One of the major hurdles in art education is the fact that most students have experienced their usually minimal exposure to historically significant work in the form of small, often poorly reproduced photo-offset reproductions (and, more recently, screen-resolution jpegs). While this isn’t so much of a problem for students in Manhattan, or those working in digital media, for painters in L.A. — and anyone interested in painting — opportunities to experience great canvases in the flesh can require considerable timing and effort.
Happily, this very moment is one that rewards a fairly routine run down the 405, with an exceptional pair of 20th-century American painting surveys — one at the Orange County Museum of Art and the other at the Laguna Art Museum. “Villa America” and “While Pollock Was Sleeping” are very different shows: The former covers a broad spectrum of American Modernist styles over the course of more than six decades and across the country, whereas “While” focuses on slightly more than a decade’s worth of hardcore Abstract Expressionism from the Bay Area. Nevertheless, the shows mesh seamlessly, and, more significantly, both are exemplary models of individual collectors assembling a group of historically intertwined works that would otherwise be dispersed or even lost.
Promoted as an objective survey exploring the evolution of American art in the first half of the 20th century, “Villa America” is, in fact, more a reflection of the tastes and instincts of a singular collector — Minneapolis hair-salon magnate Myron Kunin — than a textbook inventory of the Yankee Modernist canon. Selected from more than 600 works by OCMA chief curator Elizabeth Armstrong, the show hangs together on several levels simultaneously — first, as a loosely structured treatise on American artists’ ambivalent relationship with European Modernism.
The show’s title is taken from a small proto-pop painting-cum-sign for well-heeled expat artist Gerald Murphy’s digs on the Côte d’Azur, immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as the watering hole for Roaring ’20s intercontinental bohemia. It also serves as a symbol of the mutual infatuation between European and American avant-garde culture at that time. This love affair was played out on the home front by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, whose minds were blown by the infamous 1913 Armory Show (where New Yorkers got their first glimpse of Picasso, Duchamp, Kandinsky and the other Moderns) and who are represented by typically luminous nature-inspired abstractions. More surprising is work by the very young Stuart Davis, including an awkward but compelling Fauvist landscape and a self-portrait as psycho killer.
“Villa America” includes many small revelations of this sort: Marsden Hartley’s darkly glowing Madawaska — Acadian Light Heavyweight (1940) possesses an almost supernatural presence, Philip Evergood’s 1957 Nude With Violin is the kind of trippy figuration you’d expect to find any weekend at Chinatown’s Black Dragon Society, and Gerald Murphy — of whose brief 10-year output only eight works survive — belies the mantle of dilettante with the exquisite and accomplished Doves of 1925.
The linchpin of the exhibit is probably Paul Cadmus’ large Aspects of Suburban Life: Main Street (1937), a slyly subversive — and quickly rejected — New Deal post-office mural that was Cadmus scholar Armstrong’s entrée to the Kunin collection. Simultaneously grotesque and lyrically pretty, this picaresque scene of a voluptuous Crumbian babe in need of a dog trainer is riddled with subtle jabs at class, race, age, sexual-orientation and gender barriers. Along with Grant “American Gothic” Wood’s Return From Bohemia (1935), Main Street signals the end of the abstract honeymoon and the rise of the socially engaged figurative regionalism that dominated American art until the influx of WWII refugee Surrealists started the cycle all over again.
Interspersed with this historical précis are a couple of show-in-shows — the first comprising more than a dozen artists’ self-portraits, the second devoted to sexy renditions of the human figure, both male and female. It is with these two sidebars that Kunin’s idiosyncrasy as a collector is foregrounded and, in effect, celebrated. That two such coherent and stimulating shows — lodged comfortably within a third — could be culled from such a relatively small collection testifies to the power of an instinctive eye and the potential of collecting as a form of creative expression unto itself.
In the flesh: Marsden Hartley, Madawaska — Acadian Light
Apart from a couple of anomalies, “Villa America” leaves off with a pair of West Coast painters, David Park and Elmer Bischoff, major players in the famous Bay Area Figurative vs. Abstract Expressionist (or Figs vs. Creepy Crawleys, as their respective softball teams would have it) wars of the ’50s. Along with Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith, Park and Bischoff were faculty members at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco during the late ’40s, and their influence permeates “While Pollock Was Sleeping.”
With 67 paintings from 67 artists, the show demonstrates what a wide variety of results can be attained with a relatively narrowly prescribed bag of tricks. Eschewing any recognizable imagery in favor of an untethered formal array of gestures, lines, colors and textures, this second generation (the exhibition was re-edited — and retitled — from the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento’s “California’s Second Wave”) runs the gamut from the ponderously operatic (Lucille Marie Bichler Paris’ 1963 Azzoro) to the delicately calligraphic (Nancy Genn’s and Fred Martin’s untitled works from 1960 and 1955, respectively). Some works are masterful articulations of abstract pictorial space (Robert Downs and Joel Smith) while others skitter decoratively across the surface, verging on a giddy pop sensibility (Geoffrey Bowman, Roy DeForest) that would later evolve into Funk Art.
In fact, a considerable portion of the exhibit captures artists more famous for earlier or subsequent styles. Joan Brown is represented by the gorgeously cartoonish Swimming Party and a Bicycle Ride (1959), while a 23-year-old William Wiley’s 1960 Manifesto manages to infuse the stark hand-me-down tenets of the genre with an energy and elegance that he would carry over — after quickly losing faith in AbEx’s “heavy moral trip” — into his colorful and highly idiosyncratic maturity. Funkmeister Robert Arneson’s untitled primary drip fest from 1954, on the other hand, delivers an object lesson in how some artists need a few years and a change of medium to — how shall I put it? — not suck.
In a similar vein, a large number of the artists included here will be utterly unfamiliar to all but the most devoted scholars of Bay Area abstraction. As in any recent period, many of these artists quit working after leaving school, or petered out in a couple of years. Which is what makes this show — and the efforts of civil engineer turned collector George Y. Blair — so much more than your typical greatest-hits curatorial effort. Whether a genuine Zeitgeist or opportunistic bandwagonesquery, the truth is that entire styles, formal vocabularies and philosophies of art can sweep up a generation or population of artists, producing a joyous, tumultuous, chaotic flood of material, its quality and significance wildly varied. Unless we’re in the middle of it, we usually wind up seeing a carefully filtered condensation of important-in-hindsight objets d’art. “While Pollock Was Sleeping” manages to capture the exuberance and frenzied inventiveness of a happening scene as it actually happened.
VILLA AMERICA: American Moderns, 1900–1950 | Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
WHILE POLLOCK WAS SLEEPING: Bay Area Abstract Expressionism From the Blair Collection | Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach