Category: Modernism

1930s: The Making of “The New Man”

Those fortunate to see the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will not only have the opportunity to feast their eyes upon some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century - they will be given ample evidence of how artists once responded to calamity and social crisis. On view until September 7, 2008, the exhibit presents over 200 paintings, sculptures, and photographs from world renowned artists the likes of Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, John Heartfield, George Grosz, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Rodchenko, Walker Evans, Salvador Dalí, Philip Guston, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Otto Dix, Henri Matisse, and others too numerous to list here.

My general praise of the exhibit however, does not come without criticism. There is an inexcusable lack of women artists represented in what purports to be “a new look at this important historical era”, and I am dubious of the museum’s premise for the exhibition; which stresses how “in the 1930s, biology became a force for change”.

In the 1930s those on the left and center of the political spectrum used the metaphorical phrase, “a new man”, to articulate a belief in the betterment of society and the advancement of humanity, not through eugenics, but by the application of economic policies and scientific progress. The popular expression was optimistically tied to modernist conceptualizations of communal development and a utopian future. It was the Nazis who twisted the concept of biological determinism into a nightmare of forced sterilizations and mass killings in the pursuit of racial purity. For the National Gallery of Canada to suggest that 1930s modernism on the whole was fixated on biology as “a force for change” is indeed a bizarre stretching of the facts.

My misgivings regarding curatorial approach aside, I feel the National Gallery of Canada has brought together an amazing number of profound works for their “New Man” exhibit, and I would like to comment on two of my favorites. Those with an appetite for more information on the art of the 1930s should purchase the exhibition catalog.

Aficionados of surrealism will be happy to know that L’Ange du Foyer (Fireside Angel), by German painter Max Ernst, is included in the exhibit. Like many German artists of the period, Ernst served four hellish years as a soldier on the battlefields of World War I (1914-1918). Immediately after the war he co-founded the Cologne Dada group, which introduced him to an ever widening circle of radical artists. He left Germany in 1922 to settle in Montparnasse, France, where he joined the Surrealist group founded by André Breton.

Painting by Max Ernst

[ Fireside Angel - Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 1937. Private collection. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

While in France he created the masterwork Fireside Angel in 1937. It was not exactly a prescient work, as anyone who was following events closely could see what was becoming of the world. The reign of Hitler had begun in 1933, the Italian fascists under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, while General Franco and his fascist movement were in arms against the Spanish Republic. Nevertheless, Ernst’s painting well expressed the gathering menace then engulfing the world. Fireside Angel is the depiction of an indescribable creature as it storms with rage through a desolate landscape. By referring to his impossible beast as an “angel”, the artist warned that in embracing lofty and exalted ideas, we sometimes end up with the devil. It seems we never succeeded in banishing the Fireside Angel Ernst caught a glimpse of, and if we would only pay close attention - we could see the monster riding roughshod over humanity today.

Painting by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Blinde Macht (Blind Power) - Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas. 1938. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. In 1937 Schlichter was forbidden by the Nazis to create or exhibit artworks. That same year the fascist authorities displayed seventeen of the artist’s paintings in their infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit, and Schlichter’s response to being banned was to secretively paint this canvas. It depicted a brawny warrior blinded by his own power, brandishing a sword and workmen’s tools - walking off a cliff. Demons are clasped to the doomed warrior’s chest, eating him alive. In the background all the accomplishments of civilization burn to the ground. ]

The American surrealist painter, Peter Blume (1906-1992), was once highly regarded as an American figurative painter, though today he is unfortunately almost entirely forgotten. Employing the same techniques utilized by Renaissance artists, Blume’s paintings made use of a near photographic realism, but his narrative works were permeated with surrealist vision and social realist spirit. Blume spent 1932 in Rome, Italy, on a Guggenheim grant, the same year the Italian fascist movement celebrated the tenth anniversary of its so-called “March on Rome”, the coup d’état that brought dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party to power. After returning to the U.S. Blume brooded over what he had witnessed before starting work in 1934 on The Eternal City, a painting that would take him three years to complete and which is now part of “The New Man” exhibit.

As he was working on the final touches of his painting in 1936, Blume wrote a proclamation against war and fascism titled “The Artist Must Choose“. In his essay he exclaimed; “We, as artists, must take our place in this crisis on the side of growth and civilization against barbarism and reaction, and help to create a better social order.”

Painting by Peter Blume

[ The Eternal City - Peter Blume. Oil on board. 45 ½ in. x 59 ½ in. 1934-37. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

Blume used a contemporaneous view of the Roman Forum, the political and religious center of the ancient Empire, as the setting for his picture, but the charming ruins made a farce of the city’s nickname - The Eternal City. In the painting’s distant background Fascist troops can be seen attacking a worker’s demonstration, while in the foreground a number of portentous images vie for our attention. On the left can be seen a polychromed wood statue of Christ situated in a building without a roof, sunrays illuminating the religious figurine mockingly bedecked with military epaulettes and swords. Directly below that tableau a crippled beggar can be seen sitting amongst the broken marble statues and columns of civilization laid low. At right, Mussolini as a gaudy and malevolent jack-in-the-box looms over the entire scene, and lurking in the disintegrating tunnels of the Forum beneath Il Duce’s giant green head, a grinning blackshirt thug and his capitalist paymaster can be seen.

Upon completing The Eternal City in 1937, Blume exhibited the painting at the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan. Even though the message of Blume’s anti-fascist work was unambiguous, especially when combined with his written proclamation, numerous critics voiced thickheaded and imperceptive remarks concerning the work. The New York Sun’s widely read art critic, Henry McBride, made this vinegary comment about Blume and his painting: “He won, it seems, a Guggenheim fellowship, and went to Italy nominally as an art student but actually as a political spy, and returns with a picture that pretends to mock Mussolini. This, of course, is an odd undertaking for an American artist.” Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for the New York Times wrote: “The political aspects of this treatise are not altogether clear. We are left in doubt as to whether the propagandist considers this modern dictator a self-sprung megalomaniac or a figurehead manipulated by social forces that have taken control of the situation in Italy. Scarcely more convincing is the religious symbol employed. There is nowhere evident the great transfiguring principle itself of Christian love and Christian sacrifice.”

That Edward Alden Jewell referred to Blume as a “propagandist” is revealing, especially since The Eternal City was the only explicitly political painting ever created by Blume. The open hostility that American art critics displayed towards Blume’s painting was but one indication of the growing disfavor to fall upon figurative and social realist artists in the late 1930s. In a letter to the New York Times in 1943, painters Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman called for an art that would transcend real world issues in favor of pure abstraction. Refuting realism, they declared that meaning in art can only “come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker”, further stating that “We want to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms, because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Abstract Expressionism soon came to dominate American art, and to the detriment of us all, the realism practiced by Peter Blume was declared hopelessly passé by “serious” critics, collectors, and museums.

Spectators of the exhibition, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will no doubt be left with some gnawing questions regarding the state of contemporary art. After taking in the exhibit and seeing Pablo Picasso’s composition studies for his Guernica mural, Philip Guston’s painting excoriating the air war against civilians during the Spanish Civil War, the acerbic wit displayed in the photomontage works of John Heartfield, and the compassion shown to America’s underclass in the photographs of Walker Evans; the viewer might ask, “Why are we not seeing socially conscious art today?” I would argue that such works are indeed being created, as to why we are not seeing them, or hearing of them - is another matter entirely.

Edward Hopper: A Retrospective

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is the subject of a major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, the last venue for a traveling exhibition that included stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Encompassing nearly 100 of the artist’s most notable prints and paintings, the exhibit features some of the artist’s most iconic canvases, New York Movie (1939) and Nighthawks (1942) to name but a few. As a youngster Hopper’s paintings provided me with an entry point into the art of the Great Depression period, and I recall as an adolescent being mesmerized by his works. So without hesitation I cite Hopper as one of my influences.

Automat - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Automat - Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1927. From the permanent collection of the Des Moines Art Center and currently part of the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]

The figurative realist paintings of Edward Hopper continue to be extremely popular with the general public and a good number of critics. In 2004 the Tate Modern in London mounted an exhibition of Hopper’s works that turned out to be the second most popular show in the museum’s history - pulling in nearly half a million visitors during its three month run (a 2002 exhibit of paintings by Matisse and Picasso was the Tate’s most popular show). I think it’s a mistake to ascribe Hopper’s continued popularity to simple nostalgia, as I’m certain the allure of his work is based upon a modern audience seeing itself reflected in the portrayals of alienation he so often depicted. In essence Hopper was a social realist, and what he quietly revealed about late 20th century American society still rings true today. Conceivably, another explanation for Hopper’s lasting popularity might be found in his final written statement, published in the Spring of 1953:

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”

Of course, Hopper made his statement when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force in the American art scene, and more importantly, at a time when art elites had pronounced realist painting to be woefully old-fashioned - a viewpoint we are still largely saddled with today. But then, Hopper was impervious to the avant-garde movements that swept over the later half of the 20th century; Surrealism, Action Painting, Pop Art - all had absolutely no impact upon him whatsoever. Now that the chilly detachment of postmodernism has become the prevailing fashion in art, many are looking towards artists like Hopper for craft, beauty, technical virtuosity, and narrative without the tedious yoke of irony.

Night Shadows - Etching by Edward Hopper

[ Night Shadows - Edward Hopper. Etching. 1921. Included in the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]

Hopper’s social realism was of a psychological bent, showing individuals who were estranged from each other and at odds with their surroundings - even his depopulated cityscapes suggested disquiet. Hopper’s evocative paintings provide just enough of a story to pull in the viewer, even while maintaining impenetrable mystery - one is never quite certain what the people in his canvases are thinking or doing. While Hopper’s themes often dealt with alienation they were never alienating, and despite the depictions of emptiness and seclusion, Hopper’s works somehow imparted - and still do - a deep and unshakable humanism.

As a student Hopper studied painting and illustration at the New York Institute of Art and Design, where artist Robert Henri was his favorite instructor. Hopper would later be associated with the Ashcan School of social realism launched by Henri and his rebellious cohorts, in fact Hopper first exhibited in a 1908 group show in New York organized by some of Henri’s students. Early on in his career Hopper sustained himself by working discontentedly as a commercial illustrator, a profession he positively detested, and it wouldn’t be until the later half of his life that he met with any success as a painter. He sold his first painting at the 1913 Armory Show, and wouldn’t sell another for ten years. His premier solo exhibit in 1920 was a depressing affair that generated neither critical acclaim nor sales. Thankfully Hopper had the fortitude to press ahead with his work despite the difficulties he faced - a determination that should inspire anyone who swims against the conformist mainstream.

Office in a Small City - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Office in a Small City - Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1953. Alienation and emotional isolation in consumer society - a critique more applicable today than ever before. Painting in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ]

Hopper was a private man of few words, and he made but three written statements concerning his views on art. The following quotation came from Notes on Painting, a short discourse published in the catalog of his 1933 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art:

“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature. If this end is unattainable, so, it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of painting or in any other of man’s activities. The trend in some of the contemporary movements in art, but by no means all, seems to deny this ideal and to me appears to lead to a purely decorative conception of painting. (….) I believe that the great painters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.”

The Edward Hopper retrospective runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 11, 2008.

“Apostles of Ugliness” - 100 Years Later

February, 2008 marked the 100th anniversary of “The Eight Independent Painters” exhibition at New York’s MacBeth Gallery. While the event changed the face of American art and established the country’s very first avant-garde art movement, which broke the rules of convention by painting the realities of New York’s working poor and immigrant populations instead of the lives and accomplishments of the well-to-do class - the centennial is not likely to receive any attention from an art world currently obsessed with escapism, celebrity and money.

In 1907 John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens were rejected for exhibition by New York’s conservative National Academy of Design, which slavishly upheld classical European academic painting. Robert Henri pulled his own works from the Academy exhibit in protest, and then set about mounting an alternative exhibition of works that would included artists hostile to the Academy’s entrenched academicians and their reactionary jury system. Working with Sloan, Luks, and Glackens, Henri pulled together the exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in February of 1908. Painters Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur Davies, and Maurice Prendergast were included in the loosely knit group - which became known as “The Eight Independent Painters,” or simply “The Eight.”

Painting by John Sloan

[ Sun and Wind on the Roof - John Sloan 1915 Oil on canvas. ]

While multitudes flocked to the Macbeth Gallery to see the exhibit, the show was met with ridicule from the art establishment and derided by an unsympathetic press, which mockingly referred to the group as “The Apostles of Ugliness” or “The Revolutionary Black Gang” - since the artists painted working people and gritty urban realism with a somber palette. Eventually the group was contemptuously dubbed, the “Ashcan School”, a reference to the garbage cans found in crowded inner-city slums that served as backdrops for many paintings by “The Eight.”

The Ashcan school became the vanguard in the fight to modernize American art. Shockwaves created by the Macbeth Gallery exhibit led to further struggles against academic conservatism, opening the way to the famous 1913 Armory Show - which John Sloan and Arthur Davies helped to organize. The Ashcan school embraced progressive ideas put into motion by European artists, but reshaped those conceptions into something uniquely American. The Ashcan circle of painters eventually widened to include artists like George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and dozens of others.

Painting by John Sloan

[ Self Portrait - John Sloan. 1917-1922. Oil on canvas. ]

John Sloan was unquestionably the most politically engaged of “The Eight”, and his works and ideas have had no small influence upon me over the years. Accordingly, I’ll focus on Sloan for the rest of this article, especially since he is the focus of a magnificent comprehensive traveling exhibit organized by the Delaware Art Museum, Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York. The exhibit presents roughly 100 works by the artist, including paintings, prints, drawings and ephemera - such as photographs and illustrated letters.

John Sloan’s ideas regarding painting, printmaking, and art instruction were fortunately preserved for eternity in a series of writings that were ultimately compiled as the book, The Gist of Art. Part personal observations on life and art, part instructional manual for those interested in the mechanics of drawing and painting, “Gist” is to a large extent comprised of verbatim notes taken while Sloan was teaching in the classroom or lecturing to an audience.

Drawing by John Sloan

[ Ludlow, Colorado - John Sloan. 1914. Lithographic crayon on paper. Originally published as a cover illustration for the socialist New York Call, and soon thereafter published as a cover for The Masses, Sloan’s artwork depicted the Ludlow massacre. On April 20, 1914, in an attempt to defeat a coal miner’s strike in Ludlow, Colorado, National Guardsmen fired upon the striking worker’s tent city - slaughtering twenty unarmed people - thirteen of them women and children. Sloan memorialized the bloodbath by depicting a miner, gun in hand, firing back at the Guardsmen who had murdered his family. ]

Suffice it to say, I think everyone with an interest in the technical aspects of oil painting should read Sloan’s book, but the work also freely offers some of the philosophical ideas held by the artist, a few of which I’ll make mention of here. As an artist given to portraying everyday Americans at work and play, and as a member of America’s first avant-garde art movement, Sloan’s attitudes pertaining to patriotism were no less unorthodox than his views on art:

“In this relatively democratic country today, I feel that, since we can talk about things freely, we can go on painting any kind of subject matter we like. It is not necessary to paint the American flag to be an American painter, as though you didn’t see the American scene whenever you open your eyes! I am not for the American scene, I am for mental realization. If you are American and work - you work will be American. Patriotism, love of country, is very different from love for the government. I love the country in Pennsylvania, New England, and in the Southwest. I love the streets of New York. But I am suspicious of all government because government is violence.”

In a world so dominated by the logic of the market, we’ve come to accept sales price as the sole value of art, and we judge an artist’s success in terms of booming career and celebrity status - so Sloan’s views on making a living as an artist are a refreshing counterpoint to today’s money mad art world. Sloan’s judgment of pursuing a career in art possesses an almost spiritual dimension, not in any religious sense, but in his understanding of art as something deeply personal and transcendent. I believe if we accepted Sloan’s outlook only in part, we’d all be much healthier for it:

“You can’t make a living at art. The idea of taking up art as a calling, a trade, a profession, is a mirage. Art enriches life. It makes life worth living. But to make a living at it - that idea is incompatible with making art. (….) Shun this idea of going into art with success as an aim, wealth as an aim, for the purpose of getting on in the world, getting the good things in life. Success has apparently become much more the art student’s aim than it was in my time. It spells disaster. No one who sets out for success gets the real thing. All you can get is a little sauce poured over you while you are alive. (….) There is only one thing to do about success - shun it. The only kind of success to desire is success with yourself. To make steps, progress, with yourself.”

Compared to the shallow art star celebrities of today, Sloan was well informed and showed not the slightest temerity in expressing controversial opinions. In the following he alludes to the first great world war that broke out in 1914, but his thinking clearly has meaning in the here and now:

(…) The governments are willing to turn their weapons, and tear gas bombs are the least of them, against the enemy or against their own people, their own citizens. Young people in their twenties are going to see things that I would like to live to see, and yet, it won’t be pleasant - it will be terrible. I don’t like war. The economic interests get out their propaganda machines and persuade the people that democracy is at stake. And what do millions of innocent people go out and get killed and maimed for? - to protect the economic interests of the few.

(…) God must be awfully far away or disinterested to let people go on living the way they do in dirt and in filthy holes contaminating one another, swarming out to kill when ordered. They say that love makes the world go round. More likely, in our social set-up, it is the inferiority complex. It makes people want to get ahead, be important. The spirit of competition must be kept out of the artist’s mind.”

American social realism started to take shape at the turn of the century when the country was undergoing, much like today, an extraordinary economic and cultural transformation; which is what makes the Ashcan school so relevant to contemporary artists. Not just a cursory introduction to a long forgotten and marginalized American art movement, this essay is a call for a reassessment of the sensibilities and motivations found at the very core of the Ashcan School - that is to say, an unwillingness to succumb to the dictates of elite taste and fashion, a belief in artistic independence, and a passionate conviction that art should be grounded in the lived experiences of everyday people.

Drawing by John Sloan

[ Heroes of Peace - John Sloan. 1932. Ink and crayon on paper. In this remarkable drawing, Sloan portrays indifferent citizens as they saunter past a crippled war veteran reduced to selling pencils on the street. ]

While the mainstream art world may pay little or no attention to the 100th anniversary of “The Eight Independent Painters”, those concerned with the present and future of art will want to look beneath the surface of things to study the Ashcan school and its lively anti-elitist humanism.

The Los Angeles Art Students League

The modernist movement as it grew out of - or was associated with - the Art Students League of Los Angeles (ASL-LA), is the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art - A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953. The exhibit presents over 100 works of art from students and staff of the ASL-LA, which during its time was the third oldest art school in Los Angeles, and a hotbed for the modernist avant-garde until the school closed in the post WWII period.

The original Art Students League was founded in New York in 1875 by artists and students opposed to the stultifying conservatism of New York’s National Academy of Design, and by 1913, the proliferation of modernist ideas in American art lead to the founding of the Art Students League of Los Angeles. Just prior to the establishment of the League, artists trained in Europe’s great schools as well as those who were educated in East Coast academies, were making the trek to California - where they encountered two major dilemmas. Figuration in art was entirely overshadowed by landscape painting and conservative social forces in southern California were in opposition to drawing or painting the nude figure from life, as well as the display of nudes in works of art.

Counteracting this repressive environment, professional painter Hanson Duvall Puthuff (1875-1972), offered studio classes in 1903 where artists (male only at this point in time) could draw from nude models. In 1906 his classes were moved to the Blanchard building at Tenth and Figueroa in L.A., with the school eventually taking the name of the Art Students League of Los Angeles. Later the ASL-LA held its classes in a studio located on Main Street in downtown L.A., finally moving to a studio on Spring Street around 1923.

The forward momentum of Modernism in California not only opened the way for figuration in painting during the 1910s, it was inclusive of women - several of which became leading figure painters in the burgeoning California modernist movement. A number of these pioneering female artists are represented in the show; Helena Dunlap, Loren Barton, Luvena Buchanan Vysekal, and Mabel Alvarez amongst others.

Self-portrait by Mabel Alvarez

[ Self-Portrait - Mabel Alvarez. Oil on canvas. 1923. ]

Artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright assumed directorship of the ASL-LA in 1923, a position he would hold for nine years - and a term that represented the flowering of modernism in Los Angeles. While living in Paris from 1912-13, MacDonald-Wright met fellow American painter Morgan Russell (an early exponent of abstraction), and together they originated the movement known as “Synchromism”, which claimed color to be the basis of all form and expression in painting. MacDonald-Wright saw a reflection of his own modernist views in Asian art, which he was extremely interested in, and he encouraged Asian American ASL-LA students like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date (Hid-day-oh Dah-tay) to explore their heritage as a foundation for painting.

Painting by Stanton Macdonald-Wright

[ Yin Synchrony - Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Oil on canvas. 1930. ]

MacDonald-Wright stepped down as director of the ASL-LA in 1932, and afterwards a succession of talented artists directed the League, including the painter Lorser Feitelson and Benji Okubo. During this period the color theory ideas of MacDonald-Wright fused with the New Classicism/Post Surrealism of Feitelson and the Japanese art techniques of Okubo. But with world war looming, the experimentalist engine of modernism that was the ASL-LA, was about to fly apart.

At the outbreak of WWII, over 120,000 Japanese Americans in California were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps - which became the fate of Benji Okubo and fellow ASL-LA member, Hideo Date. Along with thousands of other detainees, Okubo and Date were sent to the Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California, where horse stables had been converted into temporary holding cells. From that degrading detention center, the two artists were sent to the Heart Mountain Detention Camp in Wyoming. As you would expect, the incarceration of the ASL-LA director caused havoc with the school, and it eventually disbanded, but not before Okubo and Date launched a branch of the Art Students League at the Heart Mountain detention center.

Painting by Hideo Date

[ Cathleen - Hideo Date. Oil on canvas. 1930s. 8" x 10". Permanent collection of the Japanese American National Museum. ]

In the postwar period, painter Fred Sexton, a MacDonald-Wright protégé who had studied with the Art Students League in New York, attempted to revive the League in L.A. He ran the re-opened school from 1949 until 1953 - when it finally closed its doors permanently. I don’t know much about the waning years of the ASL-LA, but I suspect its demise had at least as much to do with the increasing conservatism in the country as it did with the ascendancy and dominance of non-figurative abstract art.

If you are unable to attend the exhibition you can acquire the exhibit catalog, which details the history of the ASL-LA along with the city’s modernist movement. A Seed of Modernism: Art Students League of Los Angeles, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, in Pasadena, California, from January 20, 2008 until April 13, 2008.

Pressed in Time: American Prints

I cannot recommend highly enough, Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, the current exhibit at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Made up of 163 prints created by 82 artists during the first half of the 20th century, the show encapsulates American art as it was before the ascendancy of abstraction; an epoch when realism, meaning, compassion and technical mastery reigned supreme in the world of American art. The artists in the exhibition range from the well known to the obscure, but all the works on display are superlative examples of the art of printmaking.

Etching by Douglas Gorsline

[ Brooklyn Local - Douglas Gorsline. Engraving 1945. Gorsline’s portrait of a fashionable young woman actually documented the movement of American women into the nation’s urban workforce. Depicting an office worker, the title of the print also refers to a popular subway stop. ]

The period represented by Pressed in Time, has always been of particular interest to me, as so many artists of that era made social themes the focus of their art. The term “Social Realism” was given deep humanistic meaning by American artists, and in part it was their cue that inspired me to become a contemporary realist given to social commentary. All of the artists in The Huntington’s exhibit were brilliant painters, but they were also populists whose democratic impulses led them to create multiples; prints that would help make art accessible to the masses - and it’s that concept that these prints still manage to achieve. Whether you’re interested in aesthetics, history, politics or sociology - this exhibit will speak directly to you.

One group of artists well represented by Pressed in Time, are those attached to the so-called “Ashcan School” of early twentieth century New York. These artists who brilliantly painted the city’s working poor and immigrant populations, were disparaged and mocked by hostile art critics who chastised them with the insulting label of “ashcan” - a reference to the trash bins found in urban slums. I’ve long been stirred by this particular circle of artists, and so I was thrilled beyond reason to learn that two of the Ashcan painters, John Sloan and George Bellows, had a number of prints in the exhibit. For now I’ll reserve comment on John Sloan, as I’ve had it in mind to write a long essay about him and his influence on my own work - so instead I’ll take this opportunity to gush effusively over Mr. Bellows.

I think of George Bellows as one of America’s greatest painters. Most famous for his paintings of Boxers, like the jaw-dropping Stag at Sharkey’s, Bellows had an eye for capturing the American scene. A stunning lithographic version of his famous Sharkey’s is thankfully part of the Pressed in Time exhibit. It’s the largest print in the show, but it’s not size that makes the work commanding - it’s the artist’s mastery over the art of lithography and his genius at composition that makes Sharkey’s a tour de force. But Bellows also had an eye for controversy - and after watching the exaggerated antics of a popular fundamentalist preacher at a New York City revival meeting, he made the fire and brimstone Bible thumper the subject of several mocking artworks. The Huntington exhibit includes two of these - 1923 lithographs that depict the preacher, Billy Sunday.

Etching by George Bellows

[ Billy Sunday - George Bellows. Lithograph 1923. ]

At the beginning of the 20th century, Sunday was the most powerful evangelical Christian preacher in the United States. A conservative Republican, Sunday was an unwavering backer of World War 1 and a supporter of Prohibition. He opposed teaching evolution and stood firm against the “godless” frivolities of dancing, reading novels, and playing cards. Sunday became incredibly wealthy delivering frenetic over-the-top sermons to millions of people across America, and it should come as no surprise that he was courted by the country’s mighty financial oligarchs and formidable politicians. Bellows’ opinion of Sunday could just as easily be applied to today’s televangelists:

“Do you know, I believe Billy Sunday is the worst thing that ever happened to America? He is death to the imagination, to spirituality, to art…. His whole purpose is to force authority against beauty. He is against freedom, he wants a religious autocracy, he is such a reactionary that he makes me an anarchist. You can see why I like to paint him and his devasting ’saw-dust-trail.’ I want people to understand him.”

The Huntington wisely mounted in a side room of the main exhibition hall, a special exhibit that fully explains for the general public the printmaking techniques on display in the show. Presenting various stages of prints in the making as well as the tools and materials required to create the artworks, the display is of great educational value for the novice puzzled by the confusing array of print types. For instance, the process of Intaglio (etching) is put in plain words, with the description enhanced by showing actual etched copper plates. Variants like soft and hard ground etchings, engravings, Aquatints and Mezzotints are also thoroughly described. For connoisseurs and professional artists already familiar with the traditional techniques of etching, woodcut, and lithography, Pressed in Time offers a dizzying array of gorgeously executed prints, but it’s also evident that some of the artists in the show were experimenting with relatively new techniques for their day.

Serigraphy, or screenprinting, can be traced to the textile industry of ancient Japan, where screens made of silk or hair printed stencils with assorted motifs and patterns onto kimono fabrics. The process was advanced in England during the early 1920’s, and used mostly for commercial printing, however, the serigraphic print would not be elevated to a high art form until the 1960s. Nonetheless, the Pressed in Time exhibit clearly shows American social realist artists using silkscreen printing to great effect. The Hitchhiker by Robert Gwathmey is one such serigraphic print.

Silkscreen print by Robert Gwathmey

[ The Hitchhiker - Robert Gwathmey. Color screenprint. 1937. The artist’s rumination on race and class in depression era America. ]

Gwathmey’s 1937 print is modernist in the extreme, angular forms and flat colors arranged so that the negative space filled by a blank sky becomes oppressive - just like the hot summer’s day the artist meant to suggest. But the topic of the print is not stifling weather, it’s racial and class oppression. Two black men looking for work are depicted hitchhiking along a road, the fact that they are going in opposite directions tells you that their quest is a luckless one. The backdrop to their bleak pursuit is a series of roadside billboards advertising wealth and luxury; on the right a giant lobster can be seen - a promise of foods never to be tasted by unemployed workers. The two remaining billboard images are of fashionable blond women, reminders that those with dark skin are not included in America’s vision of success.

Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) was born into a poor white family in Richmond, Virginia, but he devoted a large part of his art towards presenting the dignity and beauty of African Americans, as well as portraying their plight of being denied full human and civil rights. Like so many of his contemporaries, he focused his considerable talents on presenting the realities of the day, the Great Depression, racial and social injustice and the brutalities of poverty. Gwathmey was wholly dedicated to the honest portrayal of the working class - black and white. When he was awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation in 1944, he used the grant money to arrange his living on a tobacco farm for a year, where he worked the fields with Black sharecroppers and created artworks that depicted their lives and struggles.

Like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, artists whose impressive prints are also included in Pressed in Time, John Steuart Curry was a leader of the American school of painters who came to be known as the Regionalists. Curry devoted his considerable talents to an examination of his native state of Kansas, believing that the very essence of America could be found by telling the stories of the heartland’s humble working people. His most well known paintings were those created as murals for the Kansas Statehouse. The most famous of those murals, the remarkable Tragic Prelude, portrays the radical abolitionist John Brown against a backdrop of a gigantic tornado and a raging prairie fire. Curry utilized the tornado as “a biblical pillar of clouds to guide John Brown in his struggle for a free Kansas.” Flanking Brown and facing each other are the anti and pro-slavery militias that waged the fratricidal clashes that would be the prelude to the Civil War.

Lithograph by John Steuart Curry

[ John Brown - John Steuart Curry. Lithograph 1939. A thundering portrait of the radical abolitionist. ]

Pressed in Time includes three significant lithographs by Curry, the thundering portrait John Brown - based upon the Tragic Prelude mural, and two other prints that have to do with Blacks held in bondage. Man Hunt shows an armed mob of whites with packs of frenzied blood hounds, searching the woods for a Black person on the run. The subject here is not the fleeing soul (who you don’t even see), but the inhumanity and bloodlust of the white racist hooligans. A chilling companion print, The Fugitive, cuts closer to the bone. It depicts the conclusion of the mob’s hunt, where a Black man has attempted to save himself by climbing up a tree to hide in the branches. The racists have not yet found their exhausted prey, but the end seems near. The terrible finale is symbolized by two Luna moths settled on the tree - that particular type of moth lives only one day after emerging from its cocoon.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

[ Rumors of War - Pele deLappe. Lithograph. 1939. ]

Rumors of War, a 1939 lithograph by Pele deLappe, portrays the growing concerns held by Americans as the country slid towards direct involvement in the Second World War. The artist depicted a room full of people, two men and two women (the standing woman in the background is the artist’s self-portrait), paying rapt attention to a radio broadcast. What terrible news might they have been listening to? In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March, and the Italian fascists occupied Albania in April, the same month the Spanish Republic fell to fascists under General Franco. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler would sign a non-aggression pact in August, and the Nazis would invade Poland in September. There was plenty of bad news to be heard - and the gloomy looks on the faces of the characters drawn by deLappe seem to tell us that they’ve heard it all. Warplanes fly past the open window of the room they inhabit, an omen of what was to come - the USA would officially enter the war in 1941.

For those unable to take in the exhibit, an informative and beautifully illustrated catalog book is available. Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, is on exhibit until January 6th, 2008, at The Huntington Library’s, Boone Gallery. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month - but you must reserve a free day ticket. Otherwise, general admission is $15 for adults, or $12 for Seniors and $10 for students. More information about the exhibit can be found on The Huntington’s website.

Pele deLappe: RIP

Life long social realist painter, printmaker and activist, Pele deLappe (pronounced: “Peelee Dahlap”), died from a stroke on Monday, October 1st, 2007, at the age of 91. Ms. deLappe’s art captured the life and times of her native San Francisco during the depression years and beyond, but the universal humanistic themes addressed in her artworks also gave them an eternal quality. She remained active and productive as an artist until the very end.

Painting by Pele deLappe

Self Portrait - Pele deLappe. Oil on board? Date unknown.

Already sketching the people of her city as a precocious 14 year old, deLappe met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera when the famed Mexican artists visited San Francisco in 1930. Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Undoubtedly inspired by the couple and the experience of making drawings with Kahlo, deLappe traveled to New York to attend art school. When she returned to San Francisco in 1934 at the age of 18, she threw herself into the city’s maritime strike, contributing drawings and cartoons to the newspapers of striking workers, getting arrested twice while supporting the work stoppage, and making a series of portrait paintings depicting rank-and-file union members. It would be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to creating social engaged works of art.

Ms. deLappe’s 1937 lithograph titled, Street Scene, is a stunning example of her genius as a printmaker and social commentator. The depression era image depicts a well-heeled woman as she haughtily walks by a legless beggar and a rather tough looking dwarf, who’s counting the handful of change he’s earned from selling newspapers on the street. A nun can be seen in the background - totally indifferent to her abysmal surroundings. But it is deLappe’s composition and handling of the lithograph’s delicate tones and deep shadows that makes the print so hauntingly evocative.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Street Scene - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1937.

If I’m not mistaken, Street Scene, was created at the art department of the California Labor School - an institution that in the 1940’s attracted artists like Pablo O’Higgins, Louise Gilbert, Giacomo Patri, and Victor Arnautoff. Faculty from the California Labor School founded the Graphic Arts Workshop in 1952, it was a studio that provided - and continues to offer - facilities and presses to artists interested in traditional methods of printmaking, from lithography to serigraphy (silkscreen). The California Labor School was forced to close in 1957 because of McCarthy era repression - but the Graphic Arts Workshop survived as an independent artist’s printmaking collective. In the late 50’s its artists were creating prints and posters in support of the growing civil rights movement, and in the 1960’s its members turned their skills towards opposing the war in Vietnam.

Another print that I believe deLappe created at the Graphic Arts Workshop is the 1998 lithograph, The Playground, New York City. Here the artist depicted a homeless man sleeping in a cardboard box in the shadow of multi-million dollar corporate office towers. A porn shop called “The Playground” can be seen in the background, its lurid signage advertising adult videos and peepshows.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

The Playground, New York City - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1998.

I’m delighted to say that works by Ms. deLappe are included in the exhibition, Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905 -1950, a remarkable exhibit now running at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Featuring 163 etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and silkscreen prints from 82 artists such like John Sloan, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper, the exhibit focuses on the period when American modernist artists expressed a progressive idealism and social activism through their art. It is a show that I will most definitely be reviewing on this blog in weeks to come. As fate would have it, Ms. deLappe was interviewed by the Huntington just weeks before her stroke and the opening of Pressed in Time. Her narrative will be included in the show along with her featured works. A detailed obituary for Ms. deLappe appears on the San Francisco Chronicle website.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Lost in America - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 2006. Created in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Printmaker and current member of the Graphic Arts Workshop, Anthony Ryan, wrote to inform me that Ms. deLappe’s 1937 Lithograph titled Street Scene, was created while she was attending classes at the Art Students League of New York and not at the Graphic Arts Workshop. A must read article about Pele deLappe appeared in the 2002 edition of MetroActive. The insightful piece, published when deLappe was 86, was in part an interview with the artist. When asked how she found the sense of urgency to respond to current events, deLappe replied: “I don’t have a choice. I’m still alive and still part of society and still an artist. I can’t stop functioning in relation to other people. And - I refuse to take it lying down.”

In 1999, Ms. deLappe published her autobiography - Pele: A Passionate Journey through Art and the Red Press.

Modernism: Designing A New World

Modernism: Designing A New World, 1914-1939, now showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until July 29, 2007, was initially planned and exhibited by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At the time of its premiere in the U.K., I wrote a short article in praise of the exhibition, but now that the show has reached the U.S., I’d like to once again recommend - not just the exhibit - but a reconsideration of modernism.

The modernist vision began to emerge during the late 19th century, with “modernism” serving as a catchphrase for an aesthetic philosophy that encompassed visual art, music, architecture, literature and other artistic disciplines. Traditionalists credit modernism as responsible for the demise of “real art,” while today’s so-called postmodernists dismiss the same movement for being hopelessly old-fashioned. “Modernism didn’t work” is a refrain often heard from postmodernists and their supporters - but that opinion is in every respect, incorrect. For instance - where was the failure in Picasso’s startling 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? What didn’t work in Igor Stravinsky’s 1912 composition, Le Sacre de Printemps? Exactly how were the novels of Franz Kafka unsuccessful?

Associated Press writer Brett Zongker wrote about the show and briefly interviewed Christopher Wilk, the original curator of the exhibit for the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as interviewing Corcoran director and president, Paul Greenhalgh. Wilk and Greenhalgh both made salient points on the relevancy of modernism in today’s context. When speaking of those early modernist firebrands who wanted to “reinvent the world,” Wilk noted that “This was a younger generation who looked to the old men, essentially, who had led them into war, into a slaughter. They wanted to ditch the past and start all over again completely.”

Corcoran director Greenhalgh drew a similar connection between the times lived through by the early modernists, and the “current global environment and the very troubled world that we’re living in.” He went on to say that, “There’s a big debate now internationally about what is art for,” modernists, he declared, attempted to “transform people’s lives for the better. They didn’t think it was just about making nice things and selling them for a lot of money.”

The crucial statements made by Wilk and Greenhalgh point not so much to artists of the past as they do to artists in the present, and the two seem to grasp, more than most contemporary artists, the essential character of modernism and its core motivating force - the desire to reform or revolutionize society. In a Reuters review of Designing A New World, reporter Randall Mikkelsen wrote: “Greenhalgh quoted art critic Robert Hughes as saying contemporary art was only interested in money, and he hoped the Modernism show would be a reminder of a time when a desire for social improvement drove artists. ‘It seems to me that’s the contemporary debate we should all be having now,’ he said.”

While the Designing A New World exhibit displays a wide range of modernist artistic production, from painting and furniture to automobile design and fashion, a chance to see the room-sized model of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1920 Monument to the Third International is by itself worth the price of admission. Considered the ultimate expression of constructivist architecture, the Soviet artist’s monument to international communism was meant to dwarf the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Had it actually been constructed, the tower of iron, glass and steel would have stood over 100 stories tall.

Monument for the Third International

[ Monument for the Third International - Vladimir Tatlin 1919. Digital recreation by Takehiko Nagakura. This image depicts how Tatlin’s monument might have looked if it had been constructed. Nagakura, Associate Professor of Design and Computation at MIT, leads the Unbuilt Monuments project, where unrealized modernist architecture is given visualization. Nagakura and his team use computer software to create buildings never constructed. ]

Curator Christopher Wilk correctly observed that “Modernism is all around us today - this is our world. This is the world we live in.” To my mind, modernism isn’t defunct or irrelevant at all, it has simply arrived at a difficult impasse, and what is currently referred to as “postmodern” is in actuality nothing more than late modernism. A reawakening of the modernist spirit in the 21st century could be called “Remodernism” - but that’s another essay.

Philip Guston: “I wanted to tell stories.”

Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico, is a wonderful survey of paintings by these two promethean artists showing at The Santa Monica Museum of Art until November 25th, 2006. The twenty-six canvases on display reveal the far reaching influence the European Surrealist de Chirico had upon Guston, presenting works from both artists that trace the startling development of their careers over the decades.

Photograph by Mark Vallen

Musa Mayer, reading from her book “Night Studio” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art Nov. 25th, 2006. In the background is one of Guston’s emblematic Klan paintings. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

During the evening of Oct 3rd, 2006, I attended Remembering Guston, a special event at the Santa Monica Museum of Art attended by some 80 individuals. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, read from her book Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston. Mayer’s compelling personal insights into her father’s life held the audience in sway - and cemented my affection for the eccentric artist. She touched upon many aspects of her father’s professional career; his ardor for the works of the old masters, his driven nature to create - which kept him working in the studio until late at night (hence the title of Mayer’s book), the torment he felt when former admirers attacked him for “betraying” pure abstraction, and the disillusionment suffered over the treatment he received at the hands of a capricious art establishment.

It may come as a surprise to some that I’m an admirer of Guston, who for a while was a leading light in the extreme “non-objective” abstract movement of the early 1950s, but then, he was so many things, and if people delved into his life and works they just might come to share my fascination. Many superlative accounts have been written about the life and work of Philip Guston, so rather than repeating well known facts, I’d like to make a few personal comments regarding his oeuvre, as well as making a stab at contributing new information about what he accomplished in Los Angeles - the city of my birth.

A few of the artist’s statements might make clear my admiration for him. When he was at the height of his fame as a pure abstract painter in 1958, he said, “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image or symbol should be celebrated as a freedom. It is this loss we suffer, this pathos that motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.” In a 1970 interview, he revealed what was behind his leap from pure abstraction to figuration, “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories.” And in a 1974 interview he said, “When the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man was I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” Considering the state of the world, these are all ideas contemporary artists should be mulling over.

Poor Richard - Drawing by Philip Guston, 1971

“Poor Richard” - Philip Guston, Ink on paper. In 1971 Guston created eighty satiric drawings that expressed his contempt for President Richard M. Nixon. Portrayed here as the iconic Klansmen of Guston’s late visual language, are Nixon, his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, and Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Though not on display at the the Santa Monica Museum of Art, you can see the entire suite of Guston’s little known Nixon drawings here, as well as read about their creation.

While most think of Guston as a New York artist, he began his career in Los Angeles, which of course I find endlessly fascinating as an Angelino. It all began in 1919 when the Goldstein family moved to L.A. from Montreal, Canada, which means Philip (who changed his last name to Guston in 1936), lived in L.A. from the time he was six years old until he was twenty-three - making him an honorary Angelino in my book. He started drawing profusely at around thirteen, and upon entering Manual Arts High School in downtown L.A., made friends with another young student deeply interested in art - Jackson Pollock. Guston received a Scholarship to Otis Art Institute in 1930, but became disillusioned and left after three months. That same year he befriended Reuben Kadish, who was himself to become a great painter. This is where the story begins to take on mythic proportions, and for an L.A. artist like myself, the confluence of historic actors and events that played out in my city is almost overwhelming - especially since my passionate interest in these histories has shaped my life as an artist.

Guston, Kadish, and the painter Herman Cherry, began attending meetings organized by the left-wing John Reed Club (named after the American journalist and well-known revolutionary), in fact it was Cherry who gave Guston his first exhibit at Hollywood’s Stanley Rose bookshop and gallery in 1931. The John Reed Club met at a number of venues across the city, including the Plaza Art Center in the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street. David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in L.A. in April, 1932, and addressed a meeting of the John Reed Club in Hollywood, presenting his approach to art in a paper he titled The Vehicles of Dialectic-Subversive Painting. I’m not certain if Guston attended that meeting, but the influence exerted upon him by Siqueiros and the Mexican Muralists was no doubt considerable. When José Clemente Orozco began painting his Prometheus mural at Pomona College, Guston and Jackson Pollock were there to watch.

Millard Sheets, a teacher at the Chouinard Art Institute at the time, invited Siqueiros to paint a mural at the institute, where the Mexican master formed a team of over twenty assistants he called the Bloc of Mural Painters. Philip Guston was a Bloc member, along with Rubin Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Murray Hantman, Luis Arenal, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Paul Sample (President of the California Arts Club), and others. Various members of the Bloc helped Siqueiros create three murals in L.A., América Tropical (atop the Italian Hall at Olvera Street), Worker’s Meeting (at Chouinard), and Portrait of Mexico Today (at the Pacific Palisades home of film director, Dudley Murphy). Since he was a Bloc member, it’s difficult to imagine Guston not assisting Siqueiros in painting any of the three murals, but I’ve yet to see him credited as a direct assistant. However, he was certainly on that Olvera Street rooftop along with Pollock - listening to Siqueiros talk while working on América Tropical.

In November, 1932, the U.S. government deported Siqueiros because of his leftist politics, but the Bloc of Mural Painters continued to be productive. It was around this time that the chief of the LAPD, James E. Davis, established a “Red Squad” to attack Communists and smash up their organizations. Interestingly enough, every biography of Philip Guston that I’ve seen has overlooked, down played, or ignored what I’m about to bring to light - that his first public mural was most likely destroyed by the Los Angeles Police Department Red Squad. The few sources that do mention this little known event fail to present an illustration of the painting, damaged or not.

Soon after the forced departure of Siqueiros, the Bloc of Mural Painters organized an exhibit in opposition to the brutal racism that oppressed African Americans, and the exhibition was sponsored by the John Reed Club of Hollywood. Six members of the Bloc each created two large portable mural panels for the exhibition, and Guston was one of the artists - choosing the trial of the Scottsboro Boys as his theme. The available information on the exhibit is sparse and conflicting. There’s a chilling account provided by participating Bloc artist, Harold Lehman, stating the show was “scheduled to open in the Barnsdale in Los Angeles in December, 1932,” and that the L.A.P.D. attacked the John Reed Club’s headquarters in Hollywood where the artworks were stored, destroying them all so “the controversial images would never reach the light of day.”

Philip Stein, the American artist who painted murals with Siqueiros in Mexico for ten years, and later wrote the biography, Siqueiros: His Life and Works, also mentioned the incident, stating that the Red Squad had “confiscated the paintings, all rich with political content. When eventually the paintings were returned, they were full of bullet holes.” Robert Storr’s biography on Guston erroneously placed the incident as having occurred one year earlier, and recounted the story in the following manner; “By 1931 Guston had executed his first public work, a series of portable panels based on the notorious racist trial of the Scottsboro Boys. He then watched in anger and amazement as the panels were mutilated by members of the Police “Red Squad” and a gang of American Legionnaires, who took pleasure in using the eyes and genitals of the black figures in the painting for target practice. The persecution that Guston had only imagined thus became all too terrifyingly real.”

The only other account I’ve found so far came from Jean Bruce Poole and Tevvy Ball, in their authoritative history, El Pueblo: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles. The entry in that book states; “Early in 1933 the L.A.P.D. Red Squad raided the club offices, and a number of paintings and frescoes were damaged. The club brought suit against the city, claiming that these were valuable works fashioned by Siqueiros’s students and alleging that officers had removed a number of paintings and shot or poked them full of holes.”

The pieces of the puzzle all fell into place for me when I viewed a reproduction of the July 15th, 1933 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, an L.A. paper that ceased publication in 1950. The newspaper printed a short article, Club Raid Told by Man Behind Curtain, detailing the police assault on the John Reed Club in Hollywood and the subsequent trial over the damaged art. The opening paragraph of the article read; “How Harry Buchanan hid behind a curtain in the John Reed Club and witnessed the details of a raid by the police red squad on the Club at which valuable art objects were damaged or destroyed, was set forth in the testimony of Buchanan on record today in Judge J. A. Smith’s Court at the trial of a suit for $5,200 damages brought against the city as the result of the raid.”

Scottsboro Boys - Portable mural attributed to Philip Guston

Scottsboro Boys - Portable mural attributed to Philip Guston. Destroyed in 1933 by a unit of the LAPD Red Squad.

However, it was the photograph that accompanied the story that really got my attention, it showed one of the artworks in question, before and after being damaged. Despite the fact that both the article and the photo’s caption failed to identify the subject matter of the artwork or the name of the artist who created it - there’s little doubt that it is the panel of the Scottsboro Boys described by Robert Storr in his biography on Philip Guston. My educated guess is that the photo is of Guston’s first public mural.

Further circumstantial evidence comes from comparing the newspaper photo of the damaged painting with photos of Guston’s renowned Mother and Child (1930), his first fully realized easel painting created when he was just 17. Both compositionally and stylistically, they appear to be the work of the same artist - especially in the treatment of the faces. Remarkably, this early painting and the circumstances surrounding it have been written out of most of the accounts of Guston’s life and work - a situation that I hope will in part be remedied by the research I’ve presented here.

Old-Time Modernism: Reduxe

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has mounted an important exhibition titled, Modernism: Designing A New World, 1914-1939. It is not only the first exhibit to offer a comprehensive look at the modernist movement and all its spheres of influence - from architecture, furniture and clothing design to graphics, illustration and fine art; it has reopened the debate on the lasting sway of Modernism and whether or not the movement has truly run its course. As the V&A Museum explains on its informative and beautifully designed website:

“At the beginning of the twenty-first century our relationship to Modernism is complex. The built environment that we live in today was largely shaped by Modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of Modernist design. We live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of Modernism, as post-Modernist or even post-post-Modernist.

Modernism was not conceived as a style but a loose collection of ideas. It was a term which covered a range of movements and styles that largely rejected history and applied ornament, and which embraced abstraction. Born of great cosmopolitan centres, it flourished in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, Prague and New York. Modernists had a utopian desire to create a better world. They believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration. All of these principles were frequently combined with social and political beliefs (largely left-leaning) which held that design and art could, and should, transform society.”

I don’t mean to be disputatious, but I’ve never accepted the term “postmodern” as an accurate reflection or description of our present, especially with modern technology playing such a central role in all of our lives. At a time when nearly everyone is communicating by way of computers, cell phones and satellites; when jet and space travel is the norm and the human genome has been mapped - is it not disingenuous to talk about living in a postmodern world? When the oil has run out and we’re all sitting around a campfire cooking our meals - then we can talk about things being postmodern.

In his article for the Washington Post titled Old-Time Modernism, staff writer Blake Gopnik informs us that the movement “is taking a victory lap.” Everything we deem as the latest in innovative design, from Apple’s iPod to the architectural triumphs of a Frank Gehry, has as its roots the Modernist project that postmodernists have cynically insisted is moribund and irrelevant. Modernism may be faltering and in the doldrums - but it is far from death’s door.

As Gopnik put it, “What’s really being brought within our reach when a successful furniture chain dubs itself Design Within Reach - isn’t design in general. It is specifically modern styling. What’s being hailed is the final victory of modernism as the model for the way good objects should be made.”