Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 28 ,2001with permission of Pomona College. The essay was included in the 1987 exhibition catalogue Art at Scripps: The Early Years as the Introduction essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the please contact Pomona College.directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Introduction to Art at Scripps: The Early Years

by Mary MacNaughton

 

American Regionalist art, like the Depression it depicted, was all but forgotten during the nineteen fifties and sixties when postwar prosperity made hard times seem a distant memory. But beginning in the early seventies, when the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the deepening recession caused the American dream of better days to fade, there was renewed interest in the Depression era and the Regionalist movement. The history of Regionalism has been affected not only by economic but also by aesthetic changes. During the fifties Abstract Expressionism, with its roots in European modernism, eclipsed Regionalism, which seemed provincial in the new international art climate. Now, however, the resurgence of realist and figurative styles in the seventies and eighties has encouraged a re-examination of Regionalism as an important part of the continuing tradition of realism in American art.[1] This re-examination has included a reappraisal of the most familiar Midwestern Regionalists as well as a new focus on the branches of Regionalism that developed in other parts of the country, such as Southern California.[2]

Although much American art of the teens and twenties was influenced by European modernism, introduced to American artists through the 1913 Armory Show, the art of the Depression was dominated by two realist styles -- Social Realism and Regionalism. Both began in the late twenties and came to fruition in the mid-thirties as reactions against modernism. During this time many artists became disillusioned with the esoteric content and abstract styles of modernism, which seemed irresponsible and irrelevant in the aftermath of World War I. They rejected modernism in an effort to create an art of social content that was genuinely American. What emerged were two different responses -- Social Realism and Regionalism, both of which reflected life during the depths of the Depression, though from different political perspectives. Identifying with the proletariat, Social Realism exposed the hardships of urban living and criticized the economic inequalities in American society. Identifying with Middle America, Regionalism celebrated the simplicity of rural life and found refuge from suffering in the beauty of the land. Although these movements reacted to the Depression differently, both focused on regional subjects. They were, thus, the antithesis of modernism which, during the twenties, had become identified with internationalism.

Both Social Realism and Regionalism asserted that art should be democratic rather than elitist in expression, and the artists of these movements employed realist styles that were easily accessible. Both movements believed that art should be socially responsible and that artists should educate the public. Consequently, during the thirties each group embraced Mexican mural painting, an example of a realistic art, untainted by European modernism, that communicated with the mass public. Whereas Social Realism adopted the anti-capitalist political stance of Mexican mural painting, Regionalism ignored its political content and adopted only its large scale and stylized realism. Unlike the Social Realists, the Regionalists thought art should not concern itself with social and economic problems. They felt the artist's role was not to alter society but to accept it and to represent faithfully the traditions of a region in images unencumbered by reformist political ideology.[3]

Of these two movements, Regionalism won wider support with the American public, which had been caught up in the tide of nationalism that swept the country during the thirties. Responding to the isolationist mood of the nation during the Depression, Regionalism took the American scene as its subject and focused on rural instead of urban America, which had become identified with the negative aspects of modernism and progress. America's return to the agrarian ideal was an attempt to find stability during turbulent times by identifying with a simpler past.

Regionalism had a strong appeal in Southern California which was in the early twentieth century a "regional society."[4] In 1900, when the Metropolitan Museum in New York was twenty years old, the art scene in Los Angeles was dominated by women's art clubs. In 1910 the Museum of History, Science and Art was founded in Exposition Park in Los Angeles, but the art galleries were not opened until 1913, because there was so little art to display. The Museum finally gained a permanent art collection when, from 1918-25, William Preston Harrison and his wife donated twenty-four late nineteenth-century American paintings, representing the movements of American Impressionism and the Eight, also known as the Ash Can School.[5]

During the twenties European modernism made a few inroads into Los Angeles. In 1926 the Museum presented an exhibition of Jawlensky, Klee, Kandinsky and Feininger, organized by the collector Galka Scheyer who oiled them "the Blue Four."[6] A year later the Museum mounted a show of works by the American Modernists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, who had earlier founded the movement Synchromism. In 1928 Walter and Louise Arensberg, who had moved to Los Angeles in 1921 with their collection of avant-garde art, lent Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2, to Pomona College for its first exhibition since the Armory Show.[7]

The public, however, was not sympathetic to modernism; it preferred an impressionist style of landscape painting developed at the turn of the century by local artists Frank Tolles Chamberlin, Clarence Hinkle, Joseph Kleitsch, Elmer and Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose, and William Wendt. In 1928, Merle Armitage, the music and art critic of the West Coaster, referred to amateur artists, who painted the arroyos and beaches of Southern California in pastel hues, as the "Eucalyptus School," a label that came to be applied as well to these California Impressionists.[8]

Regionalism emerged in Southern California in the late twenties with its roots in both the Eucalyptus School and the early twentieth-century American realist movement, led by artists known as The Eight. The Southern California Regionalists developed within the context of the California Water Color Society, which had been formed in 1921 by a group of predominantly conservative landscape painters. Around 1927 a new group, including Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Phil Paradise, Lee Blair and Hardie Gramatky, joined the Society.[9] Like their predecessors, these artists adopted the Impressionist plein-air method, painting the beaches, mountains and deserts surrounding Los Angeles. But whereas the Eucalyptus School had painted deserted vistas, this new group depicted lively landscapes of people at work in farms and small towns. For this new realism many artists looked to the paintings of Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Bellows, which were shown at that time in the Preston Harrison Collection at the Los Angeles Museum. Like the Eucalyptus School, these new painters employed the Impressionist style of broken brushstrokes. Inspired by The Eight, they imbued their landscapes with a fresh, spontaneous realism. Yet this new group of painters set themselves apart from both The Eucalyptus School and the Eight in the transparency and clarity of light in their watercolors. When their works were exhibited in the East, they won national attention as a regional mode of watercolor painting that later became known as "the California Style."[10] During the thirties, some of these artists depicted urban factories and train yards, but most concentrated on rural subjects. Their celebration of the beauty of Southern California's beaches and farmlands identifies them with the national Regionalist movement of the thirties, also known as American Scene painting, which reflected a nostalgia for a pastoral way of life that was quickly passing out of existence,

The leading proponent of Southern California Regionalism was Millard Sheets. As early as 1930 Sheets' work received national recognition; critic Merle Armitage, writing in The Art Digest, said of Sheets: "Here is a man who can paint Southern California without banality and sentimentality, who gives you the strength and brilliance which the landscape of Southern California really has."[11] And critic Arthur Millier, said in The Los Angeles Times, "At 22, Sheets is an unparalleled phenomenon in the art world of Southern California... He paints in oils, is a consummate watercolorist, etches, makes lithographs, does... murals, and is in demand as an architectural renderer... a host of youthful artists and students look to him as their ideal and example... "[12]

During this period Sheets formed his ideas as a Regionalist. On a trip to Europe in 1930 he confirmed his view that art should be a public rather than a private expression, and his taste inclined toward representational over abstract art. Although he came into contact with Cubism and German Expressionism, what he admired were the paintings of the Early Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Baroque masters. In New York, where he stopped on both ends of his trip, he was impressed by the nineteenth-century American realist paintings of Winslow Homer and and the new Regionalist works of Thomas Hart Benton. Like Benton, Sheets was interested in painting the rural world he knew in a style that the public could understand. During this time Sheets also developed the belief that the artist has a social responsibility to educate the public This idea had been expressed in the twenties by the art critic Merle Armitage (who in 1935 wrote a book on Sheets) in an essay entitled "The Aristocracy of the Arts." In this essay Armitage said that artists belonged to an aristocracy whose calling was to service.[13]

In the next twenty years Sheets put his Regionalist beliefs into action as an artist, arts administrator, and educator, displaying a combination of ambition and energy that was formidable. During the thirties he exhibited his sumptuous landscapes celebrating the idyllic beauty of Southern California in exhibitions throughout the East and Midwest. In 1934 he served as a Regional Director of the Federal Art Project in Southern California, organizing artists to produce paintings, sculpture and crafts as part of a national artists' relief program during the Depression. At the same time he developed a career as an educator. After teaching in the late twenties at Chouinard in Los Angeles, he moved to Claremont in 1932. This move was, in effect, coming home for Sheets, who had grown up in the rural Pomona Valley. The Depression was a .compelling reason for him to take a steady job but Scripps was attractive to Sheets for other reasons. Encouraged by his high school art teachers, he had chosen Chouinard over Pomona; so his faculty appointment was a way to return to the academic environment he had missed in art school. At Scripps he built an art department and fostered the development of an arts community in Claremont.

Claremont was one of several arts communities that flourished during the Depression when Regionalism shifted attention from America's cities to its outlying towns. The eastern artists' colonies, such as Provincetown, Gloucester, and Woodstock, which had emerged at the turn of the century, were revitalized during this period. In California the artistic community in Laguna Beach, which had formed in the teens by artists in the Eucalyptus School, expanded in the thirties. But Claremont did not emerge as an art center until the thirties when Sheets arrived. David W. Scott, Director of the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington D,C. from 1964-69, who studied under Sheets at Scripps in 1933 and later returned to teach art history and head the art department, said of this period:

There was an explosion of art activity in Claremont during the thirties, forties and early fifties which had a great impact throughout Southern California and, in addition, some significant effects nationally. Two forces, in particular, set this in motion: first, the liberal, humanistic philosophy which brought a unique spirit to Scripps at its founding and was embodied particularly in the creative enthusiasms of Professor Hartley Burr Alexander, who influenced the young Millard Sheets; secondly, Millard himself, amazingly dynamic, enthusiastic, gifted and versatile.[14]
 

Soon after his arrival at Scripps in 1932, Millard, who was only twenty-five years old and the only art instructor, began to build the art department. Feeling cramped in small studios upstairs in the administration building, Balch Hall, he set about creating larger facilities. His first idea was to build a barn with $3,800 President Jaqua had in discretionary funds. But as Sheets recalled, "President Jaqua said I'd be making a mistake because a temporary barn would become a permanent building."[15] Instead, he followed Jaqua's suggestion to organize a foundation to support the fine arts at Scripps. In 1935 Sheets - -along with founding members Irene Gerlinger, a friend of Jaqua, Virginia Judy Esterly, Jaqua's assistant, and Josephine Everett, an art collector -- held the first meeting of the Fine Arts Foundation. At the second meeting Sheets' plea for a new art building attracted the attention of Florence Rand Lang, who pledged her support. The next day she sent Sheets a certified check for $38,000 as the first installment of funds for an arts complex of studios and galleries, which was built in three stages between 1937-39. [16]

Sheets attracted a faculty to Scripps that made Claremont into a lively arts center. In 1935 he brought William Manker, a successful potter, to set up a ceramics department at Scripps. During the war years, architecture was.taught by Charles Brooks and Whitney Smith; after the war, they were succeeded by Ted Criley. In 1939, Albert Stewart, a prominent sculptor from New York, joined the faculty in sculpture. In 1940 Jean Goodwin Ames, an accomplished muralist, began teaching design. In 1943 Sheets added Henry Lee McFee in painting and, in 1948, Richard Petterson in ceramics. Sheets also set up a program in weaving, taught first by Mary Easton Gleason, then by Marion Stewart. In 1950 Phil Dike, another leading Southern California Regionalist painter, joined the faculty in painting. Sheets also attracted other Regionalist painters, such as Rex Brandt and Phil Paradise, as visiting artists. In addition he brought in other artists, such as James Chapin and Sueo Serisawa, for short-term appointments. During this time there were also the talented typographers and book designers Ruth Thomson Saunders, Ward Ritchie, and Joe Foster, who were not on the art faculty but who contributed to the arts at Scripps.

Inspired by Sheets, whose enthusiasm for art seemed boundless, the Scripps faculty became involved in the development of art both at the college and in the community. Sheets and Stewart not only taught studio courses but lectured on the history of art in Humanities, the core course of the Scripps curriculum. In Claremont the Scripps art faculty organized arts festivals and participated in projects for the performing arts. Sheets helped design the Padua Hills Theater complex and, in 1946, Stewart made a large terra-cotta sculpture, Indian Woman, for its courtyard. The Padua Hills Theater was the setting for the Mexican Players, who introduced the public to Mexican folk theater in performances throughout the thirties and forties. The Mexican cultural influence had already been established in Claremont in 1930 when the famous Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco painted the mural, Prometheus, in Frary Hall at Pomona College. The Mexican influence was reasserted in 1946 when Sheets invited the prominent Mexican painter, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, to paint a large-scale mural, The Flower Vendors in Margaret Fowler Garden at Scripps. Tragically, Martinez died before completing the mural, but he left behind an important monument to the Mexican cultural heritage of Southern California.

Sheets expanded the awareness of art not only among college students but also the general public. From 1931 to 1956 (with a break during World War II), he organized major art exhibitions for the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, which each year introduced thousands of Southern Californians, many of whom had little exposure to art, to the works of some of the finest artists and craftsmen in Southern California. As Director of the Art Section of the Fair, Sheets also organized national juried exhibitions of contemporary art as well as major exhibitions of Old Master, Impressionist and modern paintings from prominent Eastern museums and galleries.[17] Roland Reiss, artist and Director of the Art Department of the Claremont Graduate School, recalls that these exhibitions had an important influence upon his decision to become an artist.[18]

Sheets and the Scripps faculty shared the Regionalist belief in art's public role and participated in projects that brought art to the people of Southern California. They formed this attitude during the Depression, when several had worked in the W.P.A., creating decorative art for public buildings. Some of the artists at Scripps were active in the Southern California Project; Millard Sheets served as one of its regional directors, and Jean Goodwin Ames, along with her husband Arthur, made murals for schools in Newport Beach and San Diego. Before moving to California in 1939, Albert Stewart had created several important sculptural commissions for public buildings in New York and Washington, D.C. For the next thirty years these artists continued to create public art, occasionally collaborating with Sheets on architectural commissions. Their architectural decorations can be seen on many churches and public buildings throughout California and the West.

Because of Sheets' interest in architectural decoration, Scripps became, as David W. Scott has noted, "a training ground for students engaged in mural work, mosaics, architectural ceramics, and architectural sculpture generally."[19] Foremost among these were Susan Lautman Hertel, who had been a Scripps student, and Dennis O'Connor. Both were Sheets' assistants for many years at Millard Sheets Designs, Inc, his studio/atelier on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont. There they worked on major commissions with Sheets and architects, translating decorative designs in to monumental mosaics and murals.

After World War II, Scripps attracted a dynamic group of talented young graduate students, including Karl Benjamin, Paul Darrow, Roger Kuntz, Douglas McClellan, Harrison McIntosh, and James Strombotne, many of whom studied on the G.I. Bill. Though he did not have a degree, Jack Zajac, who later won the Prix de Rome in sculpture, was allowed to work at Scripps as a special student because Sheets believed in his talent. After these artists completed graduate school, many stayed in Claremont and gave new life to the arts community begun by the early Scripps faculty. This process continues today as young artists leave the graduate school to settle in Claremont.

Because the early art faculty at Scripps valued artistic expression in many different media, the crafts have traditionally been important at Scripps. The ceramics department, begun by William Manker and expanded by Richard Petterson, was brought to national status under the direction of Paul Soldner. Not surprisingly, Claremont has become the home for many prominent ceramicists including Soldner, Harrison McIntosh, Rupert Deese, and others. Sam Maloof, master craftsman of wood furniture, who as a young man worked with Millard Sheets, also lives near Claremont.

The Scripps philosophy of valuing the crafts has had a national influence, thanks to David W. Scott who, after teaching studio and art history at Scripps, joined the staff of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. As Scott says,:

It was the Scripps inspired regard for all creative design (and the aesthetic association with colleagues like Sheets, Stewart, Ames and Petterson) which led me to propose, when I went to the Smithsonian, the programs which led to the establishment of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and the Renwick Gallery as institutions dedicated to all the design arts. These might be considered the national fruits from seeds first planted at Scripps in the thirties.[20]

To many, the era of the thirties through the fifties seems increasingly remote. Yet it was during this period that the early Scripps faculty made Claremont into a regional arts center whose artistic vitality is still felt today. It is the vision of these artists that we honor and recall in this exhibition.

 

Notes:

1. For the revival of Regionalism, see Matthew Baigell, "The Beginnings of 'The American Wave' and the Depression." Art Journal XXVII (1968), pp. 387-96, 398; Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974); and Donald B. Kuspit, "Regionalism Reconsidered," Art in America, LXIV 4 (1976), pp. 64-69.

2. For a reexamination of Midwestern Regionalists see Matthew Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973); James Dennis, Grant Wood (New York: Viking Press, 1975); and Lawrence Alloway, "The Recovery of Regionalism: John Steuart Curry," Art in America, LXIV, 4 (1976), pp. 70-73. For Southern California Regionalists, see Gordon T. McClelland and Jay Last, The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955 (Beverly Hills, Ca.: Hillcrest Press, Inc) and Janet B. Dominik, "California School" From the Private Collection of E. Gene Crain, exh. cat. (Gualala Arts Center, Gualala, Ca., 1986).

3 Writer Allan Tate believed that the Regionalist should present "an honest inner response to an inherited environment that he regards traditionally, accepting it for what it is." Allan Tate, "Regionalism and Sectionalism," New Republic 69 (21 December 1931), pp. 158-60, cited in James Dennis, "Art Theory for Rural Regionalism," in Grant Wood, p. 193.

4. Kevin Starr uses the term "regional society" to describe the socio-political and cultural climate of California from 1900-1930 in Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), vii.

5. Winifred Haines Higgins, "Art Collecting in the Los Angeles Area 1910-1960," Dissertation, UCLA, 1963, p. 14.

6. Ibid., pp. 188-190.

7. This 1928 exhibition, presented in Rembrandt Hall at Pomona College, was arranged by Joseph Pijoan, Adjunct Professor of Spanish Civilization at Pomona, who had been introduced to the Arensbergs by writer Paul Jordan Smith. For a discussion of this exhibition, see Naomi Sawelson Gorse, "'For the want of a nail': The Disposition of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection," Master of Arts Thesis, University of California, Riverside, 1987, p. 245. This exhaustively researched thesis presents a detailed history of the Arensbergs' unsuccessful attempts to settle their collection in Southern California.

8. Merle Armitage, "Review," West Coaster, 1 September 1928, quoted in Nancy Dustin Moure, "Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California," in Ruth Lilly Westphal, Plein-Air Painters of California: The Southland (Irvine, Ca.: Westphal Publishing, 1982), pp. 11-12. Janet B. Dominik notes that "the Eucalyptus School" is an inaccurate term for serious California Impressionists in Early Artists in Laguna Bench: The Impressionists, exh. cat. (Laguna Beach, CA: Laguna Art Museum, 1986), p. 27.

9. Nancy Dustin Moure, The California Water Color Society (Los Angeles: Privately Printed, 1975), p. 2.

10. For a history of this style of painting, see Janet B. Dominik, "The California School," pp. 8-17.

11. Merle Armitage in Record, Los Angeles, n.d., quoted in "Millard Sheets, 23 Is Art Phenomenon," Art Digest (Mid-October, 1930), p. 7.

12. Ibid.

13. This article by Merle Armitage was mentioned by Kevin Starr in a lecture, "Small Renaissance, Southern California Style: The Los Angeles of Jake Zeitlin," at Claremont McKenna College, 15 October 1987.

14. Latter to the author from David W. Scott, 21 June 1987.

15. Mary Marvin, "First Ladies of Art: Fine Arts Foundation," Scripps College Bulletin (Fall 1987), p. 15.

16. Ibid.

17. For example, in 1953 Sheets presented Painting in the U.S.A., 1721-1953, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Fair, 1953), with an introduction by Arthur Millier, art critic for The Los Angeles Times. This exhibition displayed 151 paintings, some of which were loaned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Wildenstein & Co., New York.

18. Interview with Roland Reiss, 20 October, 1987.

19 Latter to the author from David W. Scott, 21 June 1987.

20. Ibid.

About the author:

Since 1985 Mary MacNaughton has been the Director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery and Professor of Art History at Scripps College. In 1991 she received an National Endowment for the Arts Museum Professional Grants, and in 2000 a Getty Curatorial Fellowship to support writing a monograph entitled States of Mind: The Art of Adolph Gottlieb. She has also written exhibition catalogues: In the Mind's Sky: Intersections of Art and Science (2000), Alison and Lezley Saar (2000), Ceramic Annual 2000 (2000), Susan Hertel: A Retrospective (1997), Body Mind, and Spirit (1995), Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics (1994), and Paul Soldner: A Retrospective (1991). In the joint art history program of Scripps and Pomona Colleges, Professor MacNaughton teaches courses in 20th- century European and American art. She is also President of the Theta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Scripps, and President of ArtTable, a national organization of women in the visual arts. Each year she trains four undergraduate student interns as part of the Williamson Gallery's intern program. Three internships are supported by the Getty Grant Program and one by Michael and Jane Wilson. MacNaughton earned a B.A. in Art History at Scripps College and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia University.

(The author's biographical information is as of August, 2001)

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