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Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California

January 16 - April 25, 2004


The Orange County Museum of Art and the Automobile Club of Southern California present Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California, an exhibition exploring the representation of California cities and suburbs in 20th Century art.

The exhibit focuses on the architecture, roads, railways, and bridges that mark the state's landscape and on how artists have chronicled the distinctive evolution of its metropolises. The exhibition addresses architecture and infrastructure as a reflection of American aspirations of freedom and modernity, community, and civic pride.

On view from January 15 through April 25, 2004, Cities of Promise: Imaging Urban California includes approximately 30 works drawn from the museum's permanent collection, the Auto Club Corporate Art Collection, and private collections. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue containing essays written by Sarah Vure, exhibition curator and OCMA curator of collections, and architectural historian Robert Bruegmann, professor, University of Illinois, Chicago. The exhibition was organized by the Orange County Museum of Art in cooperation with the Automobile Club of Southern California

"Most of the paintings in the Westways cover-art collection depict scenes in various California locales in the mid-20th century, a time of enormous landscape transformation," said Matthew Roth, the Auto Club's Corporate Historian. "The exhibit includes Westways paintings depicting recreational landscapes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange County during the great wave urbanization. We're also excited to team up with the Orange County Museum of Art, one of the premier visual arts institutions in our region, on this particular exhibition."

Stimulated by wide-reaching social and technological change, California artists have incorporated the symbols and techniques of popular culture into images that convey the essence of local urban design. Employing a range of stylistic approaches, they have depicted quintessential city scenes-from the towering Los Angeles City Hall and the massive San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge to rows of ranch houses and miles of serpentine freeways. As the selected artworks juxtapose commercial and residential buildings, industrial and leisure activities, and public and private realms, California's urban experience is seen from diverse historical, geographical, and aesthetic perspectives.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the United States was transformed from a rural to an urban nation. California cities in particular experienced tremendous material progress and extraordinary population growth. Building booms in San Francisco and Los Angeles commenced at a rapid pace. Commercial and residential development coincided with the expansion of streetcar lines and highways. After World War II Californians pursued personal freedom through home and car ownership. As new suburban communities spread across vast areas of available open space, auto mobility exerted a profound influence on the design of neighborhoods and individual buildings, as evidenced by the proliferation of tract houses, strip malls, and drive-in theaters.

The first half of the exhibition focuses on a generation of California artists who turned their attention to the developing metropolis from the 1930s to the 1950s. Unlike their predecessors who remained devoted to nature's beauty by continuing the plein air landscape tradition, California Regionalists - including Phil Dike, John Haley, Emil Kosa Jr., Maurice Logan, and Millard Sheets - used watercolor in dramatic ways to capture the energy and excitement of the city. In images that embodied the democratic and popular ideals of the time, these artists participated in a nationwide movement to create a truly American art by vividly depicting local life. During the Depression era and beyond, many of these watercolorists turned to popular magazines such as Westways as outlets for their creative work.

The second half of the exhibition looks at the urban and suburban scene in representational paintings from the 1960s to the present. Pluralism and stylistic diversity characterize these works of the post-World War II era. Classic California views by artists such as Carlos Almarez, Robert Bechtle, Larry Cohen, Roger Kuntz, Edward Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud focus on the automobile and freeways as much as on the skyscraper and the private home. Drawn to the man-made milieu, each of these artists explored a spatially defined sense of place. Across the visual and emotional spectrum from hard edge to painterly, impersonal to passionate, a vital immediacy defines both the compact and sprawling aspects of contemporary California cities.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Orange County Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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