A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953

 

The Art Student League of Los Angeles: A Brief History

Essay by Will South

 

The Art Students League of Los Angeles, founded April 18, has just issued its first circular and announcement. The little folder, whose cover was designed by a student of the league, is a very artistic affair, and its contents show that the new school has already grown in influence and usefulness.
 
-- Antony Anderson,
Los Angeles Times, 1906

 

Art writer Antony Anderson surely had no idea in 1906 just how influential and useful the Art Students League of Los Angeles would become. Indeed, no one at that time would have guessed that the League, then a mere outgrowth of informal sketch classes, would become the locus of modernist thought, teaching, and inspiration in Southern California. For decades it operated in the shadow of the larger and vastly more powerful California Art Club and that organization's unflappable Impressionist aesthetic, and yet the League remained a center where ideological dissent was not only welcome but encouraged, where the future of art was inflected by but not determined by the past, where experimentation was as much a virtue as hard work and equally valued, and where individualism was deemed paramount. While destined to never be as famous as its still-functioning East Coast counterpart, the Art Students League of Los Angeles nonetheless was the institution most responsible for incubating the diverse creative environment, one that made room for the alternative and the different, upon which today's Southern California art world was built.

That the Southland would prove fertile ground for arts organizations was optimistically suggested by the sculptor John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), who wrote a posi-tive and promotional article for The Land of Sunshine magazine in 1895:

We have only begun. Our artists are thoroughly in earnest, and as independent of the prevailing eccentricities of Impressionism as if we lived on another planet. In fact in California we are quite another world. The art influence here is so direct and so pure, that Benjamin Constant remarked in 1892 that the young men from California came better prepared for the deeper studies than those from New York...With many of the ablest younger painters wedded to California, such results, I believe, will follow as will excite our Eastern friends as much-and hold their interest longer.
 
It is gratifying to note a local interest growing, which ere long will support the artist to his best efforts.[1]

Borglum's confidence in Southern California's cultural growth was prophetic. Popular art clubs and art schools were founded in the 1890s and continued to proliferate after 1900, the Art Students League being but one. Borglum was clearly wrong, however, about local artists being "independent of the prevailing eccentricities of Impressionism," as demonstrated by the success of the California Art Club, with its dedication to the exhibition and promotion of a regional variety of Impressionism.

Initially, the fortunes of the Art Students League and the California Art Club were married together. In 1906, the Painters' Club was founded in Los Angeles by the city's leading artists for the purposes of fraternity and exhibition.[2] This club reorganized as the California Art Club in 1909. Among the original members of the Painters' Club were the noted plein-air landscapist Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972) and the newly appointed art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Antony Anderson. Puthuff and Anderson together founded the Art Students League on 18 April 1906, within the very same year as the founding of the Painters' Club.[3] Initially then, the League was an extension in both philosophical and technical terms of the rapidly consolidating California Impressionist establishment. However, even at the time of its founding, a slightly different focus could be detected, as evidenced by the following Anderson report in the Times: "The aim of the new Art Students League is to meet the wants of those art workers who do not find it convenient or expedient to attend the regular academic school."[4] The League's earliest students, then, were not drawn to the "regular academic school," setting the stage for a school with potentially greater flexibility in its attitude toward art making.

The Art Students League, Anderson explained in that same article, was the result of a gradual formalization of life-drawing classes taught by Puthuff at his home studio. Puthuff was himself a former student of the Art Institute of Chicago who had arrived in Los Angeles in 1903. He, like the majority of his California confreres, embraced Impres-sionism's bright palette and broken brushstroke throughout his career while retaining a sturdy clarity of forms (fig. 1).

The number of Puthuff's students swelled, and he began looking for a larger space in which to teach. He found it in the Blanchard Music and Art Building, located in Los Angeles at 233 South Broadway, a facility built in 1899 by Frederick W. Blanchard (fig. 2). It featured studio space for painters and musicians, and a large exhibition space on the top floor. The "Art Students League of Los Angeles" moniker was officially adopted when the group moved into an "amply large and well equipped" room at the Blanchard Building in December of 1906.[5]

In addition to life classes, landscape painting and portraiture were taught, and landscape instruction was in the increasingly familiar plein-air mode. Puthuff taught the evening courses and Anderson handled the afternoon sessions. A sign of the League's serious intentions was that it published a small brochure, decorated by one of its students with a clever Arts and Crafts design, advertising its classes and instructors (fig. 3). In a 1907 Times article, Anderson hinted that the League's approach to instruction during its first year had in fact begun to evolve somewhat independently from the prevailing aesthetic in Southern California:

One of the most interesting of the art schools in Los Angeles is the Art Students League. Only a little over a year old, it is still in its beginnings. Yet its growth has been steady, and there can be no doubt, it seems to me, that it will someday be a great power for artistic good in our community...The league, it will be seen, is a school with an idea -- and that idea is also an ideal -- artistic growth for the individual man or woman who seeks its instruction, as well as the spread of appreciation and understanding of art in the community at large.[6]

The importance of the League's emphasis on the individual was a crucial ingredi-ent in the eventual emergence of modernism in Los Angeles. An emphasis on individualism stood fundamentally in opposition to the aesthetic of those painters of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century California known collectively, if somewhat im-precisely, as the California Impressionists. These painters -- a large group including the earliest League instructors as well as artists Alson Clark (1876-1949), Granville Redmond (1871-1935), Guy Rose (1867-1925), and William Wendt (1865-1946) -- subscribed to an artistic philosophy that obeyed universal rules of order with Nature as the source and standard for expression. Within such a worldview, the personal eccentricities of the individual were to be overcome, not foregrounded.

The California Impressionists grafted a variety of French Impressionist painting methods onto the surfaces of their canvases, but they remained essentially academic, never fully dissolving form as Monet was doing by this time. These artists hoped to convey with their canvases, as the Hudson River School painters had done before them, positive, soul-uplifting imagery. There was room for individual personality within the boundaries of the California Impressionist view, but the individual was unquestionably subordinate to Nature, and his expression to the conventionally accepted standards of Nature's representation. Local attitudes toward modern painting were summed up by the area's nationally known Impressionist, Guy Rose: when asked in 1911 what he thought of Cubists and Futurists and "that ilk," he said, "I think they are simply crazy."[7]

During the first year of its existence, the more liberated philosophical direction of the League was coalescing. In September of 1907, Warren Hedges (1883-1910), a former student of Robert Henri (1865-1929), took over the school and hired artist Joseph Greenbaum as a co-instructor. Hedges's own artistic views embraced Henri's use of contemporary subject matter and a bolder, more summary painting style than generally approved of by the local painters at that time. So even though Hedges was a member of the Painters' Club, the entity that would become in 1909 the California Art Club, his affinity for Henri and the Ash Can school of realism set him apart from the idealizing tendencies of Puthuff and California Impressionism.

Interestingly, the link between the Painters' Club and the Art Students League was strengthened during Hedges's tenure as director. He offered the Painters' Club the opportunity to hold its regular meetings in the League's Blanchard Building space.[8] This may have been, in fact, both politically wise and economically expedient, as he charged the Painters' Club a small fee. And, prominent members of the club endorsed his school. No less a figure than William Wendt, who would become one of California's leading landscape painters, endorsed the League's ideals and instruction, and many members of the Painters' Club displayed their artwork at the League's space to provide example and inspiration.[9]

Hedges himself taught in the robust spirit of Robert Henri. As painter and early League student Nick Brigante recalled in a letter to fellow League student Carl Sprinchorn: "The few people that I've talked to anent the old League had a tremendous affection and admiration for Hedges, a superb teacher" who was "a very dynamic young man, temperament similar to [modernist painter] Rex [Slinkard]."[10] The reference to Slinkard (an artist discussed below) indicates an experimental, adventurous temperament, one not at all prone to blindly following the expectations of others. Indeed, Hedges may have been further isolated from his Painters' Club peers by his physical deformity (he was a hunchback) and his alcoholism, the latter of which contributed to his death at just twenty-six years old.

Perhaps not surprisingly, among the earliest students of the League were two of California's most important early modernist painters, the above-mentioned Rex Slinkard and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, both of whom rejected the Impressionist aesthetic early in their careers. Macdonald-Wright met Hedges while painting with Joseph Greenbaum, who had come to Los Angeles after the San Francisco fire of 1906 and who seems to have had private students, including Macdonald-Wright, before becoming an instructor at the League. Once enrolled at the League, Macdonald-Wright studied with Hedges. He later recalled never having missed a day in attendance.

The significance of Hedges's influence cannot be overlooked in light of the domi-nance, again, of regional Impressionists who sought poetic moods in their paintings along with sparkling surface effects of light and color. Hedges countered this approach with an introduction to, albeit secondhand, Henri's philosophy of embracing life in all of its imper-fections and allowing personal experience to imbue the work of art.[11]

Rex Slinkard has been justly cited in recent scholarship as "the earliest Los An-geles painter to work in a distinct, strongly modernist mode."[12] According to Macdonald-Wright's recollections, Slinkard's modernist impulses were already in evidence during their student days with Hedges:

After all these years and all the thousands of pictures I have since seen, there still remain in my memory three or four head studies he painted -- remembered for the verve and dash of their technique and the sheer love Slinkard had for his medium.[13]

In 1908, Hedges selected Slinkard to receive a scholarship from the League to study with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and Robert Henri in New York.[14]

After completing his New York study, which included a stint at the Art Students League there, Slinkard returned to Los Angeles, where he became the chief instructor at the Los Angeles League. Hedges had died in 1910, and Greenbaum, whose own work was not in synch with the evolving direction of the League, was not to be the next director. Slinkard's work had taken on powerfully symbolic dimensions, and his highly personal images were arguably the first vanguard images ever painted in Southern California.[15] How far Slinkard had departed from the regional Impressionist aesthetic is evident in his Infinite (fig. 4). This is a thoroughly modern image in which faceless, enigmatic figures are enveloped in an overall detail-diminishing tonality.

Among his students at mid-decade were the future noted Impressionist Franz Bischoff (1864-1929), as well as the more modern painter Conrad Buff, who bristled at Slinkard's methods and quit the League.16 That Slinkard was a powerful presence is re-corded by friend and League student Nick Brigante:

I often think that Rex was remarkable because he sought and searched with that dawn of vision of concrete art values -- all by himself here in a wilderness -- he alone struggling and grasping the real essentials and with every obstacle thrown in his path, surrounded by hordes of abject mediocrities. I mean the transition from Henri to his later work was accomplished by he alone with no outside influence in the shape of personali-ties that could have possibly guided him. Los A. then was a wilderness, a desert as far as contact with the art world was concerned, a closed mind -- (I wonder how much it has progressed today?)[17]

Slinkard, according to later letters written by Nick Brigante, became involved in an imbroglio with a model that led to his stepping down as director of the League. He sub-sequently joined the army, and died in New York during the influenza epidemic of 1918, leaving the League without the charisma and vision he had brought to his position. For the next few years, painter Val Costello stepped in as the de facto director, collecting model fees and scheduling the few classes being taught in Slinkard's wake. He was assisted by student Nick Brigante. The League might have also died prematurely were it not for the appearance of another visionary leader.

In September of 1919, the following notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, one of the discoverers of the new idea in art called Synchromism, and himself a brilliant painter of portraits and figures, has come from New York to Los Angeles with the intention of starting an art school. Mr. Wright is a brother to Willard Huntington Wright, the novelist and critic. In the projected school, Mr. Wright will insist upon a close study of anatomy; he will demand intelligent drawing, and he will teach the methods of the modern man, so that those whose penchant is independence may choose what best fits them. He will also give weekly lectures to the pupils of the school.[18]

As it happened, Macdonald-Wright did not need to continue with the classes he started, as his alma mater, the Art Students League of Los Angeles, was turned over to him in 1923. Costello and Brigante were losing students to other fledgling schools, and both knew that Macdonald-Wright's international credentials were appealing, and that he had almost instantly developed a following that could resuscitate their struggling school. Once installed at the League, located by then at 115 North Main Street (relocated shortly thereafter to a room above the old Lyceum Theater between Second and Third Streets on Spring Street), Macdonald-Wright became, in local critic Arthur Millier's words, "Master of the temple of art, and he was just that."[19]

Macdonald-Wright, along with Morgan Russell, had founded Synchromism -- an abstract painting movement based on the analogy between color and music -- in Paris in 1913. The movement gained attention there and later in New York, where Macdonald-Wright became affiliated with Alfred Stieglitz and his legendary 291 gallery. By the time he returned to California at the age of twenty-eight, he was a seasoned modernist.

Always forceful, charismatic, and energetic, Macdonald-Wright led the League throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Here, he emphasized "intelligent drawing," i.e., a mastery of the figure based on the Greek and Renaissance prototypes he so admired (although he could not himself tolerate to be taught in traditional French academies). There was no drawing of plaster casts, but rather only work from live models. Drawings were not laboriously finished over days or weeks; Macdonald-Wright taught students to look for the essential rhythms of the body and for basic anatomical correctness, not for surface detail.

In addition to the League, Macdonald-Wright found teaching opportunities at the Chouinard School of Art, which was founded in 1921 by Nelbert M. Chouinard (1879-1969).[20] It was really the League, though, that was Macdonald-Wright's own. He established the curriculum, the pace of instruction, the entire ambience of the school. He himself had never attended the Art Students League of New York, and made no pretense that his school was anything at all like its more famous predecessor.

Students of all persuasions made their way to Spring Street, from the occasional Sunday painter (who quickly dropped out upon discovering the gravity of intent among the group) to more serious students, such as Nick Brigante, James Redmond, Albert King, and Mabel Alvarez.

It was this last student, Alvarez, who recorded a number of lectures Macdonald-Wright gave to the League from 1920 to 1925.[21] He taught his students about the use of color scales and about the compositional possibilities of the "hollow and the bump," in which the push and pull of shapes is explored. Further, the Asian-inspired ideas that he was trying to incorporate into his own art and thinking were offered up to the students with an erudition that must have been out of the intellectual reach of most of them.

These lectures confirm and demonstrate Macdonald-Wright's submergence in Eastern philosophy and aesthetics. One of the first things students were told was that imitation by itself did not make art: "Imitation thus approximates but one world -- that of objectivity, and if we consider the work of art to be the entire expression of the man, it must be an equally balanced manifestation of man's existence in this dual world."[22]

He talked about the idea of the "unique gesture" by which an artist conveyed all the qualities inherent to his art with one movement, that is, the polarities of hot and cold, light and shade, hollow and bump, etc. In all the great periods of art, he told them, in Greece, Italy, and China, "we find the arts being produced with this idea uppermost in the mind of the artist."[23] Macdonald-Wright even broached the difficult concept of the "void" with his students of the 1920s:

This relationship, of thing or action to the observer, is the starting point of a work of art. The event itself is of no possible importance further than being the spark which ignites. Here again is a demonstration of Lao Tzu's "Empty Spaces." Nothing exists between the thing and the result which follows, and yet every particle of its importance to the artist lies in this vortex of nothingness.[24]

The now nationally recognized artist Paul Sample was a regular at the League in the mid-1920s, and recalled Macdonald-Wright's teaching method:

We all sat around the edge of the room on benches and there was a model on the model stand, sometimes a female nude, sometimes a male nude. He [Macdonald-Wright] would move from one to another of us and sit down and we would make room for him and he would draw. He was a magnificent draftsman. I've saved some of his drawings -- beautiful draftsman. And we would just watch him draw. He'd never say anything. He'd just draw and two or three of us would be watching him. Then he'd get up and move on and draw for the next group. Other evenings he would change that procedure and he'd say, "Model, you needn't pose anymore," and he'd get in the middle of the room and he'd begin to talk, maybe about Chinese art, maybe about the Impressionistic movement, and he'd spend the evening talking. We never knew what he was going to do but it was always an exciting evening.[25]

Macdonald-Wright never encouraged students to use art as politics or propaganda, believing that all such attempts resulted in topical, fleeting, and essentially non-artistic ex-pressions. However, as impressed as Paul Sample was with his instruction at the League, he went directly into making political art with such images as the Depression-era watercolor Disagreement (fig. 5). In short, students at the League felt intellectually free first and foremost.

And, despite later calling Regionalism the "sweat and stink" school of American painting, Macdonald-Wright often used paintings by his old friend Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975; the two had studied together in Paris, and sustained a lifelong friendship) in his lectures as exemplars of how to build a composition, and went so far as to encourage students to go to New York (to the other Art Students League) and study with Benton. Among the former Los Angeles students who made their way to the Art Students League of New York were Charles Pollock (1902-1988), the older brother of Jackson (1912-1956), and Herman Cherry, who also knew Jackson. Indeed, before studying with Benton in New York, Jackson Pollock attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. It is hard to imagine that Pollock was not aware of Macdonald-Wright and the League, especially with his own brother there for a time. At present, Macdonald-Wright does not figure at all in studies of Pollock's progression into Abstract Expressionism, although Herman Cherry, who also became an Abstract Expressionist (fig. 6), clearly did credit his time at the League with establishing the intellectual foundations for such an undertaking:

I found friends [at the League], for the first time in my life, that thought the way I did. I didn't realize that-this is very important-I didn't realize that there were people like me that were interested in other things, rather than just existing, or having fun, or whatever it was that young kids wanted to do. They were serious, they talked about philosophy, they talked about books, which I read avidly. Every new book that they would mention that I hadn't read, I would read. So people of that kind came into my life. And it was more than enhanced with Macdonald-Wright, because Macdonald-Wright was probably the most intellectual person I ever met in my life. But the people around him were very aware of everything that was in literature, that was in art, that was in music.[26]

Typical of Macdonald-Wright's work during the early 1920s is his Chinese Valley Synchromy, of 1923 (fig. 7). Here, a landscape composition derived from Chinese prece-dents is blended with the high-key color of Synchromism and a vibrating, patterned appli-cation of paint originating with Cézanne. In that same year, Macdonald-Wright, along with other members of the League, helped to organize The First Exhibition of the Group of Inde-pendent Artists of Los Angeles. In a statement written for their show, the "Group" staked their philosophical claims in direct opposition to the values of the California Impressionist school:

The Group maintains that artistic manifestations, such as cubism, dynamism, and expressionism, are sincere intellectual efforts to obtain a clear aesthetic vision.The fact that any departure from the academic ideal has been deliberately kept in the background through the conservative and retrogressive spirit of local exhibition juries makes the for-mation of a group of this nature imperative.[27]

Macdonald-Wright challenged his students to think and create on the highest levels. Whatever the limitations of certain students may have been, he always proceeded as if there were none. The influence he exerted on students in this regard, as a commanding personality who opened up new realms of thinking, is difficult to document. However, some students did recall the effect Macdonald-Wright had on their lives. The filmmaker John Huston (1906-1987), for example, attended the Los Angeles Art Students League in 1923 as a young man of seventeen, thinking that painting might be his vocation. He later credited Macdonald-Wright as providing "the foundation of whatever education I have."[28] Macdonald-Wright introduced Huston to Cézanne, the Renaissance, the Greeks, the Orient, and French literature, among other topics. Huston recalled that "although I had been exposed to music, opera, and ballet, he introduced me to Scriabin, Alan Berg, and other experimental-ists."[29] Huston went on to great success in film, a medium Macdonald-Wright struggled with himself.

In 1928, Mabel Alvarez described the effect of Macdonald-Wright's teaching:

My idea of painting is so different now from the formless idea of it I had when I started. Then so much of our strength was just used up in learning to handle the medium with all its difficulties. With Bill [William Cahill] we learned to paint in the Impressionistic manner with broken color. We were never allowed to use black. As I remember he limited us at that time to red, yellow, and blue. I struggled for months with the "direct" method -- a most difficult process. I suppose it was a good thing & gave us all a certain foundation and a certain amount of fluency. When I started painting for myself alone, I gradually forgot all "methods" in my interest in getting the feeling of things I wanted to do.....Then came the study in color & drawing with Macdonald-Wright. That opened up a whole new world. I haven't come to the end of it yet.[30]

Macdonald-Wright's fiery rhetoric, aggressive intellectual probing, and sheer artistic talent inspired students such as Alvarez not to mimic him, but to find their own voices by way of being introduced to a larger world of ideas and approaches than regional Impres-sionism embraced. Alvarez experimented briefly with Synchromism and her use of color is certainly indebted to Macdonald-Wright, but she also explored personal interests in the teachings of spiritualist Will Levington Comfort (1878-1932) and Theosophy, as well as with her own impulses toward the transcendent. She found the League to be a place that supported and encouraged her experimental tendencies. The artist's Dream of Youth (fig. 8) is a credible foray into symbolism in which a Madonna-like woman is surrounded by a for-est populated with trees, deer, and lovers.

Many a Macdonald-Wright student was, on the other hand, heavily influenced by him, as students can be by a powerfully persuasive teacher. Nick Brigante's Porcelain and Oranges of 1931 (fig. 9) is a restatement of numerous Macdonald-Wright compositions, including his 1928 Still Life Synchromy No. 3 (Williams College Museum of Art). Stu-dents' propensity for mimicking Macdonald-Wright was noticed at the time. In a 1929 review of League paintings on display at Jake Zeitlin's famous bookstore, an unidentified critic for the Times noted that Macdonald-Wright's students "frequently imitate him slavishly." [31] Artists James Redmond, Albert King, and Vivian Stringfield were cited for their adaptation of Asian influence in the manner of their teacher. This same critic also noted, though, the special character of the League and its independence from the routine production of landscape:

The Art Students League of Los Angeles is a potent underground force in California paintingthe school has one thing in common which sharply differentiates it from all other groups here. It stresses aesthetic principle to an unusual degree.....The more general California practice in painting is to ignore them [aesthetics] entirely and pin one's whole faith on transcribing nature.

Near the end of the 1920s, just prior to the market crash in October 1929, the Art Students League expanded its operations to San Francisco in the north and San Pedro in the south.[32] Its emphasis on individualism was recognized at the time: "The League is a college of esthetics rather than a school teaching formulas and manual dexterity. It enables students to find their own methods of expression."[33] The growth of the League in the 1920s reflected the general health of the arts at that time in Los Angeles, as this was a decade of economic growth and urban development spurred by a massive influx of new residents and a continued stream of tourism. While the California Impressionists prospered with annual shows and gallery representation from Laguna to Pasadena and points beyond, the more modern League members also found space to show, not only at Zeitlin's, but also at the California Art Club's headquarters in Barnsdall Park. They joined various organizations, such as the California Watercolor Society or the California Print Club, and showed at the Los Angeles Museum at Exposition Park. And individuals associated with the League had one-person shows.

The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 did not end the League, but it impacted all subsequent events, as it did across the country and around the world. Morgan Russell, the artist who had cofounded Synchromism with Macdonald-Wright in Paris in 1913, came to teach at the League in 1931. His deft and soft-edged Self-Portrait (fig. 10) of that year was a gift to student Mabel Alvarez, whom he encouraged to write as well as to paint. While Russell inspired students and managed to sell an occasional painting, he could do just as well in the south of France, and returned there. Macdonald-Wright retired as League director in 1932, and the organization found itself somewhat adrift.

However, as had happened so many times in the League's history, its own students met the challenge of keeping the League open. James Redmond was one among several artists who continued to schedule models and collect fees. He also lived at the League for a while, as it was cheaper to be there full-time than to have his own home. In 1933, prominent local artist Lorser Feitelson began teaching once a week at the League and continued the firmly established tradition of blending discipline and craft with experimentation and the fostering of individual creativity. In that year, Feitelson, a 1927 immigrant to Los Angeles, and Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999) founded the Post-Surrealist movement. With an interest in metaphysics, modern psychology, and European Surrealism, Feitelson and Lundeberg inaugurated their movement in November of 1934 at the Centaur Gallery in Hollywood. Joining them were artists Knud Merrild (1894-1954), Etienne Ret (1900-1989), Harold Lehman (1913-2006), and San Franciscan Lucien Labaudt (1880-1943). The Post-Surrealists exhibited again in Hollywood in 1935,[34] at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that December, and in May of 1936 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. The work of Feitelson, Lundeberg, and Merrild caught the attention of Museum of Modern Art curator Alfred Barr, who included all three of them in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.

Like Macdonald-Wright before him, Lorser Feitelson also advocated modernism in other ways besides his own painting; he opened his own gallery, the Hollywood Gallery of Modern Art, and curated modernist shows, including works by the Cubists and the German Expressionists. An articulate spokesman for the arts, Feitelson (together with Lundeberg) offered an alternative approach to modernism that built on European tradi-tions without explicitly imitating them, or condemning them.[35] As Jules Langsner explained in the 1935 exhibition catalog for the Post-Surrealists, their movement, as opposed to Surrealism, affirmed "impeccable esthetic order rather than chaotic confusion, conscious rather than unconscious manipulation of materials, the exploration of the normal functionings of the mind rather than the individual idiosyncrasies of the dream."[36] Feitelson's Genesis, First Vision (fig. 11) is typical of the artist's crystallization of dream imagery.

And the Great Depression in California was clearly not a dream. The usual financial struggles faced by visual artists in the best of times were now significantly compounded by the economic crisis: commissions dried up and sales all but disappeared. When it became possible to do so, many League members opted for work under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) founded by the Roosevelt administration to combat skyrocketing un-employment. Included among these was Macdonald-Wright, who served as director for the Southern California Federal Arts Project (FAP). Though the League continued to function, energies and efforts were now shifted to the FAP and the many opportunities that it afforded.

Among the most significant of these opportunities was the creation of large-scale murals. Macdonald-Wright himself created a 1934 Public Works of Art Project mural for the Santa Monica Public Library (now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum), and as director of the FAP oversaw the production of numerous murals, including the Recreations of Long Beach mosaic, 1936-38 (still visible at the Long Beach Plaza, Long Beach). On this latter project he was assisted by his League associate Albert King. League instructor Lorser Feitelson painted murals for the Hall of Records in Los Angeles. A mural that clearly shows the resonance of the League is James Redmond's series entitled Early Cali-fornia, painted under the auspices of the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts for the Post Office in Compton (fig. 12). Here, Redmond employs an Asian-influenced landscape by way of his study at the League, and uses flat, brilliant color patterns that evince his careful study of modernism.

Another League student who benefited from employment on the FAP was the Japanese American artist Hideo Date. Date (pronounced Dah-tay) had suffered from overt racism in California -- he recalled, for instance, seeing a large sign that read "Japs, Keep Moving" while traveling to Fresno on a train as a young man. But at the League, according to Date biographer Karin Higa, he "found in Macdonald-Wright a respect for and apprecia-tion of Asian art. Date's ethnic heritage, a liability in the arena of political and economic rights, was valorized in the context of art."[37] The aesthetic and cultural symbiosis among students and teachers at the League was one of its defining characteristics, and an aspect of the League that made it a place of spiritual kinship and camaraderie as well as a school. Date's profound admiration for Macdonald-Wright is seen in the many visual quotations he made of his teacher's work. One example is Date's Still Life (fig. 13), a variation on numerous Macdonald-Wright paintings, including the 1930 Dragon Trail: Still Life Synchromy (fig. 14).

Fires were kept burning at the League during the late 1930s, but with most of its former teachers and students busy working for the government, it had lost its vitality and prominence. The Depression itself was a key factor in the weakening of the League -- new tuition-paying students could not be recruited. World War II struck a catastrophic blow when remaining members were drafted into service, and Japanese American members were relocated to internment camps. Indeed, the very last exhibition of the League was held in Block 28-26 at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where interned artists Hideo Date and Benji Okubo continued teaching, painting, and exhibiting despite the debilitation of confinement (fig. 15). As Date wrote years later, "That was the end of it."[38]

The legacy of the Art Students League of Los Angeles is its contribution to the presence of modernism in the Southland, to an atmosphere conducive to artistic camara-derie, experimentation, and risk. The League both represented and offered an intellectual and spiritual alternative to the dominance of California Impressionism during the teens and twenties. It was a place where anything could be said, where any kind of sincere work could be attempted, and encouragement could be found. In recognizing the creativity, diversity, and achievement of the Art Students League of Los Angeles, we understand more about the emergence of modernism, not just on the West Coast but throughout America.

 

Notes

1. John Gutzon Borglum, "An Artist's Paradise," Land of Sunshine 2, no. 6 (May 1895): 106.

2. For a discussion of the Painters' Club and other art organizations in early California, all within the broader context of the rise of California Impressionism as a regional school, see Will South, California Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, 1998), with an introduction by William H. Gerdts.

3. For the founding date, see the Los Angeles Times (8 July 1906). Artist and art critic for the Times Antony Anderson took credit for the idea of creating the school: "It [the Art Students League] was opened by Anderson and Puthuff, and -- I must modestly admit it -- the idea was mine." See Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times (30 December 1923).

4. Los Angeles Times (22 April 1906).

5. Los Angeles Times (2 December 1906).

6. Antony Anderson, "Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times (8 September 1907).

7. Guy Rose, quoted in "Seen in the World of Art," (New York) Sun, 8 January 1911.

8. "Bro. W. J. Hedges has kindly offered the Painters' Club the rooms of the Art Students League for their meeting place at a small rent. But as it was not made a motion it was left for further discussion." Minutes of the Painters' Club, 7 April 1908, California Art Club Archives. This proposition was voted on and accepted on 2 June 1908 (also from Painters' Club minutes). The Painters' Club met at the Art Students League, Blanchard Hall on 7 July (minutes) and continued to do so on a regular basis, through February 1909.

9. Los Angeles Times (8 September 1907).

10. Nick Brigante to Carl Sprinchorn, 7 March 1952, Carl Sprinchorn Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, roll 3004, frames 250­251.

11. See Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1923).

12. William H. Gerdts, Art across America: Two Centuries of Regional Paint-ing, vol. 3 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 322.

13. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, "Art Stuff," Rob Wagner's Script 29, no. 661 (28 August 1943): 24.

14. The Graphic (19 September 1908): 14. Another scholarship winner was Edith Osborne. Women had not been allowed to be members of the Painters' Club, but could be members of the League. Again according to the Los Angeles Times of 22 April 1906: "Men and women will be admitted to the League" League student Frank Stevens recalled much later in life that women were only admitted after Macdonald-Wright became the director (there was, during Macdonald-Wright's tenure, an evening drawing class for men only, though that restriction was lifted, too, at a later date), but he must have been confusing those earliest years when the all-male Painters' Club was renting the League's rooms, and when membership and teaching between those two organizations overlapped. See Betty Hoag's interview with Frank Stevens, Archives of American Art.

15. For additional discussion of Slinkard, see Charles C. Eldredge, American Imagination and Symbolist Painting (New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, 1979).

16. On Conrad Buff, see Will South, "Conrad Buff: A Singular Vision," in The Life & Art of Conrad Buff (Los Angeles: George Stern Fine Arts, 2000). Buff recalled his short experience at the League: "But after a while a young fellow [Slinkard] came from New York who had studied in the Art Students League in New York. He was a great talker, a very important-talking fellow, and he took the whole thing over -- instead of letting everybody be his own judge, he began to criticize things and he brought ideas that were not very convenient to me. He was quite an exponent of the Henri school and the Impressionists in Paris, whereas I came from Germany, where different artists were more celebrated. For instance, Arnold Bocklin, the Swiss, was the great celebrity in Germany at that time....I brought those ideas over and the Impressionists didn't make much of an impression on me. But this fellow was so adamant that he would come to you and start to redraw and repaint your canvas according to his own ideas. Finally that made me mad, and I quit the League." Slinkard's influence on the development of early modernism in California remains to be studied in depth.

17. Nick Brigante to Marsden Hartley, 29 April 1942, Carl Sprinchorn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, roll 3004, frame 180.

18. Antony Anderson, "Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times (21 September 1919). For a complete overview of the life and art of Stanton Macdonald-Wright, see Will South, Color, Myth & Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2001).

19. Arthur Millier, "Now There's Only a Parking Lot," clipping from the Los Angeles Times in the Macdonald-Wright Papers, LA 5, frame 47, AAA.

20. On the Chouinard, see Robert Perine, Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed (Encinitas, Calif.: Artra Publishing, Inc., 1985).

21. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, "Lectures to the Art Students League of Los Angeles," recorded and transcribed by Mabel Alvarez. Hereafter referred to as "ASL Lectures." Copy from the original in possession of the author, courtesy of Pauline Khuri-Majoli. On Alvarez, see Will South, Mabel Alvarez: A Retrospective (Los Angeles: The Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, in association with the Orange County Museum of Art, 1999).

22. Macdonald-Wright, "ASL Lectures": 1.

23. Ibid.: 2.

24. Ibid.: 30-31.

25. Paul Sample, quoted in a transcript of an oral interview with Robert Brown, 10 October 1971, copy in the Paul Sample Papers, Archives of American Art.

26. Judd Tully, interview with Herman Cherry, 8 May 1989, typescript copy, Archives of American Art.

27. Reprinted in John Alan Walker, ed., Accounts of Early California Art: A Reprint Anthology (Big Pine, Calif.: privately printed, 1988), unpaginated.

28. John Huston, quoted in Lawrence Grobel, The Hustons (New York: Avon Books, 1989), 105.

29. Ibid.

30. Mabel Alvarez Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

31. "Exhibitions Briefly Reviewed," Los Angeles Times (8 September 1929).

32. "Art Students League Grows," Los Angeles Times (15 September 1929).

33. Ibid.

34. Joined in this show by Reuben Kadish and Philip Goldstein (later Philip Guston). See Susan Erlich, "Lorser Feitelson," in Paul Karlstrom and Susan Erlich, Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920­1956 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1990): 58.

35. See Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, "New Classicism" [the Post-Surrealist Manifesto], 1934, reprinted in A Birthday Salute to Helen Lundeberg (Los An-geles: American Art Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989): 4. Feitel-son and Lundeberg referred to Post-Surrealism as "unprecedented in the history of art."

36. Jules Langsner, Post-Surrealists and Other Moderns (Los Angeles: The Stanley Rose Gallery, 1936): unpaginated.

37. Karin Higa, Living in Color: The Art of Hideo Date (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum and Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001), 12.

38. Hideo Date, letter to the author, 24 August 1994. The League was actually revived for a few years in a different form after the war.

essay © Pasadena Museum of California Art

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on March 4, 2008 with the permission of the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jenkins Shannon and Maureen St. Gaudens for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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