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Booster Shots 

Then and now

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001

One sign of Los Angeles’ continual shift to prominence in the story of American Modern Art is the current retrospective of Stanton Macdonald-Wright at LACMA, which attempts to retroactively renegotiate a place in the history books for this quirky Angeleno Modernist alongside Eastern equivalents like Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth. Until now, Macdonald-Wright has been seen, at best, as a footnote figure in the story of Modernism in America, for having co-founded the first American submodern artistic movement presented in the international arena -- a somewhat crackpot system for matching colors to sounds called ”Synchromism.“ Developed with fellow Yankee expatriate Morgan Russell under the languid synesthetic influence of opium and the ism-of-the-month-club milieu of pre-WWI Paris, Synchromism was an unlikely combination of egotistical carnival bark and lovely formalist nonfigurative painting.

Synchromism never really caught on, and Macdonald-Wright, after showing in New York at Alfred Stieglitz‘s Gallery 291 to no great acclaim or scandal, decided to return to California. This is where most accounts of the artist trail off, and a good chunk of the LACMA show (titled ”Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism“ and organized by Will South and the North Carolina Museum of Art) is dedicated to explicating this early period. Even here, Macdonald-Wright comes off as an eccentric, with manifestoes and statements abounding. Most of the gorgeous Synchromist paintings are accompanied by deadpan text panels and color wheels, which neither make much sense nor correspond to the color palettes they supposedly describe. Which is fine. Macdonald-Wright is typical of a time when half-baked, unintelligible, pseudo-intellectual art theory actually resulted in something worth looking at.

If this were the extent of the show, it would be interesting enough. But Macdonald-Wright arrived back in Los Angeles, where his father had managed a luxury seafront hotel, as a fully credentialed Modernist bohemian -- he’d lived in Paris, known Matisse and Gertrude Stein, started a movement, published a manifesto and shown with Stieglitz -- and he was barely 28 years old. Macdonald-Wright parlayed his experience into a position as the figurehead of Modern Art in Los Angeles -- taking over the Art Students League, where he‘d once studied, organizing the first L.A. show of Modernist painting (at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park in 1920), writing criticism, teaching at Chouinard and UCLA, and supervising the murals created for the New Deal’s WPA project for Los Angeles County. He designed and executed a number of these himself, including a massive installation (partially re-created for this exhibit) for the Santa Monica Public Library as well as several murals still on public display.

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Some of this work is quite wigged-out. Macdonald-Wright never actually gave up on Synchromism, but displayed remarkable flexibility as to what might constitute such ”visual music.“ Images began creeping back into the paintings early on, and by the mid-1930s, works like the seven-panel Prologue: Technical and Imaginative Pursuits of Early Man (from the S.M. Library murals) were including a pastiche of sinuous, idealized Western figurative elements and appropriated Orientalist iconography, emerging and disappearing amidst hazy clusters of chromatic cotton candy. While his paintings combined wildly eclectic influences from Japanese landscape scrolls to the clunky late Cubism of Georges Braque, he also experimented in stop-motion animation and Synchromist light-projection performances. To contemporary eyes, some of his most startlingly original works are from awkward periods of exploration and critically disparaged hybrids of abstraction and lyrical Asian-influenced pictorialism. All these lost periods are well represented in ”Color, Myth and Music,“ and topped by a beautifully Pop-ish set of woodblock prints, the Haiga Portfolio, illustrating classical haiku, from 1966 to 1967.

Macdonald-Wright lived on until 1973, spending more and more time in Zen monasteries in Kyoto, his influence appearing in subsequent generations of Los Angeles abstractionists, and arguably in the work of East Coast art-world poster boy Jackson Pollock, through the heavy drizzler‘s teacher and onetime Synchromism disciple Thomas Hart Benton. To what degree the history books will be affected by the renewed interest in Stanton Macdonald-Wright remains to be seen, but much of the impetus for such revisionism can be attributed to Los Angeles’ burgeoning reputation as the new center of the American (or possibly global) art world. What this exhibit and the accompanying catalog do establish is Macdonald-Wright‘s position at the center of Modernism L.A. style, setting the idiosyncratic tone and high energy levels that characterize it to this day.

Just what percentage of L.A.’s new role as Millennial Zeitgeist Central is baloney also remains to be seen, but September is the month when everyone gives it their best slice: All the galleries trot out the artists they hope to get talked about as 40,000 new graduate students descend on the city, ready to talk. In a cunning bit of scheduling that conflates these phenomena, last year‘s MFA graduates from USC are taking over the third floor of the 801 Tower Building at Eighth and Figueroa for their thesis show, with DJ Professor Jan Tumlir spinning at the reception this Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m. The nearby Chinatown Galleries are simultaneously holding another of their choreographed blowouts, including the debut of Reed McMillen, winner of the solo-show raffle organized by yours truly for INMO Gallery. Shows by reliable locals like Tim Ebner, Nancy Rubins, Salomon Huerta, John M. Miller, Tony Berlant, Sally Elesby and Jason Rogenes pepper the landscape. (Check the listings yourself, you lazy bastards.)Also in the category of carefully scheduled debuts, Kim Light, absent from the scene since the early ’90s, opens with work by Rachel Lachowicz at her new space, ”lightproject,“ next to the 6150 complex, whose galleries also open en masse the evening of the 8th. Earlier on Saturday (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.), the MAK Center at the Kings Road Schindler House will cap a season of excellent sound-art programming with a Free Community Day, featuring a family workshop led by Anna Homler, ”An Idiosyncratic History of Experimental Sound“ by Brandon LaBelle, and a site-specific sound performance by Steve Roden.

Also this Saturday, Regen Projects and Margo Leavin Gallery, the two spaces that compete in the blue-chip contemporary arena on New York‘s terms, are teaming up to present two concurrent shows by Sol ”The Hardest Working Man in the Art Business“ LeWitt. (Q: How many recently graduated MFAs does it take to execute a Sol LeWitt installation? A: That’s the kind of casual, anti-intellectual attitude that makes L.A. such a critical wasteland! Ha ha ha!)

Those with three-quarters of a million to blow on early-20th-century cowboy watercolors won‘t want to miss the Los Angeles Fine Art Dealers Association’s Seventh Annual Los Angeles Art Show at UCLA‘s John Wooden Center September 13 through 16. The Santa Monica Museum kicks off the season with an improbable celebration (and book signing) featuring the patently Manhattanite guru of the Graphis Annual set, Milton Glaser, who actually admits responsibility for the I phenomenon. The Inkslingers Ball, the world’s largest tattoo-and-body-piercing convention, takes place the same weekend at the Hollywood Palladium. And the galleries of Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz band together for another Art Crawl on the weekend of the 22nd.

While all this activity is gratifying amidst the current economic slump, probably the single clearest gauge of the state of the L.A. art scene this month will be the annual LACE (or Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, as they prefer to be called nowadays) benefit art auction, now in its 22nd year. A swinging fund-raiser, the auction will include a cross section of established and emerging L.A. art stars, an archivally printed collectible catalog and an exclusive after-party at Cherry at 1650. While the auction itself (held Friday, September 14, from 6 p.m. onward) is inevitably a wild and crazy social miasma, the show itself (on view for the week before) offers a solid thumbnail sketch of the state of L.A. art, albeit in the scaled-down format appropriate for new or bargain-hunting collectors. This year‘s roster includes some 65 works, including pieces by Uta Barth, Miles Coolidge, Marcel Dzama, Jim Shaw, Shirley Tse and other big names. The real measure of the vigor of the brave new L.A. art world will be how well the bidding goes, but the sheer sprawl and giddy energy that have emerged from the mutant Modernist seed planted by Macdonald-Wright have observably continued to prosper and surprise, regardless of how the fickle market performs.

  • Then and now

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