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California Landscape into Abstraction: Works from the Orange County Museum of Art

December 15, 2013 - March 9, 2014


Orange County Museum of Art is presenting an in-depth study into the changing modes of landscape representation in modern and contemporary art. Drawn entirely from OCMA's collection, the paintings, photography, video, and sculpture -- among other media -- explore how artists on the West Coast have produced work in which landscape evolves into abstraction, and in some cases transforms back again. California Landscape into Abstraction: Works from the Orange County Museum of Art presents more than 120 artworks that, with a few exceptions, range in date from the 1920s through the present day, and includes works by Ansel Adams, Peter Alexander, John Altoon, Elmer Bischoff, Vija Celmins, Jay DeFeo, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, Tim Hawkinson, Drew Heitzler, Dorothea Lange, Helen Lundeberg, Lee Mullican, Agnes Pelton, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Millard Sheets, James Turrell, Edward Weston, and Paul Wonner, among others. (right: Elmer Wachtel, Landscape, 1922, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Collection OCMA; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Julian Wilcox)

"A persistent theme in California art over the past century is the charged relationship between abstraction and landscape," states OCMA Chief Curator Dan Cameron. "A schism of sorts opened in the 1930s and 1940s between naturalist landscape painters and those of a more modernist inclination, and that resulting breach proved to be a catalyst for a lot of adventurous ideas over several decades. Today it's still considered heresy to connect California Impressionism to later abstract, minimal, and conceptual art, but as a museum that collects from both ends of the spectrum, if seemed like there was more we could bring to the conversation."

California Landscape into Abstraction includes fine examples of 19th and early 20th century landscape painters such as Frank Cuprien, Elmer Wachtel, and James Milford Zornes. By the 1940s, the stylistic tension between the two schools seems to be fully in place with the Modernists -- including Oskar Fischinger, Helen Lundeberg, Agnes Pelton, Frederick Wight, and Stanton McDonald Wright -- approaching the landscape as a vehicle for expressionist, surrealist, or hard-edge influences.

At the heart of this exhibition are dozens of outstanding examples of mid-century California paintings in which the effort on the part of their makers to incorporate elements of landscape without recycling art historical stereotypes is a thread connecting several styles and genres. Artists such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Hans Burkhardt, and Oskar Fischinger -- who relocated to the Los Angeles area after years abroad -- were working concurrently with Angelenos Edward Biberman, Nicholas P. Brigante, Helen Lundeberg and Lorsen Feitelson. Outnumbered and lacking a cohesive style, this generation was initially unable to compete with the plein air artists, whose vision of a life devoted to rendering luminous waves and sunsets had yet to be surpassed. (left: Helen Lundeberg, Persephone, 1933, Oil on celotex, 25 1/8 x 17 _ inches. Collection OCMA; Gift of Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Revocable Trust © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation. Courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts)

The steady influx of modernists into Southern California may have signaled the beginning of the end of the hegemony of California Impressionism, but landscape as subject never went away. Although some of those modernists fell into relative obscurity during the 1950s and 1960s, another avant-garde rose in its wake, centered on the artists associated with the Ferus Gallery (1957-66), including John Altoon, Llyn Foulkes, Kenneth Price, and Ed Ruscha. Defining the landscape by way of Northern California bohemia were several painters based in San Francisco: Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Paul Wonner.

The exhibition also features many examples of OCMA's strong holdings in photography by artists active in the 1970s and 1980s who helped redefine the issues of representation and landscape. By taking an often critical look at the growing industrialization of landscape, such artists as Lewis Baltz, Laurie Brown, John Divola, Lee Friedlander, Anthony Hernandez, Richard Misrach, John Pfahl, Stephen Shore, and Arthur Taussig helped push the boundaries of landscape by bringing civilization into the picture in an often unflattering way.

At the other end of the spectrum, certain artists showed an ongoing commitment to painting, especially in cases where the practitioners pursued an idiosyncratic or maverick approach to the history of the medium. In the early 1960s, Laguna Beach resident Roger Kuntz achieved critical attention for tightly cropped images of freeways and overpasses with occasional glimpses of nature in the margins; ten years later, muralist Terry Schoonhoven was employing trompe-l'oeil techniques at architectural scale representing slices of local nature dramatized within unexpected formats and location. California Landscape into Abstraction also showcases paintings by Carlos Almaraz, Larry Cohen, and John Lees.

Throughout the installation, California Landscape into Abstraction incorporates more recent developments in landscape interpretations, with digital and photographic work by Walead Beshty, Katy Grannan, Shirley Shor, Diana Thater, Mungo Thomson, and Amir Zaki. Painters working today who are interpreting the landscape genre in even looser reading include Brian Calvin, Brian Fahlstrom, Pearl C. Hsiung, and Mary Weatherford.

Instead of a chronological installation for the exhibition, Cameron has organized the works in a thematic design that dissolves some of the barriers between historical styles. Each gallery focuses on a particular theme -- albeit with diverse approaches -- presenting key selections for visitors to explore and better understand how the landscape interpretations evolved over the decades. The section devoted to Color and Light, for example, includes works by artists separated from each other by a span of many decades -- but nonetheless exploring comparable issues. Other thematic groupings include Mapping, Marking, and Measuring; Language of the Land; First Impressions, The Modernist Variations; Occupied Vistas; A Backyard Eden; Paradise Endangered; Manmade Landscapes; and Fictional Histories.

The exhibition is on view December 15, 2013, through March 9, 2014.


(above: Mary Finley Fry, An Orange County Barn, 1937, Watercolor on paper, 10 3/8 x 15 1/8 inches. Collection OCMA; Gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure)


List of artists

A full list of artists whose works are included in the exhibition follows.

Kim Abeles
Ansel Adams
Lita Albuquerque
Peter Alexander
Carlos Almaraz
John Altoon
Lewis Baltz
Mark Bennett
Walead Beshty
Edward Biberman
Elmer Bischoff
Paul Brach
George Kennedy Brandriff
Rex Brandt
Nicholas P. Brigante
Laurie Brown
Conrad Buff
Jerry Burchfield & Mark Chamberlain
Brian Calvin
Vija Celmins
William Clift
Larry Cohen
Miles Coolidge
Carlotta Corpron
Frank Cuprien
Jay DeFeo
Lewis deSoto
Richard Diebenkorn
John Divola
Maynard Dixon
Elliott Erwitt
Brian Fahlstrom
Judy Fiskin
Llyn Foulkes
Lee Friedlander
Mary Finley Fry
William Giles
Ed Gilliam
Joe Goode
April Gornik
Jane Gottlieb
Katy Grannan
Tim Hawkinson
Drew Heitzler
Maxwell Hendler
Anthony Hernandez
Eikoh Hosoe
Pearl C. Hsiung
N. Jay Jaffee
Robert Glenn Ketchum
Paul Kos
Roger Kuntz
Ben Kutcher
Paul Landacre
Dorothea Lange
John Lees
James Luna
Helen Lundeberg
Daniel Joseph Martinez
Barse Miller
Richard Misrach
Lee Mullican
Joan Myers
Charles Christian Nahl
Kori Newkirk
Agnes Pelton
John Pfahl
Ken Price
Sterling Ruby
Ed Ruscha
Terry Schoonhoven
Millard Sheets
Shirley Shor
Stephen Shore
Alan Sonfist
Norman St. Clair
Arthur Taussig
Diana Thater
Hank Willis Thomas & Kambui Olujimi
Mungo Thomson
George Tice
James Turrell
Penelope Umbrico
Elmer Wachtel
Mary Weatherford
William Wendt
Edward Weston
Frederick Wight
Jane Wilson
Paul Wonner
Amir Zaki
James Milford Zornes


Wall panel texts from the exhibition

One approach to understanding the landscape is by subjecting
it to observation, classification, and documentation; the
unknowable can be broken down into identifiable parts. Yet, even
under rigorous scrutiny, all maps are abstractions, depicting a real
place from a singular point of reference. Maps represent a broader
concept: the tangible between the concept and the real.
This situating of multiple components calls attention to both the
overall process and the individual artist's sensibility. For example,
Vija Celmins's Moon Surface (Luna 9) #2 (1969), created the
same year that man first landed on the moon, captures both the
romance of exploration and the violence of conquest, while slowly
revealing the labor-intensive artistic process. Celmins intentionally
distances her work from that of a documentary photograph.
Instead, she uses graphite to mimic reality while calling attention to
the underlying structure and its questionable efficacy as a tool to
understanding the universe.
In James Turrell's Roden Crater (1986), the topographical model
with accompanying text and photographs act as documentation
and blueprint for Turrell's ongoing Earthwork in an extinct volcanic
cinder cone located in the Arizona desert. Begun in 1974 and
with the final stage of this colossal art work nearing completion,
the Roden Crater material here provides valuable insight into
Turrell's unique vision about a full decade into the undertaking.
The subject of landscape and the efforts of artists to capture an
essence of place that was characteristically "Western" have always played
a key role in the development of California art. Artists who arrived in
the state in the nineteenth century devoted much of their practice to
their never-before-painted environs, an impulse that eventually gave rise
to California Impressionism, the first real movement in West Coast art.
Painters such as Conrad Buff working en plein air depicted the beauty
of the natural environment by reveling in the vastness of the horizon
against clear, blue skies.
During the early twentieth century, advancements in and
accessibility to photography supplanted painting within the broader
conversation on how landscape might be represented. Ansel Adams
and Edward Weston, co-founders of the San Francisco-based
Group f/64, advocated for a more precise approach by focusing
their lenses on details unseen to the naked eye. Weston's Dunes,
Death Valley (1938) sustains an even sharpness from foreground to
background without enlarging and achieves an impressive field of
depth for the desert horizon within its eight-by-ten-inch frame.
So far in the twenty-first century, the western landscape, due to
population growth and urbanization among other factors, has changed
considerably, inspiring artists such as Mungo Thomson to draw their
inspiration from a mediated view of the American West. In The American
Desert (For Chuck Jones) (2002), a sequence of Road Runner cartoons
omits both main characters, allowing the viewer to experience the
unexpected beauty of the Southwest as the main event instead of merely
a fleeting backdrop. As the video progresses, Thomson pays tribute to
the emotional, almost spiritual, content of Jones's desert landscapes
by only including the essential features-blue skies, vast mesas, and
panoramic horizons-that make up the language of the land.
Known for its Mediterranean climate, abundant sunshine, diverse
landscape, and vibrant flora, California has long been a magnet to
artists who have flocked here to utilize these natural resources. To
represent their environment, artists often employ light and color to
capture the essence of movement, space, time, and emotion.
Besides situating a landscape at a particular time of day,
warmer and brighter colors typically advance in painting while
cooler or darker hues generally recede into the background.
Peter Alexander's Untitled (1975) exemplifies this use of light and
color. Primarily identified as a member of the Light and Space
movement with his translucent resin sculptures, Alexander's prolific
career as a painter equally harnesses the light from his California
surroundings. Here Alexander silhouettes mountains against the
warm hues of the cloud cover, bringing them and the haze into the
foreground, while the cool colors of the twilight sky recede into
the background. Bright, light-cadmium yellows reflecting from the
landscape suggest that the piece captures the moment of sunset
just before the scene is reduced to darkness.
Although the use of color to convey time and mood in an
artwork is fairly universal, the similarities of the palettes used by
the artists here-colors plucked from the California landscape-
convey disparate messages. Carlos Almaraz's cool colors can be
found in Brian Fahlstrom's Visitation (2007) and the same warm
hues that Elmer Wachtel employs can be seen again in Paul
Brach, Frank Cuprien, and Joe Goode.
A highly charged recurring motif in the literature of exploration is the elusive
goal of the virgin wilderness, a land as yet unexplored by other humans, where
the burden of civilization might be cast aside in the process of developing an
idealized balance between nature's boundlessness and man's innermost self.
Whether in the form of a waterfall buried deep within a South American rain
forest, or the fabled first gaze at the Pacific Ocean envisioned by early settlers,
who sometimes exhausted much of their worldly wealth along with weeks (if not
months) of their lives just to get here, the lure of a place where others have not
already carved their initials has always been irresistible to other humans. That this
same appeal was later used by railroad companies and land developers to attract
potential tourists and homeowners should not be considered insignificant.
Early landscapes of the California coastline, like George Kennedy Brandriff's
Trees and the Sea and Norman St. Clair's Hills and Trees often framed the
picturesque view in a way that emphasized its unspoiled qualities, as if to say,
"I was here first." By the 1960s, the practice had taken a more creative turn,
as in Llyn Foulkes's heroically incongruous image of Leonard's Rock (1969), a
formation whose scale and shape seem like a far-fetched tale. A few years later
the same task would fall to photographers such as William Clift in his iconic
image of Canyon de Chelly, or William Giles's bird's-eye view of Black Rock,
or even Terry Schoonhoven's mural study for The Isle of California (1970-71),
to erase or edit out all traces of previous visitors, in an effort to recapture that
untouched look.
The triptych of photographs from the series Order from Chaos (1972-84) by
Robert Glenn Ketchum reconsiders the subject from a preservationist standpoint
by capturing the lush interiors of primeval old-growth areas that were implicitly
or explicitly endangered. Some decades later, Walead Beshty's Terra Incognito
series (2005-06) achieves a similar effect by seeking out the traffic medians
on the California freeway system and documenting the indigenous vegetation
growing wild; through a visually narrow framework, the pockets of nature convey
a lost paradise.
The first half of the twentieth century was a time of birth and
expansion for California modernism. The return of native-born modernist
Stanton Macdonald-Wright in 1918 can be seen to have signaled the
emergence of modern American versions of European movements and
a potent rival to the hegemony of California Impressionism. Inspired by
Cubist voluminous flatness and bright colors found in the works of French
Fauvists, Macdonald-Wright had, while still in New York, co-founded with
Morgan Russell the art movement Synchromism, which became the first
American avant-garde art movement to receive international-albeit
Macdonald-Wright's efforts to promote high European modernism
helped pave the way for a wider acceptance of abstraction in the latter
half of the twentieth century. Lee Mullican, with fellow San Franciscan
artists Gordon Onslow Ford and Wolfgang Ford, co-founded the Dynaton
surrealistic school. Mullican's concepts were particularly influential as a
transition between European modernism and American Abstract
Expressionism and depicted nature in abstract, weightless, and cosmiclike
shapes of line and color such as in The Measurement (1951).
Agnes Pelton and Helen Lundeberg (with husband Lorser Feitelson)
also championed alternative applications of Surrealism in their own
respective way with the Lundeberg taking a more argumentative stance
for synthesis of classical and Surrealist traditions resulting in a new,
Southern California-based movement known as Post-Surrealism.
John Altoon, now considered one of Southern California's principal
Abstract Expressionists, also applied surrealist concepts using action
painting techniques. Ocean Park Series (1962) demonstrates Altoon's fluid
style, which moved between quasi-abstraction and landscape. Altoon
would play a central role in leading a new wake of avant-garde centered
on artists associated with the Los Angeles Ferus Gallery (1957-66).
Once the West had been made relatively safe for new inhabitants
during the late-nineteenth century, images of the landscape could be
similarly adjusted to reflect either the arriving population or, in some
cases, those Native Americans who in most cases had recently been
moved or eliminated. In Paul Landacre's engraving Campers (ca. 1920),
a minute figure cavorts amid crashing waves. Eighty years later,
Katy Grannan photographed Carla, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plains,
MA (2002), in which the subject's naturalist experience of nature is
captured surreptitiously, as a fleeting act of disobedience.
Occupied Vistas also refers to the fact that there was no period over
the past several hundred years when Southern California was actually
uninhabited, so that any aspirations toward being the "first" to occupy
or possess a particular land need to factor in the experience of those
inhabitants whose population preceded explorations made by people
of European ancestry. Native Americans are often edited out of the
shortened narrative of the West's settlement, or their roles distorted,
and the very word "settlement" suggests the entity from whom the
new arrivals had to be kept safe. In this light, Charles Christian Nahl's
The Night Watch (1870) belongs to the genre of historical painting that
depicts Native Americans as essentially one with the landscape, while
James Luna's End of the Frail (1993) parodies one of the more enduring
images of the "noble savage" genre in his photo-collage of a present-day
artist (himself) slumped over his studio props.
The paintings on this wall represent distinct phases in the
investment of capital and labor into the land, from agriculture
and mining to the rapid post-World War II growth of Southern
California's beach communities. Until the 1860s, the main industry
in the area now known as Orange County was ranching, but a
severe drought resulted in many of the largest parcels being
bought up by land barons. The 1887 discovery of silver in the Santa
Ana Mountains accelerated the flow of settlers into the region,
and by the early twentieth century, citrus, berry, and avocado
crops had become a mainstay of the state's prosperity. While labor
disputes were frequent and the role of migrant workers was often
the subject of periodic disagreement, the economic growth in
industrialized agriculture was spectacular for half a century, until
it was gradually displaced by real estate in the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the most devastating photographic statements about
the transformation of landscape through industrialization came
from an artist who, instead of turning to the transcendent aspects
of the environment, lent his unflinching gaze to the process of
its destruction. In 1974, photographer Lewis Baltz completed
a series titled The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California,
fifty-one black-and-white photographs that surveyed the rapid
suburbanization of his native Orange County. Within the same
year, Baltz found himself at the center of a new movement in
photography dubbed the New Topographics after the highly
influential, eponymous exhibition at the George Eastman House in
Rochester, New York. This movement epitomized a key moment
in American landscape photography, which focused on uninspired,
manmade environments as the quintessential American vista.
The most striking aspect in these photographs is the
conspicuously absent natural elements of landscape: sunshine,
oceans, mountains (except from a distance), animals, the desert,
even people. The light has a uniformly apocalyptic whiteness that
is profoundly unflattering, and the photographic angle nearly
always reinforces the surveyor's position relative to roads and
property lines. Baltz moved to Europe in the mid-1980s, and his
working methods changed substantially, but forty years later,
the legacy of his New Industrial Parks series lay in its author's
adaptation to the apparent featurelessness of this industrial
environment, providing groundwork for how photographers would
document man-altered landscapes in the years to come.
While our knowledge of the limits of Earth's capacity to replenish
its resources at anything like the degree with which we consume them
dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century, the urgency
with which that information is disseminated has increased dramatically
in recent years. Artists have always been at the forefront of shaping that
information, beginning with Henry David Thoreau's literary classic Walden
(1854) and continuing into the twentieth century with the photographs
of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others.
In 1975, this museum commissioned famed LA Fine Arts Squad
muralist Terry Schoonhoven to create a work that would serve as a
midway point between traditional easel painting and his monumental
works, which overlooked freeways and parking lots. The resulting painting,
Sons of the Desert (1975), which is being shown for the first time since
its debut, depicts the desert as seen from within a dilapidated museum
whose most conspicuous feature is that it is partly buried in sand.
In 1990, Kim Abeles's ingenious use of the particulates within a
month's worth of smog as a medium to "develop" such images as her
own lungs is closely tied to conceptual art's manifesto that ideas drive
the creative process. Photographer Anthony Hernandez, who has
spent most of his adult life documenting Los Angeles from a streetwise
perspective, is represented here by a work from his Landscapes for
the Homeless series, which explores homelessness as fundamentally a
problem of ecology: too few resources spread between too many people.
Following the boom in war manufacturing, especially in
aerospace design in the early 1940s, California became a natural
stop for returning GIs after WWII. The postwar economic
prosperity and accompanying population boom offered an
opportunity for Americans to own a piece of paradise in the
sprawling suburbia. The re-development of former farmlands
into housing tracts forever changed the landscape of California
while cementing the corresponding architecture and planned
neighborhoods into an integral part of the state's identity.
Still known as the "world's salad bowl" and the "food basket
of the world," the different regions of California have long been
associated with its thriving farming industry. Maxwell Hendler
references this rich agricultural heritage with his work A-1 (1985),
which captures Hendler's transition from photorealism to Pop-influenced
conceptual work as he began working with text on
texture. Although Hendler seems to be reflecting California's
role as an agricultural center, he also inserts a sense of nostalgia,
painstakingly replicating a produce label from a time gone by.
Amir Zaki's Untitled (Winter Pool 20-22) (2004) is another
example of the lost Eden. Here the viewer looks down from
a god-like perspective into a drained suburban pool that
seems to echo the voices of summers past but is itself just an
empty cement shell. Yet, like the Eden story, Zaki's disquieting
pool also holds a hope for a future return to paradise.


(above: Pearl C. Hsiung, Tidal Wretch, 2005, enamel on canvas, 96 x 72 inches. Collection OCMA, Gift of Lilly and Paul Merage)


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