I suppose I said some things now and then, but for seven hours — he'd never met me before — for seven hours, we just sat and I mostly listened."
In the years to come, Crain and his wife traveled with Brandt and Irving. Crain gave his son the middle name Brandt in the painter's honor. In 2000, after Brandt died at age 85, Crain delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Months later, he contributed a group of Brandt works to a retrospective show at the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.
The Los Angeles Times' obituary noted that "Brandt's most well-known paintings celebrated a bygone era of California, with its open fields, blue water and unpolluted air." He left a more specific legacy in Newport Beach: In addition to his support of the Orange County Museum of Art, he designed the city's official seal.
Outside of California, how well is he known? Unlike Sheets, he lacks his own page on Wikipedia, and Blake said his greatest national fame may have come from his teaching and writings on watercolor. Still, the curator, who met Brandt in 1981 and stayed in touch until his death, considers him anything but a footnote.
"The way I look at it, he was extremely important in a particular niche of art history," Blake said. "He was important with regard to the California Water Color Society, who gained national attention in the 1930s and '40s, and he was certainly important from the standpoint of other artists who worked in the medium of watercolor."
One of those artists is Blake herself, who became acquainted with Brandt's work while taking a watercolor class at Golden West College. During the first session, the instructor showed footage of Brandt painting, and through his referral, Blake met the owner of the painting captured in the film — Crain — as well as the artist himself.
Walking through the galleries Wednesday, Crain and Blake nearly finished each other's sentences as they traded observations about the work. At one point, the curator knelt down to dissect "Allende," which she called a coveted painting among artists and tourists for years.
"Essentially, he's literally carved this image out of the white paper," she said. "I mean, look at what he did here, see, with this blue wash. And then it's, of course, this spontaneous splash to represent the intensity of the sun, because it's San Miguel de Allende, and it was probably a very warm day and real intense sunshine. Because it's further south of here, needless to say."
The last time Brandt had a solo show in this building, this painting didn't exist — and neither did the Laguna Art Museum itself. The 1963 show, titled "In Search of the Sun," documented Brandt's work from 1934 to 1963 in what was then the Laguna Beach Art Assn. Since then, the venue has changed names, and Brandt's work has appeared there alongside other artists'.
Now, the museum has scheduled Brandt's retrospective during the season that his work most evokes. Executive Director Malcolm Warner wrote in his catalog preface that the staff arranged it for summer as "our own offering to Brandt's beloved sunshine." In addition to Brandt's paintings, the show will include documents from throughout his life — including "In Praise of Sunshine," his 1991 pamphlet after which Blake named the show.
Where Brandt's reputation goes from here, the next decades may determine. After touring the galleries Wednesday, Blake and Crain sat in the lobby — this time in the natural light off Pacific Coast Highway — and speculated about his legacy.
"Rex once told me, without some sort of break, without some sort of unusual circumstances, you can't really tell how important an artist is until at least 50 years after their death," Crain said. "So Rex has been dead now…"
"Only 14 years," Blake cut in.
"Yeah," Crain nodded. "Fourteen years."
If You Go
What: "Rex Brandt: In Praise of Sunshine," plus "John Altoon: Drawings and Prints" and selections from the permanent collection
Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 29 through Sept. 21 (closed July 4)
Cost: $7 general, $5 students and seniors, free for members and children under 12; free from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month