Most people familiar with the cultural history of Los Angeles know the story of how UCLA let some of the most important works of 20th-century art — Walter and Louise Arensberg’s extensive Duchamp collection — slip through its fingers, to wind up instead as the cornerstone of the Philadelphia Museum‘s modern-art collection. Fewer people realize that another important collection, slated to be housed in the same never-realized Arensberg building at UCLA, stayed in L.A. as a gift to the Pasadena Art Institute, which eventually metamorphosed into the Norton Simon Museum.

The collection was left by Galka Scheyer, a German expatriate who lived in the Hollywood Hills for the last dozen years of her life, tirelessly promoting modern art — particularly that of her friends Alexei Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. With a pair of back-to-back exhibits scheduled to coincide with the publication of a massive, lavish catalog, the Norton Simon is giving the collection its most extensive airing yet, and contextualizing it with photographs, letters and other ephemera that demonstrate what a remarkable figure Scheyer was.

The second show, which covers a wide range of European and American Modernists known and supported by Scheyer, opens May 16. But it is the current exhibit, “My Four Kings: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four,” that details the unusually intimate, sometimes tumultuous and ultimately disappointing relationships between Scheyer and the four Germany-based Modernists.

Emilie “Galka” Scheyer was the youngest of three children in a well-to-do Jewish family in Braunschweig, Germany. Allowed to eschew a conventional upbringing for travel throughout Europe pursuing her teenage fascination with art, she first saw herself as a painter, but all that changed when she encountered the work of Jawlensky at an exhibit of Russian art in Lausanne, Switzerland. Scheyer immediately abandoned her own career aspirations to devote her energies to promoting his work. In the midst of World War I and before she was even 18 years old, she tracked Jawlensky down and began advocating and selling his work.

Traveling through Germany, schmoozing with art dealers, penning articles and delivering lectures about Jawlensky, Scheyer organized a tour of his work. In 1920, Jawlensky had his first solo exhibition in Berlin, and she signed a contract to be his “personal secretary,” stipulating a 45 percent commission on all pictures sold. Later that year, Jawlensky bestowed upon Scheyer the new name Galka — Russian for jackdaw — which came to him in a dream. It stuck.

Galka made the acquaintance of many other European Modernists, including Jawlensky’s Bauhaus buddies Klee, Kandinsky and Feininger. Germany‘s unstable economy was prompting a considerable cultural immigration to the U.S., and when a friend invited Galka to New York, she seized the opportunity to promote (and hopefully sell) Jawlensky’s paintings in the New World. By the time she left, the junket had expanded to include the three Bauhaus artists, now dubbed “The Blue Four” (intended to trigger Yankee associations with the “Big Four” railroad companies), for what they hoped would be a sort of Monsters of German Modern Art tour.

In spite of this inspired marketing strategy, the Blue Four‘s Manhattan debut in February 1925 failed to generate any sales. The following May, Galka set off by train, first to Chicago, then Ames, Iowa (!), for lectures, and finally to Los Angeles, where she immediately fell in with Rudolph Schindler and the rest of the European high-art emigre crowd. Although she would initially gravitate to the Bay Area, it was her connections in L.A. that would finally sustain her through the Depression and lead to her bequest to the Pasadena museum.

In spite of the wealth of archival materials that lend “My Four Kings” its narrative sweep, the show isn’t chronological, but broken into five sections. After the introductory gallery, Jawlensky occupies the first large section. Of the four, he was the least prominent, and benefited most from the association. His signature iconic faces are too plainly imitative of Matisse; more rewarding are the abstracted landscape “Variations.” His only truly unique body of work is his late “Meditations,” consisting of small paintings of facial features reduced to an abstract minimum, each resembling a dark curtained portal. Of the thousand he completed, about a dozen are included here, and only hint at the hypnotic, contemplative spiritual depth he was trying to achieve.

Kandinsky, who occupies the last and smallest gallery, is known as the central figure in spiritually oriented Modernism and the inventor of abstract painting. He is less well-known as one of the forefathers of Godawfulism, many of his oil paintings rivaling the post-‘70s work of Frank Stella for sheer inexplicable ugliness. He had several very good years after his 1910 breakthrough into pure abstraction, but afterward, in keeping with his elaborate theories regarding hermetic correspondences between formal content and spiritual meaning, he sought to contain and categorize his creative juices in usually lifeless geometric pastiches, like 1923’s Open Green and 1932‘s Unequal. Thankfully, his talent couldn’t be fully stifled. In 1928, when he briefly abandoned his awkward brushwork, cluttered compositions and perverse palette for muted, simple, delicately sprayed watercolors (clearly influenced by Klee and Native American graphics), the results were luminous.

Feininger‘s woodcuts and etchings of buildings and sailboats are sweet and competent, while his watercolors from the 1930s convey a sense of mathematical serenity. Most telling is a piece of ephemera: a 1906 Chicago Tribune Sunday page featuring Feininger’s masterful “Kin-Der-Kids” comic strip. Though he completed only 31, Feininger‘s mostly forgotten foray into the medium ranks with “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Krazy Kat” as one of the most innovative early hybrids of graphic arts and narrative storytelling, and his later accomplishments sadly pale in comparison.

Each of the Blue Four has his moments, but Klee alone reinforces his reputation as one of the 20th century’s most gifted and ambitious visual artists. Even slight works and occasional failures display prodigious talent and a restless, playful creative mind exploring the potentials of color, line, pattern and material, and the intricacies of graphic symbolic communication. There are too many highlights to list, but special mention should be made of his 1932 canvas Possibilities at Sea — a somber, boiled-down semiotic seascape that Scheyer characterized as “one of the most amazing pictures I have ever experienced . . . as unfathomable as the ocean‘s pulse.”

In 1933, after Galka had some initial successes in San Francisco and Oakland, the Depression and disagreements over museum fees prodded her relocation to L.A., where she commissioned a dwelling from Neutra, hoping the rich and famous would flock to view and purchase works by the Blue Four. But the glass-and-concrete house made a lousy gallery and was hard to find. Nobody was buying anyway. Degenerate artists to a man, the Four couldn’t practice or sell their art in Nazi Germany, and all but the arthritis-crippled Jawlensky fled. As the Blue Four‘s cash dwindled and fame grew, savvy New York dealers demanded exclusive representation deals. Klee, Jawlensky and Kandinsky died in the early ’40s, and Scheyer had to teach art to children to make ends meet until her own death in 1945.

“My Four Kings” tells the story of a single woman carving a niche for herself in the international art world based entirely on her own brash energy and love of art, who fell by the sidelines as faster and more cutthroat times overtook her. But the work itself bears witness to a story not bound by historical currents — the story of a very young artist whose understanding and vision allowed her to recognize and embrace work that retains its power to this day, and to weave a social network that nurtured and expanded its meaning into the next millennium.

MY FOUR KINGS: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four | At the NORTON SIMON MUSEUM OF ART, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena | Through April 14

LA Weekly