Santa Barbara Museum of Art
photo: John Hazeltine
Following is an essay by Susan M. Anderson from the 1988 (out-of-print) catalogue titled "Regionalism: The California View, Watercolors, 1923-1945, " published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Essay reprinted with permission of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Regionalism: The California View
by Susan M. Anderson
In the 1930s, a period of great social and economic change, American artists sought to free themselves from European influences in an effort to create a truly American art. Contemporary American art critics since the late 1920s had been advocating an American art that did not rely on European models for its inspiration. They called for an authentic native art, portraying subject matter in a realistic manner that could be readily understood by Americans in all parts of the country.
During the Great Depression following the stock market crash of late 1929, a wave of national consciousness swept the country, exerting a strong influence on writers, artists and other observers of the social scene. They sensed the need for new art forms that would capture the diverse environmental and social characteristics in various parts of the country. This regionalist focus found visual expression in an artistic movement strongly committed to the American experience.
Throughout the country a significant number of artists turned to painting the American scene. Artists like Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton portrayed positive images of rural culture and its traditional values, concerns now commonly associated with the Regionalist movement. Other artists, oriented toward Social Realism like the painter Ben Shahn, forcefully documented the economic and social upheavals of the times. Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield so vividly portrayed the universally relevant images of despair and isolation that their work, while firmly based in the American scene, transcends it. Generally speaking, most of the painters who turned toward American subject matter in the 1930s reflected the changes taking place throughout the country as it was transformed from a rural agrarian society into an industrialized world power.
The term "Regionalist" was first used to refer to the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers concerned with basic philosophical and sociological questions within the cultural framework of the American South. Both literary and visual Regionalists sought to express their personal responses to a given environment based on direct experience -- but not from a reformist stance. (1) Artistic expression of these concerns eventually resulted in a school reflecting a broad regional point of view and, cumulatively, a native art.
Regionalism, as the term is used in this exhibition and essay, refers to a movement of the late 1920s and 1930s which concentrated on local subject matter and themes treated in a representational manner and usually, though not exclusively, reflected a positive view of rural and urban life. Seen in retrospect, Regionalists painted a broad range of subjects, including some scenes implying social commentary. Regionalism, in the broad sense, refers to art which presents personal responses to a given region but transcends regional boundaries to communicate to all Americans.
By the late 1930s, the pendulum of fashion in art was swinging away from American scene painting. Artists and critics began to decry Regionalism as provincial and naively nationalistic. It was blamed for making the people of middle America, who closely identified with the movement, suspicious of modernism. (2) International modernism, reasserting its primacy, forced American Regionalism into disrepute for several decades. In the 1970s, a reassessment of Regionalism began, placing it firmly within the rich and continuing tradition of realism in American art. This reassessment coincided with renewed interest in realism and figurative styles in general.
In the re-examination of California art of the 1930s, historians have generally concentrated on the somber and subdued work of painters like John Langley Howard, which was heightened by strong social consciousness. This trend was influenced by Mexican social muralists like Diego Rivera who worked in California during the early 1930s and inspired a modified form of Social Realism in some of the frescoes and easel paintings completed under the Works Progress Administration.
Although recent studies have discussed these federal art projects, along with social realist and modernist movements of the period, the California school of watercolor that rose to prominence during the Depression has received little critical or scholarly attention as an independent movement. (3) Yet, because it was the only important regional school of watercolor within the broader context of the American scene, it made a unique contribution to the history of American art. Many of the California artists who enjoyed a national reputation during the 1930s were leading members of the loosely structured movement and first received critical acclaim for their achievements as watercolor artists. Our exhibition explores this particularly rich manifestation of California Regionalism; it attempts to identify some key artists associated with the movement, trace the origin of their artistic concerns, consider their relationship and contribution to the greater American art scene and present a representative cross section of their most characteristic work reflecting Regionalist concerns.
Realistic portrayals of the native scene were not new, either in American or California art. The immediate roots of Regionalism lay in the early-twentieth-century American Realist movement fed by Robert Henri known as the Ashcan School; broader influences range from the earliest landscapes in the folk art tradition to those of the Hudson River School.
California's astonishing natural beauty had inspired earlier artists, both residents and visitors. Grand scenes of Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, followed by the intimate tonalist paintings of George Inness and William Keith, were nineteenth-century predecessors of the work of the California Impressionists who became popular in the early twentieth century.
Some of these artists, who worked "en plein air," painted in oil directly on prepared white canvas, often using Neo-Impressionist brushwork. They adopted a flickering brush stroke, applying dabs of contrasting colors to create optically a pleasing atmospheric effect. (4) Many of them used watercolor in the same Impressionist or Post-lmpressionist manner. Their work was the conservative expression of modernist art that appeared in California following the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.
A younger group of artists became interested in the Caiifornia scene in the 1930s. They began painting lively scenes of the uninhabited parts of the state and urban views. Watercolor was ideally suited to the artistic temperament of these artists, who liked to paint outdoors in a direct and spontaneous manner, and many of them began to explore this medium as their chief means of expression. The mild California climate afforded them a year-round opportunity to paint directly from nature.
This interest in watercolor applied to artists throughout the state, but in southern California, beginning about 1927, a spirit of camaraderie among artists inspired a notable cohesiveness of approach. This was the foundation of a school which eventually attracted the attention of art critics both locally and nationally. Some members of this group acquired their interest in watercolor as students at the Chouinard School of Art, (5) and, as members of the Los Angeles-based California Water Color Society, enjoyed opportunities to meet and paint together. They were influenced by their teachers, by whatever impressions reached them from the broader art scene and by the prevailing artistic culture of Los Angeles itself.
Little information about modernist art more recent than Impressionism had reached the Los Angeles area in the late 1920s, and exhibitions of contemporary painting were rare. The public was still loyal to the followers of Impressionism who dominated the local art scene. (6) Chouinard had several teachers who had spent time in Europe and New York and thus were able to give their students some sense of the greater art world while grounding them in the fundamentals of technique. Outstanding among these influential instructors were Clarence Hinkle, E. Tolles Chamberlin, Lawrence Murphy and Carter Pruett. (7)
Clarence Hinkle instilled in his students the spirit of experimentation, teaching them to paint directly from nature, using free Neo-lmpressionist brushwork. Chamberlin stressed the importance of capturing the quality of the subject itself, rather than imposing a preconceived style on it. (8) Murphy, who drew incessantly in class, demonstrated the value of developing an innate sense of composition without losing natural spontaneity Carter, a well-known illustrator, taught the principles of good illustration -- figural observation and narrative information. (9)
Quite naturally the young artists' approach to watercolor first reflected their early education with impressionistic brushwork and a palette of vibrant, often Fauvist, coloration and sometimes dark, opaque colors. Their early ventures into realism, inspired by the themes of the Ashcan School, still showed a stylistic interest in light and atmospheric effects. Millard Sheets' Spring Street and Sunset Tenements are examples of this early phase of California Regionalism, when artists sought out the picturesque aspects of city street scenes. Interested in capturing an "impression" of the whole, they did not concern themselves with human activity or narrative possibilities, nor did they evoke a strong sense of a particular period and place.
The approach to style, subject and theme which identifies the California artists with the American Regionalist movement did not appear until the early 1930s. By about 1932, the impressionistic approach to watercolor had largely been abandoned. (10) Greater graphic intensity, plasticity and narrative power replaced the earlier concern with brilliant effects of color and light. The layering of graduated washes made it possible to capture quickly the essence of a scene, and the human figure took on increasing importance. A shift from pure landscape or cityscape to Regionalist genre painting was underway. This shift developed naturally as a combination of the artists' growing awareness of contemporary trends in the American art world and concern for the social responsibility of the American artist. The new subject matter also demanded a fresh appropriate style. A number of important factors helped shape this new development.
By the late 1920s Art Digest and other major art periodicals had begun to emphasize nationalist concerns and were giving considerable coverage to painters of the American scene. (11) Further stimulation came from the Eastern painter, Edward Bruce, who in 1931 was already an influential force, particularly in exposing artists to new ways of seeing their own California landscape. (12) When Bruce later became director of the Work Progress Administration, his influence in this direction increased.
The 12th annual juried exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Los Angeles Museum in 1931 was an important opportunity for Californians to see the work of prominent American scene painters Benton, Wood, Curry and Marsden Hartley. Los Angeles watercolorists Hardie Gramatky and Charles Payzant won two of the four awards at the exhibition. (13) Canadian-born Payzant won his award of merit for a watercolor Wilshire Blvd. This painting of what was Los Angeles' main street at the time has some illustrational qualities but is also highly inventive. Breaking away from his painterly work of the 1920s, Payzant adopts a new approach to watercolor. The white paper ground defines space and objects; the brush strokes are broad, with large areas of transparent, graduated wash -- all quite novel at the time. Also new was the use of recognizable California symbols such as the drive-in and the palm tree. Thus, Wilshire Blvd. combines many characteristics of the California school in a lively, confident manner.
During the 1930s, critics began to recognize and comment on the progress of this new and vigorous regional school of watercolor, often calling it "the California school." At a time when America was searching for its own artistic identity, the regional schools stimulated considerable discussion. Writing on the subject in 1939, Holger Cahill said, "As the artist goes on, and as he is joined by other artists, certain selections and eliminations, certain intensifications will inevitably be made. These will, in time, tend toward the formation of an attitude, toward a recognizable trend in observation, sentiment, and even in technique. When these factors are fused into an emotional unity we have the beginning of a school." (14) Mention of the California school began to appear locally in the late 1920s, and by 1934 word of its activities became a regular feature in national art periodicals. The distinguishing characteristics most frequently noted were large format, strong rich colors and bold free brushwork. (15) Their experimental and vigorous approach to watercolor initially grew out of artistic practices like the "plein air" method prevalent at the Chouinard School of Art in the late 1920s and early 1930s. (16) The quality of immediacy in the work of the California artists was most often mentioned by contemporary critics; the subject matter depicted a fascinating region and pattern of life quite different from other parts of the country.
While the senior Regionalists of the Midwest had rejected modernism and the city to move back to a more natural, rural way of life, many of the southern California artists had moved from undeveloped areas around Los Angeles to study and find employment in the urban center. Consequently, the unique character of that city is reflected in the work of many artists in the California school.
In the 1930s, Los Angeles, a politically conservative city of over two million people, was just emerging from a rural past. Thousands of displaced persons from the Dust Bowl poured into the area looking for work in the agricultural and oil industries which were, along with Hollywood's film industry, the occupational mainstays during the Depression. Southern California was like a sprawling city composed of a hundred Midwestern towns, each populated by about ten thousand people and interspersed with farms, ranches and orange groves.
A mutual interest in painting the unusual charms of Los Angeles and the surrounding area led to the development of the California school. in the words of Merle Armitage, these artists painted "the farms, towns, roads and actual life of which they were a part." (17) Throughout the 1930s, they produced countless images of the area in watercolor. As critic Glenn Wessels observed, "The new angle of their work is their intimate love of what might be called the California scene. If Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Benton have described the Middle West for middle westerners, this group of Californians are describing California in water color for Californians." (18)
In spite of divergent styles that reflected their individual responses, the California artists maintained cohesiveness in a number of ways. During the 1930s and 1940s, art associations and societies throughout the country made important contributions to the growth of regional art, and this was especially true in California.
ln 1927 Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Lee Blair, Phil Paradise and Hardie Gramatky joined the California Water Color Society, which promoted interest in the medium and also circulated its members' work in traveling exhibitions nationwide. (19) The friendly competition which the society inspired helped to motivate the energetic young artists. Their exhibitions drew the attention of Arthur Millier, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, an etcher and watercolor painter in the English tradition, who took a genuine interest in the accomplishments of the local artists. His weekly page of criticism in the Sunday Times helped to advance art and the range of thinking of both artists and public in southern California. As a regular correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and Art Digest, he was instrumental in bringing the work of the California school to the attention of the nation. The California Water Color Society hosted annual exhibitions that, like those hosted by eastern groups like the Philadelphia Water Color Club at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and by the Art Institute of Chicago, always merited reviews in national publications.
This attention spurred a widespread interest in watercolor in California that spawned ten new watercolor societies within a decade. Though this revival was nationwide, (20) California showed a precocious interest in the medium and helped to propel the national movement forward. Watercolor was considered a particularly American means of expression whose characteristics were often compared to the national temperament: "The medium's swift fluidity fits our experience and outlook. We go fast. We decide quickly. We may not go deep, but we are not as rooted in an acre or a belief as a European is likely to be." (21)
The watercolor medium had an accessibility that made it seem truly democratic. Watercolors, less expensive than oils both to produce and to exhibit, were sold for reasonable prices. Many watercolor exhibitions included paintings matted but not framed, a practice which facilitated shipment and contributed to the large number of traveling exhibitions. (22)
In 1934 the California Water Color Society began to invite easterners to participate in their annual exhibition. In 1939 important artists from other parts of the country who accepted the invitation included Burchfield, Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh and Andrew Wyeth -- clear evidence that the society had gained recognition as an organization of national importance. (23)
As national periodicals reviewed the large public exhibitions, individual artists gained national and international reputations. These exhibitions established a relationship between American artists and their audience. Many of the California Regionalists were an important part of this national phenomenon, exhibiting extensively throughout the country; a number of them eventually became members of the prestigious National Academy of Design. The increasing number of institutions, associations, societies and galleries showing art of all kinds was both a testimony to the country's growing interest in art as a democratic activity and an indication of the artists' success in their search for a role in society.
Millard Sheets was responsible in part for the strong growth of Regionalism in southern California. As early as 1932 critic Arthur Millier called him the best known nationally of current Los Angeles artists. (24) One of the earliest proponents of the movement in California, Sheets eventually became the teacher, friend and supporter of many of the artists who are represented in this exhibition.
While a student at Chouinard, Sheets, at the suggestion of F: Tolles Chamberlin, began to explore the possibilities of watercolor. Phil Dike, Phil Paradise and Ben Messick followed suit, and a group of students asked Mrs. Chouinard to set up a course. A year and a half after entering the school as a student, Sheets was hired to instruct others in watercolor. (25) He taught many directly and, through his energy and example, gave encouragement to others. (26)
Sheets also organized major exhibitions of art as the director of the art section of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, starting in 1931. These exhibitions provided a stimulus that was both entertaining and educational. They were similar to other populist experiments of the 1930s which sought to bring art to the American people. During the same period Sheets built up an art department at Scripps College around which an art colony developed, a kind of vital local center similar to Grant Wood's Stone City Art Colony near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (27)
Some Los Angeles gallery owners supported the contemporary art scene. Jake Zeitlin, Dalzell Hatfield, Earl Stendahl and Alexander Cowie all gave exhibitions to local artists, The Depression caused galleries to reduce their activities and some, like Hatfield's which had been a second home to the Chouinard students, were forced to close for an extended period of time or find an alternate means of support. (28) In order to keep his extensive gallery spaces active, Stendahl rented them to local artists for a small fee while also supporting himself by making jigsaw puzzles and confectionery chocolates. (29) Zeitlin was particularly supportive of the watercolor artists. His exhibition announcements usually attracted a steady stream of people. (30) Other galleries that supported the artists were the Ilsley Gallery at the Ambassador Hotel, the Tone Price Gallery on Sunset Strip and the Stanley Rose Bookshop. Although actual sales of art were rare in the first few years of the Depression, by 1935, as the economic situation of the city began to improve, a few watercolor painters, including Lee Blair, Paul Sample and Barse Miller, were able to sell their work in local galleries. Between 1935 and 1940 Tone Price Gallery, which catered mostly to people in the film industry, often sold out their watercolors shows. (31)
The evolution of Regionalism in California from the late 1920s to 1945 paralleled developments in the larger American art scene, yet also reflected the uniqueness of the region in terms of choice of medium, stylistic approach and subject matter. Despite the variety of personal styles and the range of subject matter, the artists' identification with a time and a place, California of the 1930s, was unmistakable. Watercolor was the medium of choice -- directness, rawness, spontaneity, emotion and personal style the shared characteristics -- as distinctive as the qualities of California's landscape, weather and its developing urban life.
Landscape was an obvious subject in a state where natural beauty abounded. Many landscapes were realistic renditions that emphasized indigenous California qualities but were highly personal visions. James Patrick's study of a stark gray house, Untitled, captures the quality of the cool, gray mist and palm trees while evoking a feeling of quietude and an air of expectancy in the moodiness of the sky and the solitary figures on the porch. Early depictions of the California scene often reflect the sense of stillness to be found in Patrick's watercolors. (32)
Pleasant human interaction, usually set in a landscape, is the subject of many paintings. Nat Levy's Sunday on the Farm shows three farmers at rest, surrounded by the windswept trees of the Mendocino coast in northern California. Arthur Lonergan's Backyard Chatter portrays the amiable sharing of gossip over a back fence. In these paintings, the setting is of primary importance; an anecdotal interest in human nature is secondary. They are reminiscent of earlier American Scene paintings reflecting nostalgia for a rural way of life -- people living in harmony with their environment -- that was passing out of existence.
Images of people working on the land were a frequent Regionalist theme. James Fitzgerald's Spring Plowing is an ode to the dignity of agricultural activity. Fitzgerald was one of a small group of artists on the Monterey Peninsula working in watercolor during the 1930s who, like other artists outside the Los Angeles area, captured the spirit of the Regionalist landscape.
The dramatic qualities of weather conditions also attracted the Regionalists. David Levine, in Burned Out, has portrayed the destructive power of nature in a twentieth-century ruin steeped in romantic connotations and heavy with the nostalgia of loss. More powerful still is The Victim, produced in response to a scene he witnessed during the flooding of the Los Angeles River in the spring of 1938, a catastrophe in which several people were killed and many left homeless.
In Corral, Phil Paradise captures the restless energy of high-strung horses gathering together as a storm threatens. Phil Dike's Then It Rained is a masterful evocation of a dramatic rain storm. He uses the improvisational properties of watercolor to excellent advantage, allowing the wet paint to run down the page and blend together to create the effect of a torrential downpour. This highly expressionistic watercolor is a good example of the experimental way in which the California artists approached the medium. (33)
Dike painted Then It Rained while on a trip to Arizona in the early 1930s. Although recreational travel was generally curtailed during the Depression, many southern California artists managed to visit old mining and ghost towns of the Southwest and communities on both sides of the Mexican border. Some even went as far as Central and South America.
Recreation was more likely to be pursued closer to home, and in Balboa Inlet Barse Miller captures aspects of California life which make the state a tourist mecca. Because watercolors like this, with a sense of immediacy and delight in the moment, were painted in one sitting directly from nature, they are different from the oil paintings and murals of the period, with their more static style or incorporation of historical references. Many artists of the California school were also accomplished oil painters, but contemporary criticism singled out their watercolors as more highly expressive and noteworthy. Although watercolors functioned mostly as independent entities in their oeuvres, the artists sometimes developed them into works on canvas, usually choosing those subjects they felt to have the most power. (34)
In a 1940 review of an exhibition at the Riverside Museum in New York, critic Edward Alden Jewel said, " ...the water-colors are Western in flavor, nearly all of them characterized by painting traits that have come to be identified with contemporary expression on the Pacific Coast. Among these characteristics, clarity plays an important part. The palette is inclined to be high and fresh. The prevailing mood is decorative -- but crisply and boldly so; it isn't just a matter of nice, harmonious color schemes. Much of the work is vigorous in execution, often really expert; and not infrequently it embodies an original point of view . . ." (35)
These individual artistic expressions derived from many sources. Milford Zornes' Shore at Casmalia for example evokes a mood of classical allegory. Its looming vertical masses are balanced by the dark stripe of the horizon paralleled by bands in the sky and sand. The monumental rocks overshadow two female figures bathed in the soft light of a misty California beach, creating an air of mystery.
Contemporary criticism often referred to elements of Oriental art in some of these California watercolors. The early work of Zornes, Sheets and Craig showed the influence of both Chinese and Japanese landscape painting (36) and influences from Oriental art, both in color and composition, can also be seen in the work of Nicholas Brigante in An Accident, Figueroa Street Bridge.
California artists portrayed the city, like the rural landscape, in all its varying aspects, ranging from quickly observed glimpses of streets, houses and their inhabitants to more closely studied images of city life. Dong Kingman's San Francisco suggests the artist's ambivalence about the city. He captivates us with the scene but suggests a sense of despair at the skyscrapers, using distortion and a broad range of colors to evoke a moody, overcast day. Kingman, along with many of the Bay Area scene painters, was more in touch with modernist currents than were his southern California counterparts. In addition, his highly personal style reflects his Chinese-American heritage.
Tom Craig's Plaza Los Angeles dramatically expresses the international character of the city during the 1930s. Depicting the downtown area of the city adjoining Olvera Street where Mexican and Asian art and culture were a strong presence, Craig paints a night scene with three flags diagonally across the top of the composition to create a striking image.
Like Tom Craig's Los Angeles scene, Millard Sheets' Beer for Prosperity recalls Edward Hopper's night paintings of urban dwellers. While Hopper's studies of city life often feature isolated, alienated individuals, Sheets' watercolor is full of life and commemorates the welcome end to Prohibition. (37)
Southern California provided various means for struggling artists to use their talents while earning their livelihood. Many of the California Regionalists not only survived but also achieved a sense of community and purpose through participation in federally sponsored art projects. Although Regionalism was well established both nationally and in California by the time the projects were launched in late December 1934; American scene painting became the "official" government style under the projects. (38)
Federal sponsorship aided artists during the Depression by providing them with monetary supplement and also the chance to compete for commissions. Millard Sheets was one of fifteen artists chosen to paint murals in the Department of the Interior in Washington in 1936. Other California artists who won important mural commissions for post offices and public buildings included Barse Miller, Fletcher Martin and George Samerjan. Zornes, Sample, Post, Messick, Fitzgerald and Brandt were among those who worked on mural projects sponsored by federal art projects. (39)
Artists were greatly encouraged by the exposure they received for work done under the projects. Many in the watercolor section also gained regional and national recognition when their paintings were circulated among colleges, libraries and high schools and included in museum exhibitions across the country. In 1934, the Los Angeles Museum had a large show of art produced under the Works Progress Administration. (40) California artists received wide acclaim at the Public Works of Art exhibition in Washington the same year. Many works of art from this exhibit, including a watercolor by Zornes, were chosen by President Roosevelt for display in the White House. (41) Leadership of the projects included an impressive cross section of California artists. Critic Merle Armitage was the chairman of the Southern California Federal Art Project; Stanton MacDonald-Wright was the director and Lorser Feitelson his assistant. Millard Sheets was made regional director of the project and subsequently organized many of the works undertaken by artists and craftsmen. (42)
Although Los Angeles was hit hard by the Depression, its population, like the rest of the country, rarely wavered from an optimistic faith in the democratic ideal. The film industry helped project this image and contributed to the economic recovery that was felt as early as 1934. (43) Many artists survived the Depression by working in the film industry while they continued to pursue serious careers as artists. They made an important contribution to the aesthetics of film and in return were influenced by the special demands of studio art work.
During the 1930s, Phil Dike was an instructor, color coordinator and story designer for Walt Disney Studios and worked on the animated classics Snow White and Fantasia. Band Concert of 1935, the first Technicolor cartoon, was recognized at the time as a Regionalist cartoon and was widely publicized as a work of high artistic value. (44) Disney's success was due in part to the many creative talents that he found within the artistic community of southern California. Conversely, Dike once explained: "One of the greatest things Disney offers an artist is the discipline of having to sell his stuff by making definite and specific statements in simple, uncomplicated language, pictorially speaking." (45) As seen in Echo Park, Dike often infused his figures with a lively spirit, capturing their characteristic behavior with humor and charm.
Hardie Gramatky held an important job in animation at Disney Studios for six years during the 1930s.. After a period in the east, he was back in Hollywood during World War II supervising films for the U.S. Air Force and there he painted Hollywood in a colorful but dilapidated part of town. He brings the scene to life through the generous use of red and other warm colors to create the effect of California sunlight striking the wall of a market. His illustrations were in demand for publications which often used the work of artists to report on the contemporary scene.
With artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Gramatky was sent on assignment to cover the Mississippi flood in 1937. Benton covered the disaster for Missouri newspapers and then made a lithographic series based on his drawings. On commission for Fortune magazine, Gramatky chose watercolor to describe his experience. (46) Paul Sample, Rex Brandt and Millard Sheets also illustrated for this magazine which chronicled the industrial United States in high art fashion, featuring artists of the stature of Burchfield, Marsh, Charles Sheeler and Philip Guston. (47)
Artists readily translated the rapidly changing appearance of California into striking watercolor images. Machines and industrial buildings appear independently or as part of the landscape in the work of several artists; trains were a recurring subject along with the oil derricks that were a common sight from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. In 1938, Stan Backus visited Hoover Dam and captured what was, at the time, the ultimate symbol of American power and the harnessing of natural forces. Loren Barton painted the steel mill constructed at Fontana by Henry Kaiser during World War II. John Haley's Gas Eleven-Nine -- painted on location on Wilshire Boulevard -- is from his "L.A. Series" containing similar subjects produced in the 1940s. (48) This evidence of the growing industrialization of the state was recorded in a positive spirit by the Regionalists of California.
As the 1930s wore on, nostalgic observations appeared more frequently.· In Close to L.A. Gas Works, Emil Kosa focuses on a close-up-view of a lush green corner of the city juxtaposed with the hazy image of a factory, with cars of the urban transport system visible in the distance. The painting seems to signal the passing of a way of life sacrificed to progress.
Arthur Millier called Dan Lutz, a keen observer of urban rife, the "painter-poet of the outmoded and the down-at-heel," (49) In End of the Line, Lutz shows trolley car workers with downcast eyes trudging home past the parked inter-urban Yellow Cars. The subject would have inspired nostalgia even then, since a campaign to have the cars removed from the streets was already underway.
Living and working in the midst of the daily struggle that was city life in the 1930s, artists naturally became involved with people of all types as well as with the social issues of the day. Ben Messick and Carl Beetz carried on the great tradition of John Sloan in their portrayals of city characters, done with both humanity and humor. In Negro Pool Hall, Beetz introduces types well known to him and demonstrates his interest in human physiognomy. (50) Messick found his subjects on the streets, in Pershing Square (51) and on circus lots. He was one of several California Regionalists, in the tradition of Curry and Marsh, who enjoyed depicting the circus, a popular element of American culture. Messick's Waiting for the Spec is a colorful glimpse at the behind-the-scenes activities that he found fascinating.
The presence in California of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros had a profound influence on the art of the 1930s, both in stylistic innovation and social consciousness. They believed it was their responsibility to incorporate social issues into their murals in order to speak to humanity with force, clarity and relevance. Many Californians were affected by this attitude and adopted a modified form of Social Realism. This was particularly true in San Francisco where Rivera worked on several murals and where labor management struggles were a daily occurrence.
In 1932, as part of a workshop in fresco technique, a group of artists including Lee Blair, Phil Paradise, Paul Sample, Elmer Plummer, James Patrick, Barse Miller and Millard Sheets assisted Siqueiros in the execution of a mural in the courtyard of Chouinard Art Institute. (52) In addition to learning greater boldness and stylization from Siqueiros, they also acquired a more direct approach to their work. They were encouraged to try new techniques, since experimentation was integral to Siqueiros' mural work. And since both fresco painting and the California approach to watercolor use wet-into-wet (53) techniques requiring previsualization of the finished effect and quick, spontaneous rendering, the artists' work in watercolor was also affected. At least two other Siqueiros murals in the Los Angeles area were done with the assistance of other artists of the California school. (54)
Watercolors reflecting the difficult social conditions and the everyday dramas created by widespread poverty occur in the work of California Regionalists, but they are few in number and generally positive in spirit. Artists were acutely aware of prevailing social conditions but not overly reformist in the way they recorded them.
Lee Blair's watercolor Dissenting Factions comments on incidents he witnessed during a strike of workers in the film industry. (55) He created a complex composition reminiscent of historical paintings of the French Revolution, with a heroic style unusual in California watercolors of the period. In his Rain at Box Springs Camp, Brandt has captured the loneliness of a railroad worker returning to the cook shack and bunkhouse of a construction camp. Inspired perhaps by Charles Burchfield, Brandt conveys a sense of isolation that allows the viewer to identify with the subject. (56) Unlike most visual records of the migrant camps, widespread throughout California during the Depression, Mary Blair's Okie Camp does not attempt social commentary. Instead it reflects the artist's unique vision and ironically uses an animated orchestra of shape and color to evoke a touching humanity. Her ability to capture "the slightly cock-eyed aspect of everyday happenings" (57) also made her one of Walt Disney's favorite artists. Far less optimistic is Sheets' Miggs Ready for the Road, a poignant depiction of homeless migrant workers. This painting was reproduced to accompany a 1939 article in Fortune magazine. (58) In 1941, American citizens of Japanese descent were given short notice to sell or abandon their property before being shipped to relocation camps. George Samerjan witnessed the preliminary arrangements of a Japanese family and recorded it in Japanese Evacuation, Terminal Island, California.
World War II provided both the final subject matter for California Regionalism and the conditions which ultimately led to the end of its relevance as an artistic movement. The social upheaval of the war years and irresistible new forces in the art world were destined to displace the indigenous movement of the 1930s. Artistic change was inevitable, in keeping with other profound changes in society.
Although some artists continued to produce American scene paintings, the main focus had changed to other concerns. Art exhibitions of war paintings filled galleries across the country, and national periodicals devoted most space to reproductions of paintings interpreting the war.
Previous artists had similarly recorded other wars for the American people. Winslow Homer followed Civil War campaigns for Harper's Weekly; William Glackens worked for the same magazine during the Spanish-American War; Remington sketched during the Russo-Japanese War. (59) During World War II, Life magazine carried on this tradition by commissioning artists like Millard Sheets, Tom Craig, Fletcher Martin and Paul Sample to record the war effort. (60)
In 1941 Life magazine featured the work of seven artists commissioned to paint segments of the national defense scene. Each of the seven, including Barse Miller, Fletcher Martin and Paul Sample, spent three weeks on location, working primarily in watercolor. The paragraph introducing the accompanying article read: "For more than 20 years American artists have been discovering America. Exhaustively and exhaustingly, they have painted its dustbowls and Main Streets, its sharecroppers and Ozark nudes. But today a new period of America brings them a new theme for art. This is the period of national defense." (61)
The United States War Department formed units composed of artists, including Milford Zornes, Stan Backus and Barse Miller -- Miller served as chief of the Combat Art Section in the Pacific theater. (62) The works of these artists were reproduced widely in magazines like Life and shown throughout the country in exhibitions of war paintings, further establishing their national reputations.
The war experience forced many American artists into a
spiritual revolution, transforming them from painters of the local scene
into seekers for a deeper meaning and significance to life. Although many
California scene painters retained their Regionalist style for some years
after the 1930s, Miller was one artist representative of those who did not
wish to return to painting images of the American scene for some time after
he returned from service. (63) His
new work was different -- "an agitated network of wiry, calligraphic
lines and furtive blotchy shadows." (64) After World War II, the Regionalist movement submitted to radically
new developments in American art. The American artist had discovered his
roots and now was prepared to explore new directions with confidence.
1. James Dennis, Grant Wood (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1986), p. 193.
2. H. W Janson, "Benton and Wood, Champions of Regionalism," The Magazine of Art 39 (May 1945): pp. 183-186.
3. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure examines the school within the context of the California Water Color Society in The California Water Color Society Prize Winners 1931-1954, Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954 (Glendale: By the author, 935 West Mountain Street, 1975). See also Janet B. Dominik, The California School: The Private Collection of E. Gene Crain, exh. cat. (Gualala: Gualala Arts, 1986).
4. Harvey L. Jones, Impressionism: The California View, Paintings 1890-1930, exh. cat. (Oakland: The Oakland Museum Art Department, 1981), p. 9.
5. Chouinard School of Art (reincorporated in 1935 as Chouinard Art Institute), founded by Nelbert Chouinard in 1921, developed a national reputation as an art school. It was part of the vital Los Angeles art community centered in Westlake Park, consisting of the Art Center School, Otis Art Institute, the Federal Art Project Art Center, the Foundation of Western Art, Stendahl Galleries, Dalzell Hatfield Galleries, Jake Zeitlin's Bookshop, the Los Angeles Art Association and art supply stores, chief among them Ted Gibson Framers.
The artists lived together in boarding houses in the neighborhood and shared studios near the school. Many regularly gathered in the barn behind the school to work and talk about art. They shared many common interests including "the fundamental problems of aesthetics and meaning of painting, although nobody discussed it in that sense." For the most part they were neither philosophically nor politically inclined. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, interview with Millard Sheets by Paul Karlstrom on 28 and 29 October 1986, edited draft transcript, p. 40.
6. Winifred Haines Higgins, "Art Collecting in the Los Angeles Area 1910-1960," dissertation, UCLA, 1963, p. 14.
Although they saw the work of Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, and even the Blaue Reiter artists at Hatfield and Stendahl Galleries, it was Mexican art that most impressed the students and teachers at Chouinard according to Millard Sheets. This interest had begun in 1930 with the arrival of José Clement Orozco who painted a mural at nearby Pomona College, and it was intensified by the exhibition of Mexican art organized by the Federation of Arts of Los Angeles in 1931.
Southern California Impressionism is commonly referred to as the Eucalyptus School, although the term, when coined by Merle Armitage, originally referred to amateur painters only. Janet B. Dominik, Early Artists in Laguna Beach: The Impressionists, exh. cat. (Laguna Beach: Laguna Art Museum, 1986), p. 27.
7. Many of the artists and families of the artists interviewed spoke about the profound influence these teachers had on them. An impressive international array of guest lecturers and teachers also visited the school in the early 1930s, including: Richard Neutra, R. M. Schindler, Morgan Russell, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Alexander Archipenko and Hans Hoffmann. Robert Perine, Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed (Encinitas: Artra Publishing, Inc., 1985), pp. 71-75.
8. The artists of the California school subsequently felt strongly that the nature of the subject should dictate style and technique. Their emotional response to the subject was all-important, providing the impetus to paint and guiding their stylistic approach. This attitude accounts for much of the directness and sincerity of the work but also for a general diversity and lack of consistent style sometimes noted in the work of individual artists. Tom Craig expressed this attitude well when he said, "I try to find the means available to the subject at hand . . . The all important element. . . is the mystery of things seen and experienced." Alfred Frankenstein, "Tom Craig's Water Colors," The Magazine of Art 31 (October 1938): p. 578.
9. Conveyed in interviews with Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Mrs. Carl Beetz Bock; Mary Davis MacNaughton, Art at Scripps: The Early Years, exh. cat. (Claremont: Scripps College, 1987), p. 8.
10. Arthur Millier, "Millard Sheets Career Seen as Swift Growth." Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1932, sec 4, p. 10 .
Millard Sheets began at this time, for example, to make watercolors of
farmlands and rolling hills without the broken
wash and white flecks (sometimes called 'accidentals') of his previous style and instead used graduated washes. According to him, his choice of subject matter was influenced by Edward Bruce, who was a watercolor painter, and may have also been a source for the new approach.
11. In California, Art Digest had twice the circulation per capita of New York, which accounts for the amount of space given to the coverage of California art. Peyton Boswell, "California," Art Digest 4 (August 1930): 4. Peyton Boswell, the editor of the magazine, knew many of the watercolor artists personally.
12. "Edward Bruce Shows California How It Looks to Eastern Eyes," Art Digest 5 (March 1931): 13; Arthur Millier,"Brush Strokes," Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1932, sec. 4, p. 10.
13. "Los Angeles Holds Its Twelfth Annual Show," Art Digest 5 (March 1931): 13; "Charles Payzant Wins First Prize With Art Exhibit," Santa Monica Outlook, 13 March 1931 ; The Los Angeles Museum of Art, The Twelfth Annual Exhibition of American Painters and Sculptors, exh. cat. (Los Angeles Museum Art News, 1931).
14. Holger Cahill, American Art Today, New York World's Fair, exh. cat. (New York: National Art Society, 1939), p. 23.
15. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society Prize Winners 1931-1954, Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954, p. 2.
16. This idea was introduced to me during an interview with Millard Sheets, 17 January 1988.
17. Dalzell Hatfield, Millard Sheets (New York: Dalzell Hatfield, 1935), p. 6.
18. "Twelve California Watercolorists," Art Digest 11(September 1937): p. 13.
19. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society Prize Winners 1931-1954, Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954, p. 2.
20. Cyril Kay Scott, "Aquarelle Revival, Art Digest 9, November 1934, p. 7.
21. Arthur Millier, "Western Water Colorists Seen in Well-Chosen Show," Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1934.
22. Interview with Lee Blair, 27 December 1987.
23. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society Prize Winners 1931-1954, Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954, pp. 1-3; Janet B. Dominik, The California School, The California School: The Private Collection of E. Gene Crain, p. 10.; Arthur Millier, Los Angeles Times, 22 October 1939.
24. Arthur Millier, Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1932.
25. Interview with Millard Sheets, 17 January 1988.
26. Sheets began to set the pace for the other artists when, on completion of his studies in 1929, he won a national competition and had a one-man exhibition at Dalzell Hatfield's gallery. Overnight Sheets received local critical acclaim and acquired enough funds to travel through South America to Europe. Like many fellow American artists traveling internationally at this time Sheet's taste was largely formed before he went to Europe. As Hatfield said in his 1935 essay on Sheets: "Immediately upon the closing of his exhibition he left for a tour of European museums and art centers, to return six months later with a broader comprehension of the field of art, but uninfluenced by any school or "ism;" he returned just as truly a product of Western America as he left it." Dalzell Hatfield, Millard Sheets, pp. 2-3.
While in Europe, Sheets was most impressed with the work of the early Italian Renaissance painters in Florence, J. M. W. Turner's watercolors in London, an exhibition of Winslow Homer's watercolors in New York and Thomas Hart Benton's "America Today" murals at the New School for Social Research in New York. Mary MacNaughton, Art at Scripps: The Early Years, p. 7.
In October 1930, Art Digest announced that Sheets was the only West Coast artist accepted into the Carnegie International, the largest and most prestigious of the annual exhibitions of oil painting in the United States. Although he had exhibited his watercolors in eastern exhibitions the year before, this was the first time that Sheets gained national recognition and articles on his achievements soon began to appear in Art Digest. It was in this same year that Benton, Curry and Wood also began to receive national recognition.
27. Mary Davis McNaughton addresses Sheets' role as a Southern California Regionalist in Art at Scripps: The Early Years, pp. 5 -10.
28. Interview with Millard Sheets, 17 January 1988.
29. Interview with Al Stendahl, 17 March 1988.
30. Jacob Israel Zeitlin, "Books and the Imagination: Fifty Years of Rare Books," transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted by Joel Gardner, University of California, Los Angeles, Oral History Program, 1980.
31. Interview with Lee Blair, 27 December 1987.
32. Generally speaking, the work of the artists developed greater looseness and gestural quality over the decade and reflected their growing interest in action or movement.
33. In many ways, the use of watercolor technique as it is sometimes seen in the work of Dike and some of the other artists of the California school, looks ahead to the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Barse Miller, whose work grew increasingly freer as the decade advanced, was an artist who moved easily into the gestural abstraction of the 1940s.
34. Milford Zornes and Rex Brandt mentioned this in interviews. In a 1941 Life magazine article featuring the work of the "California school" a number of the works reproduced were oil paintings. Many of the artists received their recognition in watercolor but continued to work and exhibit in oil and did not personally identify themselves as "watercolorists". Critics did not draw a sharp distinction either, so that the identity of the California school as a specifically watercolor phenomenon sometimes becomes blurred.
35. Edward Alden Jewell, "206 Water-Colors of West Exhibited," New York Times, 5 March 1940, p. 21.; When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought nine of the watercolors out of the exhibition, a furor arose, mostly caused by critic Emily Genauer who called the purchase inconsequential, even though she had favorably reviewed the exhibition. (She had also been disapproving of previous museum purchases.) Most of the reviews were favorable, however, and the exhibition proved "once and for all" the importance of the California school. Edward Alden Jewell, "Watercolors," The New York Times, 10 March, 1940. Emily Genauer, "Western Watercolors Praised in New York," Art Digest 14 (March 1940): p. 7, 26; "Met Recognizes California Watercolorists," Art Digest 14 (September 1940); "Questioning the Met," Art Digest 14 (September 1940).
36. When Sheets went to teach at Scripps College in 1932, he encountered Hartley Burr Alexander, a philosopher interested in ancient, primitive and Oriental art, and came under his influence. Craig and Zornes were enrolled in Sheets' first year of classes at the college. Shore at Casmalia also shows the influence of Russell Flint, the English watercolorist whose work was shown regularly at Zeitlin's Bookshop.
37. Beer for Prosperity was painted 11 years before Hopper's oil painting, Nighthawks, 1944. Janet Dominik first pointed out this fact to me.
38. Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), p. 46.
39. New Deal Art: California, exh. cat. (Santa Clara: University of Santa Clara, 1976), pp. 85-107.
40. Arthur Millier, Los Angeles Times, 11 March 1934.
41. Interview with Milford Zornes, 15 March 1988.
42. Merle Armitage, "The Public Works of Art Projects," California Art and Architecture (February 1934), p. 20.
43. David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton, L.A. in the Thirties (Los Angeles: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1975), p. 29.
44. Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 99-101 San Francisco Chronicle, 24 December 1933.
45. "Disney's Dike," Time, March 1941, p. 61.
46. American Artist 11 (March 1947), p. 38.
47. Philip Beard and Chris Mullen, Fortune's America: The Visual Achievements of Fortune Magazine, 1930-7965, exh. cat. (England: University of East Anglia Library, 1985), pp. 1-20.
48. John Haley and Erle Loran were the originators of the Berkeley school of painting that arose in the 1930s and 1940s. They were professors at the University of California, Berkeley, and students of Hans Hofmann. The watercolors that these artists produced exhibited a style (coined as "the Berkeley school" by critic Alfred Frankenstein in the 1930s) that was far more modernist than those of Southern California artists. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), p. 9.
49. Arthur Millier, "Dan Lutz Shows Art of National Stature," Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1938.
50. Interview with Mrs. Brigitta Beetz Bock, 16 January 1988.
51. Ben Messick, exh. cat. (Redlands: Eclectic Framer and Gallery, 1987), p. 2.
52. Interviews with Millard Sheets, 17 January 1988; and Lee Blair, 27 December 1987.
53. In the fresco technique wet pigment is quickly applied to a wet plaster surface, with one section at a time being completed before the surface can dry, as no changes can be made to the surface of a mural once it has dried. This is very similar to the wet-into-wet watercolor technique, in which artists of the California school excelled. Here, the watercolor medium is applied onto a sheet of paper which has been dampened. (Siqueiros was also using an airbrush to complete the murals and was not using strictly traditional techniques such as were described here.)
54. Shifra M. Goldman, "Siqueiros and Three Early Murals in Los Angeles," Art Journal 33, Summer 1974, p. 323; Lester H. Cooke, Jr., Fletcher Martin (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977), p. 22.
55. Telephone interview with Lee Blair.
56. Rex Brandt, like some of the other artists, mentioned in an interview the influence of Burchfield.
57. California Arts and Architecture 57 (November 1940): p. 6.
58. "1 Wonder Where We Can Co Now," Fortune, April 1939, p. 90.
59. Peyton Boswell, "Fletcher Martin Paints the War in Africa," Art Digest 18 (January 1 944).
60. Peyton Boswell, "Life Goes On," Art Digest 17 (September 1943).
61. "Defense Paintings: Life Recruits Major Artists," Life; May 1941.
62. "United States Sends Artists to War Front," Art Digest 17 (May 1943): p. 13.
63. Ernest W. Watson, "Barse Miller: Painter at the Crossroads," American Artist 10 (June 1946): p. 20.
64. Art Digest 20 (October 1945).
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