Category: Modernism

TRAC 2014: Part II

“You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”
20th Century Man - The Kinks

TRAC 2014 offered a dizzying array of panels, presentations, and demonstrations, some of which I found to be much more agreeable than the keynote address of Roger Scruton, which I wrote of in Part I of my observations on the “The Representational Art Conference.” In Part II of my assessment of the event, I will cover a lecture from the conference that I found worthwhile and insightful; Michael Zakian’s The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism; the views of TRAC 2014 as given by art professor and journalist, John Seed, and remarks regarding one of the conference’s sponsors, the Art Renewal Center (ARC).

An Adjunct Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and also the director of that institution’s Frederick R. Weisman’s Museum of Art, Michael Zakian was an engaging speaker with an obvious passion for art. However, unlike some attendees of TRAC 2014, Mr. Zakian’s appreciation of art does not stop with the academic style of the 19th century, though he began his lecture by saying that he likes the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). But he also counts Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning among his favorites, so Zakian’s ideas run counter to those many aficionados of Academic art that attended the conference.

Mr. Zakian seemed aware that he was somewhat the odd man out at TRAC 2014. When he launched into an explication of his lecture’s title, The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism, he warned the audience packed into the room to hear his address that he was likely going to upset them with his opinions. According to Zakian, the dilemma of today’s classical realist art is that it almost entirely overlooks content, and though much of the art displays high technical proficiency… it fails in having any meaningful to say. He made his point by comparing projected slides of two paintings, the 2012 Studio in Sharon, by the U.S. academic realist Jacob Collins, and the 1629 Artist in His Studio by Rembrandt van Rijn.

After first extolling the impressive talent of Mr. Collins, Zakian put in plain words his reasons for disliking Studio in Sharon; the artist’s painting captured reality with technical virtuosity, but what was the painter telling us? Zakian asked what meaning was added to the depiction of an empty studio room? Collins’ canvas had the surface details correct, but there was little beneath the polished exterior. Zakian noted that many of today’s classical academic artists paint in the same manner, they depict reality without capturing its essence.

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"The Artist in his Studio" - Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel. 1629. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Mr. Zakian then switched to the slide of Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. In the canvas the young Rembrandt placed himself in the background studying his work from a distance, the easel looming large in the foreground. It is hard to read what the artist is thinking while contemplating his painting, is he confident or troubled about how to proceed? One could even say that Rembrandt seems a Don Quixote-like figure preparing to go into battle against a windmill. The point is the painting not only tells a story, it invites the viewer’s thoughtfulness. Zakian believes that narrative quality and scratching at the essence of things is needed in today’s classical realism. In that I fully concur, but I would say that type of inquisitive and expository spirit should be a part of all art disciplines. Postmodernists have largely done away with narrative altogether, and Zakian warned that in their repudiation of postmodernism, academic artists are doing the same.

Zakian told his audience that today’s academic and classical realists “must go beyond skill” to “wed their skills with story telling.” Fair enough, but what type of story telling? We live in a tangle of media distraction where one is no longer allowed a private cathartic moment before being inundated by a flood of advertising images. Perhaps that is one story to be told. Zakian noted the difficulty of this when he told his audience that “to make an impact on society, we have to compete with YouTube cat videos.” He offered another story to be conveyed when he projected a slide of The Cycle of Terror And Tragedy. Sept 11, 2007, a massive oil on canvas work by academic artist Graydon Parrish.

The painting was an attempt by Parrish to address the horror of the 9-11 terror attacks by means of allegorical symbolism. To me, addressing 21st century terror with the visual language of 19th century Victorian painters is a bit incongruous. Parrish wanted to produce a canvas imbued with the principles and sensibilities of academic art, but he unconsciously fashioned a postmodern work. At the center of the composition are two mirror image screaming men, blindfolded and near naked; the look-alikes symbolize the Twin Towers. When I gaze upon those figures I expect them to flicker and fluctuate like a badly transmitted video. The staccato, attention deficit disorder inducing, video editing style of today bled into the academic painting; Alma-Tadema meets the never blinking electronic eye.

To be fair to Mr. Parrish, the events of 9-11 were so catastrophic that it is tough to depict such a thing on canvas, though Pablo Picasso did just that when he painted his 1937 Guernica, which depicted the obliteration of the Basque village in Spain by Nazi warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that most people attending TRAC 2014 belittle Picasso as a charlatan, his monumental antiwar canvas is an eternal work of art. Why we do not have such art today is a complicated question. In large part it has to do with artists having been disoriented by postmodernism, their withdrawing from political affairs, and their possessing little grasp of history. It is not enough for artists to simply “tell stories,” we must plumb the depths of what it is to be human, as well as examine the societies that mold us.

Mr. Zakian also noted that “no one talks about the Old Masters anymore,” and advised that artists begin studying those painters of skill that worked before the 1800s, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and the like. Once again, I agreed with Zakian. His advice seemed a slap in the face to those who worship Bouguereau as much as it was an admonishment to those that have abandoned classical realism.

I rarely talk or write about my love of Old Masters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and oh so many others. Perhaps I should, I studied them all in my youth and they continue to be a guidepost. But if artists should “wed their skills with story telling,” as Zakian proposes, then we should also study the school of social realism that existed from the early 1900s until after WWII. That encompasses a large field, including artists from across the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing as how most of the organizers and attendees of TRAC apparently believe that “real art” stopped being made with the advent of modernism, and that they fervently seek to resuscitate academic art and its atelier based art curriculum, it is hard to take them seriously.

While the greater part of those involved in TRAC seem a traditional bunch, not all conservatives agree with their views regarding art. James Panero, the Executive Editor of the conservative journal The New Criterion, is a good example. In his article Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror, Panero disassembled the painting as “a machine for illustrating technical skill,” and lambasted the advocates of academic realism for turning the genre into “a value system” that “borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of ‘identity aesthetics.’” Panero’s words might be more compelling (or perturbing) to traditionalists since it was a conservative that wrote them.

While TRAC 2014 was a lightning rod for individuals ready to fulminate against modernism as the unlovely offspring of those unfit parents liberalism and Marxism, not all conservatives seem willing to accept academic art as the aesthetic deliverance for a world gone haywire. That Mr. Zakian advised realist painters at TRAC 2014 to use their skills to say something profound about life is sound and encouraging, and one hopes such counsel does not fall on deaf ears.

John Seed is a painter, professor of art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, and a journalist that writes about art for various publications. Seed gave an unlikely talk to those gathered at TRAC 2014, the subject of The Bay Area Figurative School and its Legacy. Unfortunately I was not able to attend Seed’s March 4th presentation, but it must have been a hoot, given the overall conservative atmosphere of TRAC 2014.

Mr. Seed talked about that small circle of painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco who, starting in the 1940s, rejected the reigning style of abstract art and began painting quasi-expressionist works that incorporated the human figure. Rejecting abstraction and making their way back to figuration, these painters were regarded as heretics by the official art world, which had almost unanimously embraced abstraction as the one true religion. Eventually the apostates became known as the Bay Area Figurative School, and therein lies the lesson; determined artists can unseat the status quo. Nevertheless, I imagine Seed had a hard time persuading the traditionalists at TRAC 2014 that they shared a kinship with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff.

One might want to read When Art Worlds Don’t Collide: TRAC 2014 and the Whitney Biennial, John Seed’s sympathetic coverage of the TRAC event, which he juxtaposed to his critique of the simultaneously held 2014 Whitney Biennial. I could not agree less with Seed’s summary of TRAC 2014, nor could I agree more with his rundown of the Whitney Biennial - though I might have been a tad more raucous in denouncing it.

Seed writes for the ostensibly “liberal” Huffington Post, but when mentioning Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, refers to him only as “a British philosopher, and the host of the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.” Seed says nothing of Scruton being a leading right-wing figure in British society. With obvious approval Seed averred that Scruton “gave the conference its philosophical and moral center”; in my review of TRAC 2014 I wrote that the organizers of the event “set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak,” but my observation was not meant as approving.

In his review of TRAC 2014 Seed noted that the event was not “without its awkward” moments, then stated that “although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event.” Perhaps Seed defines “progressive” differently than I do. He made no effort to analyze why Blacks were not in attendance, or why Latinos, who currently comprise some 39 percent of California’s population, were virtually nonexistent at TRAC 2014.

In his review of the conference, Seed asserted that “Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for ‘moderates’ - I’m one of them - who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots.” There is a big difference between having “plenty of room” for someone and actually joining forces to work in partnership. I agree with Seed that classical academic art held sway at TRAC, but in the vernacular of most traditionalists, “modernism” is a pejorative.

Historically speaking, modernism generated aesthetic and intellectual responses from U.S. blacks that developed into the Harlem Renaissance (1918-37). During that period the black experience was given voice in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts by extraordinary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Aaron Douglas; there were hundreds more and their remarkable contributions continue to reverberate in the present. But it was modernism that served as the impetus behind this black creative dynamism, not academicism.

To be honest, academicism seems to have had little to no impact on the African-American community; outside of a handful of brilliant 19th century painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, I am hard-pressed to name a single African American painter in the 20th century that was of the classical Academic School. Is it really such a surprise that TRAC 2014, an event steeped in the traditions of European academic and classical art would fail to attract African-Americans?

Among the listed sponsors and partners of TRAC, one finds the Carnegie Art Museum of Oxnard, California, the Museum of Ventura County, and the Pepperdine University Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), was also a sponsor of the conference.

Many featured artists associated with TRAC 2014 are also connected to the Art Renewal Center. For instance, the event’s 2nd Keynote speaker, Juliette Aristides, has been awarded a place on the ARC’s list of Approved Artists ™ & Living Masters ™. Studio demonstrations were conducted at the event by Jeremy Lipking and Virgil Elliott, who are also living masters according to the ARC. Featured speakers Kara Lysandra Ross is a staff writer for the ARC website and the Director of Operations for the group, while Julio Reyes is another of the ARC’s living masters. The aforementioned Graydon Parrish worked as a researcher on the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonne co-published by the Art Renewal Center. There were certainly many ARC supporters and devotees in attendance.

Many artists and art loving individuals, alienated by the current state of art, have been attracted to the Art Renewal Center and its aim of fostering an appreciation of traditional art and technique. Not finding it in college and university level art classes, students seeking instruction in realist drawing and painting have turned to the ARC for its list of privately run “approved ateliers,” where one can enroll in atelier based art classes. In principle I think this all well and good, but there is something off about the ARC.

On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ARC website, one can find the following, “While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important.” The ARC proclaims Bouguereau as the exemplar of French Academic art and so a quintessential leader for today’s painters. The director of the ARC, Fred Ross, wrote Abstract Art Is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, apparently unaware that abstraction lost its dominance to Pop art in the mid-1950s; never mind the shibboleth of 21st century postmodernism! But possibly the most damning contorted logic and grammar found on the ARC web site comes from this quote on its FAQ page:

Q: Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.

No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?

What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. In that he was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it is the message, not the medium that was flawed.

Aside from thinking that people who mouth such nonsense are an embarrassment, it is hard to know what so say. In very specific language, the ARC FAQ states the Nazis were correct in their assessment of “degenerate art,” and that Hitler “used good artistic expression as a powerful tool.” The Nazis did not employ “good artistic expression” to convey their poisonous ideas, they strangled the very possibility of art before they even seized power (think of the Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst, who wrote the following words in his 1933 play Schlageter, “Whenever I hear of culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning!”) As professor James E. Young pointed out in his article, The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics, “Art, beauty and aesthetics were not benign byproducts of the Nazi Reich, but part and parcel of its malevolent logic.”

Almost nine years ago I took a swipe at the ARC for posting correspondence on their website that praised the Nazi painter Ivo Salinger; it appears the group’s stance remains unreformed. As the conservative James Panero of The New Criterion wrote, the zeal of some supporters of academic realism “borders on an evangelical faith,” a fundamentalism that can be “reactionary and thuggish.” I am not accusing the ARC of being fascists, but I am saying that they have a very weak understanding of history, and such people are ill-equipped to change the world.

It might be said that the ARC has done more to weaken and incapacitate 21st century realism in art than the combined efforts of Eli Broad and Jeff Koons. Clear thinking individuals that love representational art should distance themselves from the Art Renewal Center - starting with the organizers of TRAC 2015.

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Read Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, the first part of my review regarding The Representational Art Conference of 2014.

Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors


The "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez Symposium" held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez" symposium held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On March 23, 2014, I attended the symposium at Scripps College in Claremont, California titled Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Held to deepen public knowledge about the Mexican artist, the event was held in conjunction with the not to be missed exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California.

The symposium offered three separate talks by experts in their fields, all pertaining to the art of Martínez. After their presentations the three lecturers reconvened as panelists for an informative panel discussion moderated by arts writer, Suzanne Muchnic. A lively question and answer period followed, after which the symposium concluded and attendees walked a short distance to view The Flower Vendors, the fresco murals Martínez painted in the college’s Margaret Fowler Garden.

A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

1) A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1946 Scripps College commissioned Martínez to paint The Flower Vendors mural. It is a tragedy that in the middle of working on the project, Martínez died on November 8, 1946 at the age of 73. His wonderful mural was left unfinished, but it continues to resonate in the present. I photographed The Flower Vendors while attending the symposium, and in this article offer my photos along with my impressions of the symposium.

Amy Galpin, the curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, presented her talk Making Religion Modern: Alfredo Ramos Martínez and his Contemporaries. A devout Catholic, Martínez created a number of works that were of a religious nature; Galpin focused on those works.

Martínez returned to Christian themes in his paintings and drawings again and again, but the topic was usually bound to the artist’s ideas concerning social justice for the poor and downtrodden. This point was driven home when Galpin projected a slide of Martínez’ 1939 tempera and ink drawing, The Bondage of War.

In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

2) In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Bondage of War depicts a Mexican Indian man tied-up with heavy ropes that hold him immobile, a length of rope tightly twisting around his neck slowly strangles him. The tormented campesino stands in for humanity as a whole; it is 1939 and the winds of war have reached cyclone proportions. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan have already formed an alliance. In 1939 the Nazis seize Czechoslovakia, Spain falls to the fascist army of General Franco, and the Nazis invade Poland. Martínez made his antiwar drawing on a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the banal printed columns and ads from the paper bleeding through the drawing of the campesino. To this work Ms. Galpin juxtaposed a slide projection of an artwork Martínez created depicting the suffering Christ bound in ropes - the similarity between the two artworks was striking. Both were closely cropped minimalist portraits done in limited color schemes, but more importantly, both artworks spoke powerfully about agony and redemption.

One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

3) One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Galpin placed Martínez and his religious works in the broader context of modernist art. She projected slides of artworks made by other modernists who had created religious art in the Christian tradition; Jean Charlot (whose works appear in the PMCA Martínez exhibit), Edith Catlin Phelps (Wayside Madonna), Ivan Albright (his hallucinogenic The Temptation of St. Anthony), and Charles White (Spiritual). There are many other example of course that Galpin did not mention, the woodcuts of the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt Rottluff come to mind (Head of Christ 1918). It was a refreshing take on modernism; three weeks prior to attending the Martínez symposium I had attended TRAC 2014, where conservative keynote speaker Roger Scruton scorned modernism for destroying the sacred in art and replacing it with the profane.

Ms. Galpin concluded her remarks by saying that the more political artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, etc., ultimately saw Martínez as one of their own because of the deep humanism and love of the common people that he expressed in his paintings and drawings.

Detail of rightward most figure from the nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

4) Detail of rightward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In her presentation, Conserving Alfredo Ramos Martínez’ The Flower Vendors, art conservator Aneta Zebala talked about the meticulous process of restoring and conserving The Flower Vendors mural located in the Margaret Fowler Garden on the Scripps College campus. Trained in the restoration of wall and easel paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Zebala was also part of a collaborative team that worked with the Getty Conservation Institute in preserving the Siqueiros América Tropical mural located on L.A.’s Olvera Street.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1994 Zebala and her associates found The Flower Vendors in poor shape. The mural was suffering from water damage, which not only caused the paint to bleach out in certain areas of the painting, but gave rise to the build-up of salt deposits that further eroded paint pigments; paint was flaking off throughout the mural. Incredibly, ivy from the garden had crept over the mural’s surface, and the plants sank thousands of tiny roots into the outdoor mural. Zebala recounted how difficult it was to remove the roots and restore the damage they caused. Vandals had also painted graffiti on a certain area of the mural, increasing the headaches of restoration and preservation that Ms. Zebala and her team faced.

 7) Detail of rightward most figures from a nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

6) Detail of panel showing flower vendors with baskets full of flowers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Zebala revealed some important facts about how The Flower Vendors mural was produced. The painting was created using the traditional Italian fresco method.

On the wall to be painted, skilled plasterers first applied a rough layer of lime plaster mixed with large granules of sand. Called the “arriccio,” this layer was allowed to dry.

Next, the artist drew a very rough sketch or guide on the arriccio called the “sinopia,” named after the dark red earth pigment used to paint it. The sinopia helped in guiding the layering on of the last coat of fine plaster, the “intonaco.” The intonaco was laid on in small patches, just the amount that an artist could finish painting on in one work session. The artist would paint onto the wet intonaco layer with water-based pigment, remembering the outlines of the sinopia hidden beneath the fresh intonaco. When the plaster and pigment set and dried, the painting became permanent.

Over the years fresco painting developed a slightly more sophisticated technique that abandoned the sinopia as a guide for the artist. In this method, once the fine intonaco layer was layered over the rough arriccio, a life-sized drawing on paper - the “cartoon” - that had its outlines perforated with a needle, was placed over the wet intonaco and pounced with a small sack filled with charcoal dust. When the cartoon was removed, the outlines of the drawing were left on the wet plaster and the artist could begin painting. This method allowed for complex drawings to be transferred to the wet plaster; the artist no longer had to memorize what was beneath the intonaco in order to proceed, instead the cartoon tracing left a completely worked out line drawing to be painted over and refined.

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7) Detail of flower vendors from illustration number 6. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

What Aneta Zebala revealed was that Alfredo Ramos Martínez used the earlier method of fresco painting, that is, he used a sinopia as his rough guide in painting his mural. Once the last layer of fine plaster was placed over the sinopia, the artist had to remember what the drawing looked like; he was in essence flying blind. In all of her restoration and preservation work on the mural, Ms. Zebala found no evidence that a pounced cartoon was used to provide Martínez with a guide. He simply painted freehand onto the wet plaster. Since Martínez’ mural was left unfinished, one can see the rough layers of arriccio and sinopia sketches in one section of the mural, while in other sections it is easy to see the intonaco with semi or near finished paintings. It is sad that The Flower Vendors mural was unfinished, but it has left us with an amazing example of how a traditional fresco mural is painted.

The high-quality restoration and preservation work carried out on The Flower Vendors brought the mural to life. When contemplating the fresco, one tends to forget that it is unfinished.

9) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

8) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, gave a talk titled, Printmaking in Los Angeles and the Role of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez. Ms. Goodwin revealed some hitherto unknown historical facts, even to those stalwart veterans of the Los Angeles arts community.

It all began with a Martínez “painting” that hung in the Goodwin household when Mary was a young girl. She became perplexed when she saw the exact same work in the home of relatives. She eventually discovered that the work was not a painting at all, but a serigraph - a silkscreen print; still, it was assumed that the print had been created by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Fast forward to Ms. Goodwin as an adult with a B.A. in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Boston University. In her research she made some startling discoveries regarding the Martínez silkscreen.

A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

9) A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is well known, at least to those who have studied the works of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, that his wife, Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, was a fierce champion of her husband’s works. After Alfredo died in 1946, Maria continued to organize exhibits of his works. To help continue and expand the legacy of Alfredo, Maria printed 7 separate silkscreen print editions that were reproductions of selected works by her husband. Printed by Maria in the garage of her Los Angeles home between the years 1947 and 1951, the most complex prints utilized 62 different colors - meaning 62 different screen stencils had to be hand-painted. Maria signed the works with her own name; some of the prints had a price as low as $35.00.

Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

10) Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

But the story did not end there. Maria learned how to produce silkscreen prints from the artist credited with originating silkscreen as a fine art medium, Guy Maccoy (1904-1981). In 1933 while working in New York with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Maccoy began developing the screen printing process, earning him the moniker “Father of the Serigraph.” In 1938 Maccoy had the nation’s first one-person show of silkscreen prints. In 1945 Maccoy moved to Los Angeles, California. He taught Maria Martínez his technique of painting directly upon a stretched screen with lithographers tusche and water based glue in order to create a stencil.

Years later Maria Martínez would teach Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, how to produce serigraphs. Running the art department at L.A.’s Immaculate Heart College until 1968, Corita became a dynamic force in the activist arts, and her anti-Vietnam war and social justice posters became ubiquitous in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In turn, Corita taught her student Sister Karen Boccalero the skills taught to her by Maria Martínez. In 1970, Boccalero became a co-founder of L.A.’s Self Help Graphics, which continues to be a cornerstone institution for the national Chicano art movement.

12) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

11) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin closed her talk by commenting on how we need to continue “teasing out” these multifaceted stories in order to build a complete understanding of history. The synchronicity  between Guy Maccoy, Maria Martínez, Corita Kent, and Karen Boccalero was based on a common vision of art being made accessible to large numbers of working people. Muralism has always been a vital component to that aspiration, with The Flower Vendors by Alfredo Ramos Martínez remaining a superlative model of the art.

As a long time follower of Chicano art history, especially in my hometown city of Los Angeles, it was absolutely revelatory to find a direct link between Ramos Martínez, and the Chicano art movement, through the serigraphy of his wife Maria Martínez. Furthermore, it makes it even more historically important that the PMCA’s current exhibit of Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is in conjunction with the exhibit Serigrafía, an overview of Chicano/Latino silkscreen art from the 1970s to the present that also includes one of my prints.  A more fitting combination could not be had, as we now have learned from Ms. Goodwin’s research.

The two exhibits run until April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

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Read more about Martínez at, Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

Millard Sheets: The Early Years

Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) through May 30, 2010, is an important exhibit of works by a leading California exponent of the “American Scene” painters, those artists given to documenting ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives.

Incorporated into the American Scene genre were the subcategories of “Regionalism” and “Social Realism.” The former concentrated on themes of local life in small town rural settings, the later engaged in works of social criticism, focusing on the experiences of working people in urban settings. Depending on the artist, there could be much overlap between the three schools, and Sheets was one to blend them without difficulty; Social Realism ran through his early works. Given my interest in that genre, and feeling it best describes what I am attempting in my own artworks, I enthusiastically attended the exhibition and now proffer the following comments regarding it.

The first painting one sees when entering the museum is Abandoned, Sheets’ 1933 canvas that has come to symbolize the Great Depression. At first glance the focus of the work seems to be the wild and uncontrollable forces of nature, there is a spiritual quality to the painting, however, a second glance unveils an ominous, darker narrative. Under a forebodingly turbulent sky, horses move through a tangle of overgrown brush and fallen trees. The eye finally rests on a dilapidated windmill, and only then do the deserted farm buildings come into focus, as does the real meaning of the painting. It is a representation of American society brought to its knees by economic collapse, where even the family farm – iconic national symbol of self-reliance – has come to ruin. The mystical sense of the canvas dissolves into the brutal material reality that people were driven from the land and their properties repossessed by  banks, a story that has once again become sadly familiar to millions of Americans.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

Aesthetically speaking, Abandoned is a highly polished and sophisticated painting with a finish that displays few brushstrokes. It is a work that was planned out well in advance, despite its energetic and spontaneous look. Sheets eschewed detail to concentrate on form and composition, and here it is obvious that far from being a conservative painter, he was utilizing abstraction and Modernist aesthetics. One last note regarding Abandoned. While it is generally thought of as a Social Realist comment on depression era America, an interpretation I subscribe to, in reality the artist was inspired to create his canvas after seeing an abandoned farm in Riverside, California. The farm was marked for destruction so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could build the Prado Dam flood control system.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the traditional West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWI.

"Terminal Island Fish Harbor" – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWII.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor is a painting that immediately caught my eye. No reproduction could possibly do justice to this extraordinary work depicting a historic harbor near Long Beach, California.

Sheets managed to capture the fading light of a California sunset with incredible accuracy, the golden light illuminating a scene of fisherman at their work.

The dominant palette is hot; pastel yellows, oranges, and reds, brilliantly counterpoised by the cool blues of deep harbor waters. Despite the high degree of realism, a close up look at Terminal Island reveals a modern painterly approach, a detail in the upper left corner of the painting giving the best example of this. From a distance the wood buildings looming over the docked fishing boats seem almost photographic; a close examination however reveals heavy impasto layers of paint that have been incised with the sharp end of the artist’s brush, giving the illusion of weather worn wooden planks. I stood before this painting for the longest time, marveling at the artist’s technical prowess. It was my favorite work in the exhibit and well worth the price of admission to view all by itself.

Artistic virtuosity aside, the painting is astounding for another reason. With his canvas, Sheets captured an important and historic slice of life from Southern California. Terminal Island has a long history; for generations it was occupied by the Tongva/”Gabrieleno” Indians, in fact it was the Tongva who greeted the Spanish in 1542 when the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in what is now known as San Pedro, California. When Sheets created his canvas in 1935, Terminal Island was almost entirely inhabited by first and second-generation Japanese, who had established a productive fishing industry there. In a 1977 interview conducted with the Oral History Program of the University of California Los Angeles, Sheets said the following:

“I spent a tremendous amount of time at the old Terminal Island fish harbor down in Long Beach, when they had a fantastic city of Japanese. There must have been 3,000 Japanese. Most of them couldn’t speak a word of English. They were all from Japan. All the customs and their festivals and the Sumo wrestlers, these marvelous big wrestlers that they had. I’ve seen all of the festivals down there. I used to see them three or four or five times a year, and I’d go down there and camp right on the dock. They all knew me, and I painted down there literally for years.”

In Terminal Island, the men on the docks pulling in the massive fishing nets were undoubtedly Japanese-Americans, but the vibrant community Sheets documented in his painting would met its doom just seven years after the artist finished his canvas. In the immediate aftermath of the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, all Japanese-American adult males living on the island were arrested by the FBI. Subsequently, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which called for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. to be locked up in “internment camps.” The entire Japanese-American community on Terminal Island was arrested, had its property seized, and was shipped off to prison camps. The traditional Japanese village on the island was entirely demolished, never to be rebuilt.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the unfashionable working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed just two years prior to Sheet making this painting.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed two years prior to Sheets making this painting.

Also on display at the PMCA, the painting New High Street had great personal resonance for me.

It depicts a working class neighborhood in the old downtown area of Los Angeles that was bisected by New High Street, an avenue located between Sunset Boulevard and Temple Street, the vicinity where L.A.’s civic center would be built.

In fact, when Sheets painted this canvas in 1930, the construction of L.A. City Hall had been finished just two years earlier. The canvas shows an immigrant family’s old wooden house on a hill above New High Street, laundry hanging on the back porch and a little girl feeding chickens in the yard.

The reason I am fascinated with this painting – aside from its technical brilliance – is that my mother grew up in depression era Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, Anita Murieta, in a train boxcar parked on rented land in an L.A. suburb, where they grew vegetables and raised chickens to help make ends meet. Except for only slightly different circumstances and location, Sheets’ painting could have had my mother’s childhood as its theme. Everyday my mother’s mom would walk to the Pacific “Red Car” electric trolley station, riding the train to downtown L.A. where she would labor in the area around New High Street. Sheets’ painting echoes my own family connection to the City of Los Angeles.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

New High Street is also a tour de force when it comes to direct “wet on wet” painting, and close scrutiny gives an idea of how the entire canvas was painted.

The little girl feeding the chickens was seemingly created from only two-dozen paint loaded brush strokes, applying only five colors (yellow ochre , cadmium red, burnt sienna, flake white, and ivory black). A single deft stroke of a brush laden with cadmium red and burnt sienna produced the girl’s arm, likewise, expertly dragging a brush loaded with ivory black over a wet field of white mixed with burnt sienna, produced the child’s pigtails.

This method tells you the canvas was painted spontaneously and on the fly, without a sketch or underpainting. Sheets’ had developed a personal calligraphic visual language that allowed him to create highly developed realistic scenes that were in actuality little more than short-hand oil sketches.

The painting Deep Canyon is related to New High Street, thematically as well as aesthetically. It is another of Sheets’ Social Realist examinations of poor working class neighborhoods. Keeping details to a minimum, the artist painted the urban jungle from brush strokes laden with paint, troweling on paint with a palette knife, and wiping, scraping, and incising the paint surface to various effect.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

The use of color in this work is breathtaking; deep shadows in warm browns are sharply contrasted by bright hues of red, blue, and green; the skillful application of paint giving the illusion of sunlight streaming through concrete canyons.

The painting is full of movement, from the roiling storm clouds and laundry flapping in the wind, to the frenetic gestures of shoppers and vendors on the avenue.

As with New High Street, there is a remarkable lack of detail to be found in the impressionistically painted Deep Canyon, which in no way impedes the work’s narrative or emotive qualities. While there are a number of people in the scene, none have been painted with facial features – save for the woman carrying chickens in the lower left corner, and her face is blurry and nondescript.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

Sheets’ handling of the people in his canvas is a skillful blend of caricature and humanistic concern. The rotund women on the stoops in the lower right of the canvas would be comical in appearance, save for the fact that the artist painted them with empathy and somehow imbued them with dignity. The groups of people gathered around the vendor in the green dress are composed of rapid brushstrokes and daubs of paint, yet they convey much life and energy.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. A close-up view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

Clearly Sheets was inspired by Cliff Dwellers, a depiction of crowded tenement housing on New York’s Lower East Side that was painted some 17 years earlier by the celebrated American Social Realist, George Bellows. Unfortunately, the PMCA provided no information about Deep Canyon, the painting’s caption listing neither the date of its creation nor the name of the locality the artist depicted – but I would venture to say it was not a painting of a Los Angeles scene.

Sheets’ Deep Canyon is a far cry from his Tenement Flats, painted in 1933-1934 and not included in the PMCA exhibit. A Great Depression era look at the poor working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill in the downtown area of Los Angeles, the canvas is painted in a strikingly realistic style, and the painting’s every detail, from the porch railings to the patterns on the laundry hung out to dry, was treated with equal attention by the artist. Tenement Flats is also notable for its underlying geometric composition, a nod to the Precisionist art movement – revealing once more the artist’s embrace of Modernist aesthetics.

The larger part of the exhibition is dedicated to Sheets’ watercolor paintings, works that brought him much praise and recognition during his career. Sixty of these watercolors are on display at the PMCA, and they are consummate examples of the discipline of watercolor painting. In these delicate works the artist celebrated the glories of America’s natural wonders in a rapturous, almost paganistic manner, with most of the watercolors recording the splendors of California; massive rolling hills depicted as the very embodiment of the “earth mother,” horses frolicking on abundant plains under expansive skies, the shimmering ocean kissing the craggy coastline – all conveying timelessness and a sense of boundless freedom. Never far behind the artist’s exultant observations of nature was an unshakable humanism, and so a number of his watercolors show people working the land as farmers or as immigrant laborers.

Watercolor paintings on display at the PMCA like Siesta Under the Trees (1936), Camp Near Brawley (1938), and Migratory Camp Near Nipomo (undated), attest to the exploitation of migrant workers in California agriculture. Sheets sympathetically depicted Mexican immigrants and “Okie” migrant workers escaping the Dust Bowl of Midwestern U.S. states, at their backbreaking labor in agricultural fields and at rest in makeshift camps. Sheets’ large watercolor titled Farm Workers is the most hard-hitting of these, portraying impoverished male and female migrant workers in the fields carrying heavy burdens of harvested vegetables under a punishing sun – the exact same painting of California agricultural workers could be made today.

Sheets also traveled to Mexico where he painted village life and landscapes in watercolor. The PMCA exhibit includes three of these works, and here again; the paintings have personal resonance for me. Sheets visited the coastal city of Guaymas, Mexico, in the state of Sonora, where he painted the watercolors. One in particular, Sunny Day in Guaymas (1932), is an enchanting painting that shows a woman wearing a traditional “rebozo” hand-woven shawl. She walks against a back drop of craggy hills, cactus plants, and adobe homes, the same scenery common to historic Los Angeles. That my father was born in Guaymas, and as a two-year-old migrated with his family to San Diego, California, six years prior to Sheets painting the watercolor – completes the picture for me.

Sheets had high regard for the Social Realist artists of Mexico, though he did not share their political radicalism. He said of the Mexican Mural School; “I’ve always been more than excited, just tremendously moved by it.” He had personally met many of the top painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In fact, Sheets was one of the artists who assisted Siqueiros in painting his Worker’s Meeting mural on an outside wall of the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles in 1932, when Siqueiros was briefly in the U.S.

The PMCA exhibit is not without problems, it starts with the assumption that the public is familiar with the life and work of Sheets – if only that were the case. The most discernible problem is the museum’s negligence to provide adequate captions for the works. The majority of labels give no information beyond title and medium, managing even to write “date unknown” on several pieces where the artist clearly signed a work with a legible date. Historical information needed for a full understanding of the artist’s works – and his place within his era – could have been provided as short, concise, paragraphs. The museum catalog for the exhibit, written by its curator, Gordon T. McClelland (an acknowledged authority on California “American Scene” painters), somewhat makes up for this omission, but museum goers should not be required to purchase a book in order to understand an exhibited artist.

Sheets accomplished much during his lifetime as an artist, and the PMCA should have done more to provide insight into his life’s work. That being said, Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), is an exhibition not to be missed.