Category: Social Realism

Exhibit of “Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed.”

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

Starting March 12, 2016 and running through April 2, 2016, I will show two of my social realist drawings at Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles, a group exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, L.A. California.

Created in 1980, my drawings Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed and Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules, portray the decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s. My drawings describe a hidden history of Los Angeles that I lived as an active participant. With the Ave. 50 exhibit, these artworks will have been exhibited only twice since they were originally created. A high resolution version of Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed, can be viewed on my Saatchi Art account; by double-clicking the artwork found there you will be presented with a strikingly detailed image.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches. "The decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s, before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s."

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches.

Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed was created with color pencil on paper. It is based upon sights I witnessed on the famous street as it became the nucleus for the punk rock movement on the West coast of the United States in the late 1970’s. The Masque, the first underground punk club in California, opened its doors in 1977. It was located in a dark, dank, windowless basement on Cherokee Avenue, a tiny side street off of Hollywood Blvd. I frequented that den of iniquity, and through my art began to document and promote the dangerous subculture that incubated there.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

While Hollywood boulevard is internationally renowned for its Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the brass and terrazzo stars embedded in the sidewalks along the Hollywood “Walk of Fame,” in the late 70’s the street had fallen on hard times.

Stores in the area had gone out of business, or turned to selling cheap kitsch to the tourists that never stopped flocking to the Mecca of the Hollywood dream machine. Instead of starlets, visitors were more likely to see drug dealers and their clients, male and female prostitutes, homeless indigents, and flamboyant transvestites. In that context, L.A.’s first punks found a home.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

In the midst of the boulevard’s regular population, a small army of colorful misfits hung around the Masque. We were enigmatic oddballs, inexplicable with spiky day-glow hair, bizarre clothes, “jewelry” of razor blades and safety pins, weird sunglasses and even weirder music.

In We’re Doomed, I portrayed drifters loitering on a bus bench graffitied with the names of L.A. punk bands like the Weirdos, X, Germs, Bags, Screamers, Fear, Mau Mau, and the Plugz. In real life the bus bench depicted in my drawing was around the corner from the Masque, and a nearby star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame was actually defaced with the nihilistic punk scrawl “we’re doomed.” It was a detail included in my dismal tableau, but also used to title the drawing.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©. "We Must Bleed."

My drawing displays words etched into the bus bench that read “We Must Bleed,” the title of an apocalyptic song by the Germs. Not long after I finished my drawing in 1980, the 22-year-old frontman and songwriter of the Germs, Darby Crash, committed suicide with an intentional overdose of heroin. The Masque permanently closed its doors in 1979, but an uncontrollable movement had been unleashed.

My second work of art in the exhibit is a 1980 pen and ink drawing titled Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules; it also depicts a squalid scene on the boulevard. The work was drawn using a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph technical pen, allowing me to create precise crosshatching and rich layers of transparent color.

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

The pen drawing portrays an elderly woman waiting for a bus; she is no doubt a resident in one of the many cheap apartments that existed in the area during those days. Sitting expectantly on a grimy bus bench is a young green-haired punk. At the time only a handful of miscreants dyed their hair in “anti-fashion” day-glow colors, it was a sign of extreme disaffection with society that guaranteed trouble; for the mobs of punk youth that called themselves the “Hate Generation,” that was A-Okay.

The background behind my two characters is a Hollywood wall covered with the iconic hieroglyphics of the era, a mix of Chicano gang placas (graffiti) and punk defacements; note my inclusion of the legendary Hollywood “Walk of Fame” gold stars on the sidewalk. Two posters are included in the urban landscape; both were actually plastered all over Los Angeles at the time.

The poster wheat pasted to the wall called for a militant demonstration at L.A.’s MacArthur Park on May 1st, International Workers Day. It was the first significant May Day event in the city since the 1960s, and it was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department for being an unpermitted march. I was in the park taking photographs when I witnessed the mass arrests; I was almost trampled by two truncheon swinging LAPD officers on horseback.

The peeled and ripped broadside on the bus bench announced a May 4th concert by the U.K punk band Public Image; I attended the riotous mêlée at L.A.’s rundown Olympic Auditorium that co-starred L.A.’s own, The Plugz.

Curated by esteemed L.A. painter Raoul De la Sota, the exhibition features the works of eleven L.A. artists who with their works bear witness to the megalopolis that is the City of Los Angeles. Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles opens on Saturday, March 12, 2016, with an artist’s reception from 7 pm to 10 pm. The exhibit will run through April 2, 2016. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, in Highland Park, CA 90042 (View map for directions).

Wishes and Dreams! Beauty is in the Street!

 "¡La belleza esta en la calle!" (Beauty is in the Street!) Mark Vallen 2015. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 14" x 16" inches.

"¡La belleza esta en la calle!" (Beauty is in the Street!) Mark Vallen 2015. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 14" x 16" inches.

My most recent oil painting, ¡La belleza esta en la calle! (Beauty is in the Street!), will be premiered at the Wishes and Dreams exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles California. Curated by esteemed L.A. painter Raoul De la Sota, the group show features the works of sixteen artists who present in their artworks “the hopes, aspirations, dreams, memories, and wishes the participants have for themselves or for the world.”

And what is my wish, my dream? It is that we all end our conformist, hyper-consumerist, pessimistic, work-a-day-world apocalyptic thinking, to become idealists, artists, and utopians. In short, the same dream I have always embraced. As an oil painting ¡La belleza esta en la calle! (Beauty is in the Street!) echoes my philosophy that a better world is possible only when the multitudes begin to imagine it, and then fill the avenues to create it.

The title of my oil painting came from a street poster produced in 1968 Paris by an anonymous member of the worker and student run art cooperative known as the Atelier Populare (Popular Workshop). But I do not live in Paris, France and it is not 1968; I am a painter living in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, California during the dawn of the 3rd Millennium.

Because L.A. County today has the largest Latino population of any county in the United States (some 49%), I chose a young iconoclastic Latina as a symbol for the free spirits that will take to the streets to change the world. The painting has its title in Spanish for the same reason.

Wishes and Dreams opens on Saturday, December 12, 2015, with an artist’s reception from 7 pm to 10 pm. The exhibit will run through February 7, 2016. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, in Highland Park, CA 90042 (map).

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view!

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011. The mural as it was meant to be seen.

This is an Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

In September 2011, it was a real pleasure to travel to San Francisco for the express purpose of photographing the Great Depression era murals that exist in the city. I visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I made photographic studies of Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located in the campus gallery named after him.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

Rivera’s mural is a brilliant tromp-l’oeil, showing us a mural within a mural, with Rivera and assistants on a scaffold as they paint a monumental worker representing the working class; in the artist’s words, a “Gigantic worker, his gaze fixed firmly forward.”

A number of foreign visitors were among the U.S. tourists in the gallery that day; I was impressed by their silent contemplation of the mural. Indeed, the painting is a major destination for cultural tourism, and many travel guides for San Francisco suggest a visit to the SFAI for a look at Rivera’s mural.

Wanting to share my passion for Rivera’s work, I uploaded a few of my photos of his SFAI mural to my web log in 2011, along with some of the history behind the making of the fresco. I might add that I traveled to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in May of 2015, not just to see that museum’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, but to study and photograph Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry mural cycle painted in an internal courtyard of the DIA. Throngs of people jammed the museum for the Rivera and Kahlo exhibit, which by the end of its run was seen by well over 153,000 people, making it one of the biggest shows in the DIA’s history.

As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Mr. Pereda is an artist in residence at the SFAI, and so was given a solo exhibit in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Pereda has constructed 24-foot-high scaffold, with a jumble of functioning fluorescent light tubes replacing the scaffold’s wood or steel planks. In the SFAI’s promotional material for Pereda’s scaffold, the school writes some typical postmodern gobbledygook that the fluorescent light tubes are meant to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality of Diego Rivera’s fresco.” But what art institution does not know that light, even in limited amounts, can cause cumulative and irreversible damage to works of art?

Art conservators should be apprehensive that Rivera’s fresco is now exposed to light thrown from Pereda’s giant fluorescent light fixture. Fluorescent light contains high levels of UV radiation, and museums use strict guidelines to prevent artworks in their collections from being unnecessarily exposed to the dangers of UV light.

A short film made under the auspices of the SFAI, shows Pereda’s scaffold and fluorescent light fixture being built with the help of young assistants. Black construction netting was initially erected, supposedly to protect the mural while the scaffold was built. A heavy mechanical lift was used in the construction process, and upon completion the scaffold was improbably secured in place with wires anchored to the walls of the gallery. There appear to be no professional technicians involved in the work, nor art conservators to condition-check the mural. The finished scaffold looks flimsy. With San Francisco sitting on the San Andreas Fault and six other significant earthquake fault zones, there is good reason to be anxious.

I am appalled that the SFAI allowed Pereda’s scaffold to be placed so close to a priceless art treasure, not to mention exposing it to UV light. I can think of no other legitimate art institution that would so recklessly endanger an important internationally recognized work in their collection. I cannot imagine the Detroit Institute of the Arts allowing such a cheap stunt to be pulled off anywhere near their Detroit Industry murals.

Pereda apparently believes that the art and legacy of Diego Rivera is a “limiting screen,” a curtain that restrains Mexican art and confines Mexican artists. Pereda envisions his scaffold as a different sort of screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera’s fresco! The scaffold itself, even with its lights turned off, impairs a clear view of Rivera’s mural. Evidently the SFAI is titillated by Pereda’s art prank masquerading as profound artistic exploration. In the aforementioned film, Pereda attempted to explain the meaning of his scaffold installation:

“I always had kind of trouble with Mexican Muralism. The Mexican government supported Mexican Muralism, and so that more or less it became a type of propaganda. So when I see the murals, sometimes, you know, like the one here… it’s about progress, the scaffolding symbolizes progress. But a different progress, like destruction, you create something new, like a new condo over a really nice house. And that’s changing the face of the cities, so sometimes it’s terrifying to see scaffolding.”

In the quote above Mr. Pereda spouts utter nonsense. He implies that Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, et al., were propagandists for the Mexican government, which could not be further from the truth. The majority of the muralistas were political radicals, and they often publicly clashed with the government over a variety of issues. In 1922 Rivera and other important artists founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, a group dedicated to creating revolutionary art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote the group’s manifesto.

That same year, Rivera, Siqueiros, and many other artists joined the Mexican Communist Party (Frida Kahlo would join in 1928). Rivera’s membership in the party put him in direct odds with the government, which banned the party and its activities in 1925; the outright ban continued until the left-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement should know these facts. Perhaps Mr Pereda should go back to art school, oh wait… he is an artist in residence at the SFAI.

It seems that Mr. Pereda’s logorrheic style of babbling was a bit thin as an artist’s statement, so the SFAI graciously assisted with some of its own postmodern prose. The school’s promotional material for Pereda describes Rivera’s mural in the following words:

“Meanwhile, in SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, we have been looking at Diego Rivera’s ass for 84 years. Of course, this was the artist’s intention. Rivera’s iconic work The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) offers an epic image of the reconstruction of San Francisco, depicting laborers and fresco painters alongside the patron, on the scaffold, and closest to our eye: the artist’s high-waisted rear.”

Looking at Rivera’s ass for 84 years? It was Rivera’s intention to show his “high-waisted rear” to the public? Excuse the Pop culture reference, but the SFAI’s brassy remarks remind me of an aside from British comedian John Cleese; “It’s all about backsides with you Americans, isn’t it.”

It is interesting that the SFAI’s mocking reference to “Rivera’s ass,” is the same type of derisive scorn heaped upon Rivera and his mural by critics in 1931. In his book, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, author Anthony W. Lee mentioned how reactionaries bashed the mural by accusing Rivera of having painted a portrait of himself defecating on his patrons! A less vulgar “critique,” but one no less spiteful, was made at the time by Kenneth Callahan, the painter from the state of Washington. Castigating the mural, he mentioned Rivera’s “flat rear, hanging over the scaffolding in the center. Many San Franciscans chose to see in this gesture a direct insult, premeditated, as indeed it appears to be. If it is a joke, it is a rather amusing one, but in bad taste.”

The only “ass” to be found in this story is the one who seeks to poke Rivera’s legacy full of holes.

Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public; that was the central tenet of the Mexican Muralist Movement to which he belonged. Many San Francisco Bay Area artists met and worked with him when he visited San Francisco, and it is because of his influence that San Francisco became a city full of murals. The evidence is everywhere, from the 1934 Chapel Mural painted at the Presidio by Victor Arnautoff, to the magnificent 1934 Coit Tower frescos at Telegraph Hill. From the 1936 San Francisco Life frescos by Lucien Ladaudt at the Beach Chalet restaurant, to the 1941-1948 History of California murals by Anton Refregier at the Rincon Center. Rivera made enormous contributions to art, and his legacy is not a “screen” that oppresses anyone.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFIA short film, Change the World or Go Home, an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home," an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

While the San Francisco Art Institute does not publish Diego Rivera’s own words regarding the true intentions of his mural, I will happily do so. In his autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera described the intent behind his 23-by-30-foot mural. Rivera wrote that he wanted:

“to present a dynamic concerto of construction - technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building (….). I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.

Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that my painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy.”

If you type in the title of Rivera’s mural on Google - The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City - you will find that the SFAI web page on the painting is the first item to come up, but my 2011 web log article on the mural is the second. Over the years thousands of people from around the world have read my article on Rivera’s mural. It would be an understatement to say that I would have been upset if I had journeyed to the SFAI to study and photograph Rivera’s fresco, only to find the school had blocked the mural from public view by installing a scaffold made of fluorescent light bulbs in front of it. The annoyance would have been made all the worse with the SFAI promoting the installation on an equal footing with Rivera’s mural.

One arts professional that balked at the way the SFAI has treated the Rivera mural was Sarah Lowndes, a writer, curator, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Having traveled all the way from Scotland to view Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco, Ms. Lowndes was aghast at finding Pereda’s scaffolding blocking the mural. She also wrote an open letter to the SFAI to express her disappointment. Since Pereda’s scaffold will block the view of Rivera’s mural until December 3, 2015, there will be many people who are going to be angry over being denied the pleasure of contemplating one of San Francisco’s greatest mural works.

You may choose to call the deliberate blocking of someone’s view of an artwork a clever act of “art intervention” or a means to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality” of the artwork… but an honest person would call it censorship.

There is a larger cautionary tale to be told here regarding Rivera’s mural, one that has it roots in the history of the SFAI, but also in the chronicles of U.S. art and politics.

In 1931 Diego Rivera painted his mural at the SFAI, then known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Douglas McAgy was the school’s director from 1945 to 1950, and he transformed the institution into a center for the non-objective school of abstract art. McAgy hired abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn as instructors, and tirelessly promoted abstract art through exhibitions and forums. To McAgy, figurative realism in art was passé and on its way out.

The “enlightened” McAgy was so offended by Rivera’s social realist mural that in 1945 he had a wall constructed over the fresco to prevent the public from ever seeing it [1]. While history has noted the total destruction of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center by the order of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, the censorship of Rivera’s mural at the CSFA is barely known or acknowledged. In retrospect the suppression of the mural by McAgy has been forgiven by those who simply think the school director acted as an overzealous apostle of abstract art. As if that is an excuse for his blatant act of censorship.

But here is the delightful irony in this whole messy affair. Just as the director of the CSFA revamped the school into a citadel of abstract art on the West coast, putting the kibosh on figurative realism in the process, so too has the current leadership of the SFAI turned the school into a bulwark for today’s oh so fashionable postmodern art. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Douglas McAgy covered Rivera’s mural in an open act of censorship; the SFAI covers Rivera’s mural and justifies it in the name of “ambitious new works.”

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

But I do not believe for a moment that McAgy’s censorship of Rivera’s mural was an act solely based on an extreme bias against realism in art. McAgy acted in full accord with the “Red Scare” that had seized control of U.S. national politics.

In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). Specifically, HUAC went after the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, a government effort to provide work for unemployed theater professionals in the midst of the Great Depression. HUAC concluded the project was dominated by communists and demanded Roosevelt fire the project’s leadership because they had “associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots.” Roosevelt refused to fire the leaders but HUAC convinced the U.S. Congress to cancel funding to the project on June 30, 1939.

In 1945 HUAC became a permanent Congressional committee that launched investigations into “subversive” activities in the U.S. It undertook an anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood in 1947 that placed over 320 actors, directors, and writers on a blacklist forbidding them work. In the same timeframe Joe McCarthy, Senator from the state of Wisconsin, led his own crusade against the hundreds of communists he alleged had infiltrated the U.S. government. The manic anti-Communism that gripped America in that period became known as “McCarthyism” due to the pathological anti-communism of Senator McCarthy and his political allies in official circles.

HUAC repression in Hollywood destroyed careers and purged the entertainment industry of those perceived to be “un-American.” Ten prominent screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC were found in contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to a year in prison; after their release they were blacklisted like all the rest. Government bullying not only purged Hollywood of the left, it ushered in an era of political submissiveness and conformity in U.S. cinema; The Red Menace from Republic Pictures is a perfect example [2].

McCarthyism impacted all facets of cultural life in the U.S., it was not just the entertainment professionals in Hollywood who suffered; visual artists were also targeted. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the painters and printmakers who were persecuted by McCarthyism, but Irving Norman, the painter of social surrealist images comes to mind. U.S. artists would do well to remember the reactionary assault on art during the McCarthy years led by Michigan Republican Congressman, George A. Dondero. On August 16, 1949, Rep. Dondero gave a speech before the U.S. Congress titled, Modern Art Shackled to Communism [3]. He spoke of the “isms” that he said were promoted by communists:

“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth. Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. While not all are media of social or political protest, all are instruments and weapons of destruction.

We are now face to face with the intolerable situation, where public schools, colleges and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling to our young men and women a subversive doctrine of “isms,” Communist-inspired and Communist-connected, which have one common, boasted goal - the destruction that awaits if this Marxist trail is not abandoned.”

Today Congressman Dondero’s words may sound utterly ridiculous, but between the years 1946 and 1956 this was a deadly serious matter. Congress never rebuffed Dondero’s claims; he had very powerful friends and allies. Together they condemned and suppressed modern art exhibits while leading campaigns to censor and destroy “communist” WPA murals located in government buildings. In 1953, acting as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dondero was involved in a congressional push to destroy the murals of Anton Refregier that were painted in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office.

While Congressman Dondero and his supporters were attacking abstract art for being “communist because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our material progress,” a few powerful opponents of Dondero both in and out of government were defending abstract art as anti-communist.

The advisory director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred Barr, wrote an essay titled Is Modern Art Communist? for the New York Times in 1952. Barr proclaimed abstract art to be anti-communist and an expression of American freedom and individualism! [4] Here I must remind the reader that Nelson Rockefeller, a major proponent of abstract art, was the president of MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, and that he initially approved of, but then ordered the destruction of, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.

For twelve years Rivera’s mural would remain hidden behind McAgy’s wall until after Rivera’s untimely death in 1957. That same year McCarthyism and Abstract art began to ebb; the CSFA decided it was safe to take down the wall that hid the fresco mural and rededicate The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

As conservative anti-communists and liberal anti-communists fought over how to defeat communism in the arts, as well as how to combat it with the arts, there stood Diego Rivera in the midst of the clamor, painting his mural at the California School of Fine Arts. It is little wonder why Rivera’s fresco was targeted for censorship in 1945. Douglas McAgy’s decision to wall off Rivera’s mural was undoubtedly motivated by the “liberal” anti-communist view, coupled with his being an exponent of abstract art.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

What may astonish the reader is that the CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, makes absolutely no acknowledgment online of CSFA director Douglas McAgy being responsible for building a wall over Rivera’s mural and keeping it covered for a dozen years. Mention of McAgy’s censorship is not even broached on the SFAI website page that supposedly presents the institution’s history.

I have a few rhetorical questions for the students and faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as for the larger arts community in the U.S. and beyond.

Mexico is in deep crisis, it is in a political, economic, and moral tailspin; since 2007 over 164,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called drug war; 10,000 Mexicans have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by death squads since 2012; over 41 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2010 for seeking the truth.

I write this on the one year anniversary of the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico, who were seized by corrupt police officers and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become a dagger in the heart of the Mexican people, and millions of them know who is responsible for conspiring against them.

My questions are - do you really prefer Alejandro Almanza Pereda and his fluorescent light scaffolding over Diego Rivera and his socially conscious mural? Do you actually think Pereda’s is the appropriate artistic response to a Mexico awash in blood and corruption? Do you genuinely believe that art and artists are above the fray, and need not dirty their hands with real world issues? And, faced with all of the inequality and barbarity of this world, do you regard it as apropos to “contend with and complicate the legacy” of these conditions by attacking Rivera?

If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, then I think it safe to say that the arts community is in its own moral tailspin.

– // –

ADDENDUM:

[1] Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Howard Singerman. University of California Press. 1999.

[2] The Red Menace - Director, R.G. Springsteen. Republic Pictures 1949. The film offered an over the top fictional account of how the Communist Party USA supposedly operated in the city of Los Angeles, using deceit and thuggery to recruit the weak minded. The film is narrated by Lloyd G. Davies, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. One of the film’s villainous communists was played by actress Betty Lou Gerson, who would be the voice actress for Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians.

[3] Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts - John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward, Elsen, Stephen K. Urice. Published by Kluwer Law International, 2007.

[4] The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s-1980s: A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds - Assoc Prof Catherine Dossin. Ashgate Publishing. 2015.

Robert Henri’s California

“Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”  - Robert Henri

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914-1925, is a small but important exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum in the sunny coastal city of Laguna, California. Running from Feb. 22 to May 31, 2015, this exceptional show focuses on the paintings that Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’) created while visiting the southern Californian cities of San Diego and Los Angeles from 1914 to 1925.

I had hoped to take some extreme close-up shots of the paintings, but the Laguna Art Museum does not allow photography of any kind in the Robert Henri’s California exhibition. Fortunately the museum agreed to provide me with some .jpg reproductions of art from the exhibit, which serve as illustrations to this article.

In 2007 I mentioned Henri at the end of my article, Bouguereau & His American Students, which told of Henri being a student of the academic painter William Bouguereau and his inevitable break with academic painting; In 2008 I published a second article, Apostles of Ugliness - 100 Years Later, in which I described the “Ashcan School,” the first art movement in the U.S. that Henri played a major part in founding. The Ashcan group were the original social realist painters of America, given to depicting the lives of the poor and everyday working people.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California dazzles on several fronts. It awes the viewer with Henri’s skill as a painter and brings to life craft as an essential part of painting. It produces a sense of admiration regarding Henri’s ability to capture the essence of people in formal portraiture, revealing the deep humanism Henri possessed. The exhibit also affirms something little known about the man usually thought of as a “New York” realist painter - his deep and abiding love for the lands and people of southern California.

Henri first came to San Diego in June of 1914, and lived in a cottage above the magnificent sun drenched La Jolla Cove. He helped Alice Klauber, a former art student of his living in San Diego, to plan a fine art program for the upcoming 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Henri arranged the Modern American Art exhibit, a display of paintings by Ashcan artists that was shown at the Exposition’s Fine Arts Building. His own works were exhibited along with canvasses by George Bellows, John Sloan, William Glackens, and other artists now considered to be masters from the period. Of the nearly 50 paintings displayed, not a single one sold. Nonetheless, the Exposition was an event that would have considerable impact on the life and work of Henri.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

While Henri lived in California he forsook painting portraits of high society, and instead painted lush and emotive portraits of the people ordinarily kept at arm’s length by the dominant white culture; Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans. He also first painted indigenous people while in California, creating portraits of artisans from the New Mexico San Ildefonso Pueblo that he befriended at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. I found these glorious canvasses of indigenous people to be breathtaking examples of the painter’s craft, and for me they were the core of the exhibition.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Native Americans recreated a Pueblo village at the Panama-California Exposition, what the exposition named “The Painted Desert.” It was an attraction where indigenous people could share their culture, as well as create and sell traditional arts and crafts. Henri was so impressed by the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, that in later years he would visit New Mexico and create a large body of extraordinary Native American portraits.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s paintings of Chinese immigrants on view at the Laguna Art Museum are dazzling in their own right, especially the exquisite canvas of a young girl named Tam Gan. Painted in 1914, the portrait is created with rapid, paint loaded brushes over an underpainting of burnt sienna and ochre. Technically it is like all of the other Henri oil paintings - a radiant masterwork, but there is an unseen political aspect to the painting that makes it out of the ordinary, and that fact is most likely missed by all except for those familiar with the grim side of American history.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s painting of the lovely Tam Gan was made when the thoroughly racist Chinese Exclusion Act was strictly enforced by the U.S. federal government. The xenophobic law was first enacted in 1882 for the express purpose of totally prohibiting all Chinese workers from entering the United States. The exclusionary law strictly curtailed immigration from China and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. The law did not apply to Chinese travelers, merchants, teachers, and students, but all those who were exempt had to present to U.S. authorities a certificate from the Chinese government stating they were not workers.

The Exclusion Act specifically targeted Chinese females. Eligibility to enter the U.S. was based upon marital status; if a woman was not married she was considered a worker (or a prostitute) and denied entry. If a woman was a laborer she was barred from entering the U.S., if she was not a worker but married to one, she was still banned. Only a wealthy merchant’s wife was able to gain entry to the U.S. The government strategy was simple, without women there would be no children, and the radical reduction of the Chinese population in America would be achieved.

The reasons for all of this were tied to economics. Chinese workers supplied cheap labor to those three giant companies behind the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. After the Civil War a wave of nativism swept the nation when white workers violently objected to non-whites “taking their jobs”; the result was the 1882 exclusion law. The act was made permanent in 1902. The Chinese had few friends in the U.S. at the time, as with today it was the nonconformists and political radicals that sided with the immigrants. The Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, consistently opposed the treatment of Chinese workers in the U.S., and twelve years after the Exclusion Act was made permanent, Henri would defiantly paint portraits of the Chinese living in and around San Diego.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 1943, and even then the U.S. Congress allowed only 103 Chinese people to enter the U.S. per year, a law that was overturned in 1965.

Painting portraits of the underclass is what one would expect from the leader of the Ashcan School. But Henri’s interest in the poor and the dispossessed was not a mere bourgeois affectation. In 1915 Henri wrote an essay titled My People that was published in The Craftsman, a journal that promoted arts philosophy and the Arts and Crafts movement. The think piece reveals a large minded and internationalist take on the world. Henri was a forward thinking man, hard to pin down politically, but one could say he was a free thinking revolutionary. He met and admired the revolutionary anarchist activist Emma Goldman, and even painted her portrait in 1915. In My People Henri stated:

“The people I like to paint are ‘my people,’ whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines Nature intended for them. My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only be gestures.” In that same essay Henri went on to say:

“I find as I go out, from one land to another seeking ‘my people,’ that I have none of that cruel, fearful possession known as patriotism; no blind intense devotion for an institution that has stiffened in chains of its own making. My love of mankind is individual, not national, and always I find the race expressed in the individual. And so I am ‘patriotic’ only about what I admire, and my devotion to humanity burns up as brightly for Europe as for America; it flares up as swiftly for Mexico if I am painting the peon there; it warms toward the bull-fighter in Spain, if, in spite of its cruelty, there is that element in his art which I find beautiful, it intensifies before the Irish peasant whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country and my own hearthstone.”

Since Henri could so eloquently put forth his philosophy on art and life, I will close this review with an excerpt from his 1923 The Art Spirit. It was a book that summed up his views regarding art, combining transcribed lectures given to his students, with critical commentary and musings on life and aesthetics. I have long held his words to heart, and feel they should be read and understood by any aspiring artist. The following is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1923:

“We are living in a strange civilization. Our minds and souls are so overlaid with fear, with artificiality, that often we do not recognize beauty. It is this fear, this lack of direct vision of truth that brings about all the disaster the world holds, and how little opportunity we give any people for casting off fear, for living simply and naturally. When they do, first of all we fear them, then we condemn them. It is only if they are great enough to outlive our condemnation that we accept them.

Always we would try to tie down the great to our little nationalism; whereas every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere, a man whom all the world recognizes, accepts, whether he speaks through music, painting, words, or form.”

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The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Addendum:

While visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts in May, I noticed a painting by Henri in the museum’s extensive collection.

Painted in 1915 and titled The Young Girl, it is a superlative example of how Henri painted with bold, energetic brush strokes laden with explosive color.

In 2005 David Gordon, the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said the following about the painting:

“Henri encouraged the painting of life as it really was and this three-quarter body nude of 1907 was so striking in its realism that Mrs. Henri took an advertisement in the newspapers to tell the world that it was not her that posed for her husband. The model, Edna Smith, is simply gorgeous and we have used her face as one of the emblems of the Museum. To have used the rest of her would still have shocked 97 years later.”

Because the oil on canvas painting was created in the same time frame as those exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum, I am including details of The Young Girl as an added example of Henri’s prodigious talents.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark Vallen.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark vallen.