A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953

 

The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles

Essay by Julia Armstrong-Totten

 

In 1910 the Los Angeles Times art critic Antony Anderson wrote that "The Art Students League of Los Angeles, from the very day of its inception, has always stood for unacademic modernity in art instructions."[1] In 1929 his successor, Arthur Millier, described the school as a "potent underground force in California painting."[2] Both critics were undoubtedly biased towards the League: the former was the school's cofounder and the latter attended on two different occasions as a student. Nonetheless, their comments demonstrate that they thought it was someplace special. In fact, the League left behind a fascinating legacy, particularly in Southern California, that scholars have only briefly acknowledged.[3] This is partly because most of the official records have disappeared, so it has become a difficult topic to study.[4] However, the League has no doubt been ignored for decades because of the ongoing attitude that nothing artistically interesting or significant existed in pre-war Los Angeles,[5] an opinion that surfaced numerous times when I was researching this project. One instance involving a League member occurred when, in early 1971, the Los Angeles Times writer Art Seidenbaum casually alluded to the time "when Los Angeles was a cultural desert" in a column which so incensed Arthur Millier, who was retired from the newspaper by this time, that he wrote and re-wrote four incomplete rebuttals in his private journal from that year.[6] Millier's palpable anger and frustration at Seidenbaum's ignorance reached a crescendo when he stated:

The nearest I can come to grasping what is meant by this "cultural desert" canard is that at some time B.S. (Before Smog), one did not trip over PhDs or even MAs when one poked his head out of his uncultured bungalow...I hold that the reverse of the silly phrase is true; i.e. the whole area was jumping with culture until about 1940. Then, pushed by war and war industry, it began the long downhill slide to its present state.[7]

Leslie Baird, another League member, mourned the changes in Los Angeles as well, when he wrote, "It's too bad that the old Art Students League scattered so early. But those were the days before the great expansion of Los Angeles. That has ruined the town for so many people, including myself.[8] Clearly these two thought more highly of the so-called "cultural desert" life in Los Angeles than the later more "civilized" life filled with traffic, pollution, and overpopulation, as described by Millier in one of his essays.

A few years later, similar misconceptions about the early Los Angeles art scene would appear -- and unfortunately reach a much wider audience -- in Sunshine Muse, Peter Plagens' 1974 groundbreaking study on then-contemporary West Coast art. Plagens, himself an artist as well as an art critic, began his chapter on Los Angeles by making the sweeping statement "Pre-war Southern California produced little important art,"[9] an outlook that undoubtedly helped to perpetuate the "cultural desert" myth. While issues of provincialism in the work produced locally have been addressed elsewhere,[10] perhaps a more enlightened approach by Plagens and those who have adopted a similar opinion might be to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of what was created in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, as it represented a certain place and time in history.

Plagens further claimed the main problem facing the earlier artists was that the widespread city's lack of a centralized art center hindered the possibility of a significant movement developing at the time. He rightly observed that without a center, "Artists' out-of-studio debates, dealing, informal teaching, clique-forming do not take place."[11] However, the need for such a place in the city was addressed as early as 1906, when eleven local artists formed the Painters' Club. This group, which included the two founders of the Art Students League, Hanson Puthuff and Antony Anderson, recognized that "such an organization...had long been needed in our midst. Many artists of the town are utter strangers to one another, though they may have sent pictures to the same exhibitions and lived across the street from one another for years."[12] Plagens failed to even discuss this club, which in 1909 would become the formidable California Art Club, arguably the most powerful art organization in pre-war Los Angeles. But it was the Art Students League that ultimately became the type of center that Plagens hints at,[13] at least according to artist Herman Cherry, who attended the League between 1926 and 1932 before establishing himself on the East Coast. In fact, as early as 1956, in a magazine article he wrote after revisiting Los Angeles, Cherry contradicted many of the points Plagens later raised about the pre-war art scene. Cherry pointed out that "Somewhat like the New York 'artists' club,' [the League] attracted people from the allied arts, writers, singers, actors, composers and others who had something interesting to contribute."[14]

Fortunately, Plagens' opinion that nothing significant was produced by the earlier local artists would eventually be challenged, notably in 1990 by Paul Karlstrom in the exhibition catalog Turning the Tide, which enthusiastically presented the work of several early modern artists active between 1920 and 1956. Karlstrom cautions against such a narrow point of view and instead demonstrates that at the time under debate, Los Angeles was a vibrant place, with a progressively developing artistic community, despite being so spread out.[15] Disappointingly, neither author (nor numerous others, for that matter) ever acknowledged the existence of the Art Students League or recognized that it functioned for many years as the type of artistic center supposedly lacking in the city.

Returning for a moment to the issue of isolation, one might consider it a problem still facing Los Angeles artists today. Both Karlstrom and more recently cultural historian Bram Dijkstra have suggested that many of those active earlier in Los Angeles actually preferred to work alone, because it gave them a sense of personal freedom in their work not available in a more artistically structured location like New York, and so for them the logistical challenges were part of the attraction of the area.[16] League member Nicholas Brigante verifies this idea in a letter written to Carl Sprinchorn in 1947. After venturing out to view an exhibition of Marsden Hartley's paintings, Brigante wrote:

We scarcely budge from our perch up here, and I've always been rather disdainful of going to exhibits and meeting people -- and I guess I'll suffer in the long run as a consequence of placing myself on my little ivory pedestal -- and then again it's hard for me to meet people and it [sic] so easy to remain be-fogged and isolated and keep out of the swim.[17]

In spite of the testimony of Brigante and others who preferred to be so independent, there was a flourishing artistic milieu in pre-war Los Angeles. Since some of the League artists mention that it was quite easy to get downtown and elsewhere in the area by the red car, we can assume that distance was not always the issue for them. Therefore, personal motivation and not a lack of cultural offerings must be considered a primary factor; evidence of what the area had to offer at the time may today be found in a variety of sources.[18] The diaries of Mabel Alvarez, for instance, give a firsthand account of the life of a Los Angeles artist and confirm that there was a thriving local art community.[19] Her entries demonstrate that she was a very active individual who frequently attended lectures on art, gallery and museum openings, and dinner parties with her fellow artists throughout the period in question. The Art Students League was a destination often mentioned in the diaries, as Alvarez attended for well over a decade, though it should be emphasized that the League was not the solo outlet for its members. Many of them, including Mabel Alvarez, were involved with numerous organizations -- in her case, ranging from the conservative California Art Club to the more progressive Modern Art Workers.[20] But one of the most intriguing places where artists met, studied, worked, debated, and partied for forty-seven years was the Los Angeles Art Students League. Because many of the area's early modern artists participated in the League as either student, member, or teacher, the school became a mecca, through its exhibitions, social events, and lectures, for those interested in progressive thinking. Even more importantly, it was the center of a previously unrecognized artistic movement that thrived for over twenty years, something unusual in American art of the period. Both stylistic and intellectual influences stemming from the school turn up in artworks produced in the 1930s for the Federal Arts Project as well as the budding movie industry in Southern California.

In 1923 British artist Desmond Rushton (b. 1895) made the following observation when he visited the League at its location at 115-_ North Main Street: "What a unique place for art students...The co-operation and the spirit of friendly comaraderie [sic] was refreshing...This was a revelation of what an art school should be."[21] The congenial atmosphere that Rushton responded to in such glowing terms was probably one of the greatest influences on those who attended, although today it is perhaps the most difficult aspect to understand and explain. However, surviving League artists and those who have passed on have made it clear that the friendships formed at the school and the experiences shared there were special and created bonds between many of them that lasted a lifetime. For example, about a decade after Nicholas Brigante stopped regularly attending the League, he affectionately recalled some colleagues at the school in his autobiography by "acknowledging a debt of gratitude and love to the...men who have assisted and influenced me most in my art career."[22] More recently, ninety-one-year-old Kirby Temple, who as a young man started attending the life drawing classes at the League in 1927, reminisced, "such good and lasting friendships...!I love to remember those true human beings. No group in the 'World' can compare. Such an influence on my teenage years! I was in the presence of thinkers!"[23]

When Stanton Macdonald-Wright took over the Art Students League in the spring of 1923, a small brochure was printed to advertise his new role as director.[24] The opening paragraph described the seventeen-year-old institution as a "non profit cooperative organization of artists and art students."[25] Macdonald-Wright immediately began implementing some important changes, such as charging monthly fees and offering regular classes and monthly lectures to the students, which helped re-establish the place as a school again. Although the League was originally intended to be a formally structured school offering evening and Saturday classes for those who worked and therefore could not attend regular art classes,[26] after the departure of the charismatic Rex Slinkard in 1913 it had gradually become more of a loosely organized weekly sketching group. Over the next ten years it survived only because of financial assistance from two of its devotees: Val Costello, who watched over the school as a guardian angel his entire adult life, and Nicholas Brigante, who became its most vocal historian. The latter nostalgically created a number of images of the Main Street studio, which culminated in his partially abstract Memories oil painting of 1950 (Memories of My Art Students League Years - 1913-1923, fig. 1).

Under Macdonald-Wright's direction the League developed into a sort of graduate school for the students, a place to refine their drawing skills and their appreciation of color. However, one consistent idea found throughout its history, despite changes in the structure of the organization and the style of leadership, was the importance of the friendships formed among those who attended.

It is known from a 1907 article in the Los Angeles Times that one of the original goals was to give the League students academic training in drawing and painting while allowing them the freedom to develop individually, and another was to provide a place for students to study.[27] Because none of the official documentation has been located concerning the school's formation in 1906,[28] it is necessary to look elsewhere for possible sources of inspiration. It seems highly unlikely that the founders, Antony Anderson and Hanson Puthuff, started an art school they called the "Art Students League" without some sort of outside inspiration, and the more established Art Students League of New York, dubbed America's "first independent art school,"[29] probably served as their model. In order to understand why certain issues, such as friendship, were important at the Los Angeles school, a brief background of the New York organization and what made it so different and worth emulating is called for.

In June of 1875, a group of approximately seventy students attending the National Academy of Design in New York rebelled against the academy's decision to close down the school for six months due to financial difficulties. They also thought that the institution was being unsupportive of its younger members in a number of ways, such as by denying students access to the academy's library and consistently favoring the more established members in exhibitions.[30] These students rallied together, found a sympathetic instructor to teach them at a new location, and set about establishing some guidelines to follow. Highlights in their manifesto included:

The attainment of a higher development in Art Studies; the encouragement of a spirit of unselfishness among its members; the imparting of valuable information pertaining to Art as acquired by any of the members (such knowledge to be made the general property of the Society); the accumulation of works and books of Art, and such properties and material as will best advance the interests of the members; mutual help in study, and sympathy and practical assistance (if need be) in time of sickness and trouble.[31]

The constitution of the New York school developed out of these basic ideas and they are still followed today. Since Antony Anderson attended the Art Students League of New York from 1888 to 1891, it makes sense he would propose using some of their ideas when establishing the Los Angeles school.[32] While it is uncertain how closely Anderson and Puthuff followed the structure of the New York school, they adopted its sophisticated practice of using a live nude model in class,[33] which made the Los Angeles League unique among the various art schools and sketching groups in the city at the time.[34] Nudity was still frowned upon in Southern California art schools, and having a nude model consistently available was initially one of the League's biggest attractions, since working from a cast was a sore point for many artists.[35] Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), for example, was completely disgusted with this practice; in his autobiography Benton recalled that "Old Jean Paul Laurens at Julien's looked scornfully at my efforts to draw, and, to the snickers of the young internationals about, waved me away toward the casts -- the same damned casts that had repelled me in the [Chicago] Art Institute."[36] Archie Musick echoed this attitude when discussing what he disliked most as an art student: "Drawing from the cast...was the worst thing I had to do."[37]

There were other similarities with the New York school; at some point the Los Angeles League formed a study library, although today only a partial selection of books has been located from this collection,[38] and it appears that the idea of promoting friendships among students was embraced as well. Because of the negative way in which the National Academy of Design had once treated its students, camaraderie and emotional support were given high priority by the New York League and then inherited by those following its standards.[39]

One further piece of evidence regarding the importance of friendship at the Los Angeles League appears in the circa 1945 statement of purpose from the Art Students League started by Hideo Date and Benji Okubo in 1942, when they were interned together in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.[40] The two artists knew one another from the Los Angeles League and artistically they thought alike, both being products of the school and Macdonald-Wright's teaching. In addition, Benji Okubo had been the last pre-war director of the League in Los Angeles and presumably he wrote this manifesto from memory. The first rule given was "to promote art and cultivate friendships among members," so the idea of encouraging friendship among the members was at the top of the list! The subsequent rules must be similar to those established in Los Angeles, but one unusual category to note is the "special members." They were defined as "the moral supporters and those interested in the art[s] but not actually taking the course at the Art Student[s] League."[41] These members were not allowed to hold offices in the organization but they were allowed to vote for officers and on any issues. Although none of the names of the Heart Mountain special members appear anywhere in the document, some known from Los Angeles include Jack Wells, Frank L. Stevens, Lee Jarvis, and model Henry Clausen.[42] Apparently this idea was unique to the Los Angeles and Heart Mountain Leagues, as nothing like it ever appeared in the New York constitution.[43] Since there is no mention of the special members during the League's earlier years in Los Angeles, quite possibly Stanton Macdonald-Wright established this practice when he became director as a way to include his cronies, especially Wells and Stevens, in the group without having to deal with criticism from other members.[44]

These special members contributed to the Los Angeles school in numerous ways, but first and foremost as patrons. All of them formed collections of work by League artists, and in the case of Jack Wells, this may have been done primarily to support his friends; Macdonald-Wright claimed that Wells rarely hung anything on his walls and that most of his collection was to be found under his bed or in his closets.[45] Wells and Stevens were also generous to the organization; Wells, who worked for the utility company, made certain the electricity was kept on when the school could not pay its bills, while Stevens purchased several books for the League's library,[46] provided groceries for the school, and often secured tickets for the students to attend the Hollywood Bowl.[47] Lee Jarvis acquired works by several of his League friends, and Henry Clausen was responsible for introducing new members into the organization; he also had a collection of their work, although these may have been artists' gifts to their model.[48] Other patrons included Vivian Stringfield, Dr. Marcia Patrick, Anne Evans, and Wilma Shore, but all of them studied at the school. Patronage was very important to League members, especially during the Depression, since most of them were struggling to survive as artists at a time when society was not overly supportive to the profession.

But there were other ways in which those involved with the League supported one another. Since these artists often lived together, traveled together, and socialized together, they offered emotional and practical assistance to each other under a variety of circumstances. For instance, at the height of the Depression, when Donald Totten developed a life-threatening illness, Kirby Temple took him home, nursed him back to health, and eventually secured him a job at the beach where Temple worked as a lifeguard.[49] James Bolin took homemade soup to Hideo Date when he was ill with a cold and rooming at a Japanese boarding house.[50] In fact, in various correspondences Hideo Date recounted that he had lived with six of his friends from the League between 1927 and 1942, while he was attempting to paint and remain independent from his family.[51] Hideo Date recalled other kindnesses from his League colleagues. For instance, Bolin's grandfather generously offered to store all of Date's artwork when he was interned from 1942 to 1945. The artist moved to New York directly after his release from the Heart Mountain camp, but he had no means to collect his work and have it shipped east. So Albert King, one of the founders of the Art Center School, arranged for an exhibition of Date's work there in 1947 and for the school to send everything to New York afterwards.[52]

League members organized other memorial and retrospective exhibitions for their friends as well. In June of 1940, eight months after Ben Berlin's death, Lorser Feitelson organized an exhibition of Berlin's recent work at the WPA Southern California Art Project Gallery,[53] and Albert King organized a retrospective show of James Redmond's work after he was killed at the Battle of the Bulge on December 21, 1944. This exhibit, held in July of 1945 at the Los Angeles Art Association, contained twenty-seven pieces by the artist, including one titled Siamese Cat that art critic Arthur Millier claimed was his finest piece.[54] In November of 1964, a decade after the demise of the school, Leslie Baird organized a retrospective exhibition of Donald Totten's work at the Esquire Theatre Gallery in Pasadena, a few months after Totten suffered a debilitating stroke that ended his career.

They were part of each other's lives on more joyous occasions as well, such as the intimate wedding, in June of 1932, of League members Gwain Noot and Fred Sexton, in which Herman Cherry and John Hench were the witnesses (fig. 2), or the wedding of Lee and Ida May Jarvis, held at Kirby Temple's house in Palos Verdes in 1946. Most of the guests were friends from the League and Henry Clausen was best man. They did favors for one another too. There are, for example, numerous instances of students posing as models for each other as well as working together professionally (fig. 3). Carl Winter and Albert King assisted Stanton Macdonald-Wright on his sets at Santa Monica Playhouse in the late 1920s, and Frank Stevens was a partner for one year, in 1933, at the Lotus & Acanthus ceramics studio owned by Albert and Louisa King. The friendships established at the League provided networking avenues that most in this profession desperately needed throughout their careers.

Sketching trips and traveling abroad were extracurricular activities at the League, but they were another way in which the members bonded. Sam Hyde Harris recalled that in 1906 the League's first students participated in Sunday sketching trips to the Arroyo Seco, near director Hanson Puthuff's studio.[55] Puthuff sketched elsewhere with his League students and friends; he often traveled with Sam Hyde Harris throughout California and Arizona in the 1920s, and in 1925 he and Aaron Kilpatrick went with Texas artist R. S. Taylor on a two-month sketching trip to Mexico City.[56] A number of League artists made regular trips to Laguna Beach to sketch. Nicholas Brigante's first visit there in 1917 with Val Costello, Jack Wilkinson Smith, and Hanson Puthuff made such an impression on the young artist that he wrote about the adventure all around his first plein-air watercolor, Laguna Landscape (plate 2). Years later in an interview he described Laguna Beach as "a little nothing" and he recalled skinny-dipping with Val Costello because the beach was deserted in those days![57] In 1909 Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Jack Oakey left Los Angeles together to attend art school in Paris,[58] and in 1913 Sam Hyde Harris and Pete Purcell traveled together throughout Europe for six months to study the old masters. Other students, such as Rex Slinkard, Pruett Carter, and Bert Cressey, studied with the founder of the Ash Can school of painting, Robert Henri (1865-1929), in New York. A few of Stanton Macdonald-Wright's students journeyed east to study with or meet Thomas Hart Benton, and others made pilgrimages to France to paint with Morgan Russell; among the former were Herman Cherry and James Bolin, while Chalfant Head, Anne Evans, Wilma Shore, Earnford Sconhoft, and Fred Sexton were among the latter.[59] Russell's arrival in Los Angeles in 1931 and his short stint teaching at the League in 1932 finally gave all of the students who were at the League at that time the opportunity to meet and learn from this early modernist.

The League was also a social center, with exhibitions, receptions, and parties a part of the extracurricular activities. During the formative years exhibits were either held at the Blanchard Hall Gallery or in the studios of the League.[60] At a celebration of the organization's one-year anniversary, in April 1907, the gallery presented a number of accomplished drawings and paintings by League students. Six months later a number of students were again exhibiting their work at the gallery, the subjects consisting of portraits done in pastels and oils and drawings done from life.[61] By August of 1910 the curator of the Blanchard Hall Gallery,

Everett C. Maxwell (1884-1962), reported it was common practice for the League director to hold annual or biannual exhibitions right in their studio and that presently 136 sketches were on display in the larger gallery.[62] After the League moved to the Main Street studio in 1912, the artists sometimes participated in group exhibitions around town instead, such as one held at the Los Angeles Museum in June of 1921 that included the work of Nicholas Brigante, Val Costello, Lawrence Murphy, Edouard Vysekal, and George Stojana.[63] One of the most historically significant exhibitions of early modern artists active in Los Angeles was organized in January of 1923 by some of the League members, calling themselves the "Group of Independents" (some works were by artists, such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the deceased Rex Slinkard, Thomas Hart Benton, and Morgan Russell, not associated with the school at the time). This exhibition, held at the Taos Building on West First Street, brought together a number of pioneering modernists who asked their audience to respect the work displayed and try to approach it with an open mind, even if they did not find it appealing. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who would re-establish himself with the League when the exhibition ended, authored the foreword in the catalog and later managed to stir up a fair amount of controversy by writing a critical review of the show in Antony Anderson's column in the Los Angeles Times.[64] Today this exhibition is recognized as one of the first in Los Angeles to feature experimental and abstract work by local artists, like Ben Berlin and Boris Deutsch, that even the more conservative artist Paul Swan (1884-1972) pronounced "fine, serious work."[65] Decades later Albert King recalled there was another exhibition of the "Group" in 1925 at the Hollywood Public Library,[66] although the catalog for the first exhibition had announced plans for a second much earlier, in June of 1923. Presumably the "Group of Independents" segued into the "Modern Art Workers," who exhibited at the Hollywood Library Gallery in 1925 and then at Exposition Park in 1926, since their goals were very similar and a number of League members were involved in both organizations.

In 1928 James Redmond and Albert King formed the League's own exhibiting club, called the Younger Painters. Many of the participants were students at Otis Art Institute and it is presently uncertain if they all attended the League as well. Supposedly the original group was made up of "certain brilliant students of...several art schools";[67] however, Hideo Date's recollection, which may have been accurate by the time of his participation in 1932, was that the group was exclusively made up of League members.[68] Their statement of purpose claimed that these artists were "young in a sense of growth,"[69] but it stressed that their work went far beyond that of students, as they included only more advanced and mature pieces. The group made it clear that the Younger Painters was strictly an exhibiting club -- not a social club -- that did not utilize a jury system. They noted that the establishment typically snubbed the work of younger artists, so they appreciated the support of the California Art Club, which hosted their first annual exhibition at the Barnsdall Park Art Center on April 2, 1928. The Younger Painters would continue to exhibit locally, at the Los Angeles Museum in 1929, at the Santa Monica Public Library in 1930, and finally at the Hollywood Library in 1932. By this time a local critic remarked that they were no longer young (although most were still in their twenties), and that their work was no longer "splashy," so the group disbanded.[70] While the exhibition at the Hollywood Library was their last, the Younger Painters Gallery appeared the following year at the Stanley Rose Bookstore in Hollywood, with Herman Cherry as the curator. Decades later Lorser Feitelson vehemently argued that he started this gallery, but Cherry consistently claimed credit for its founding and the Los Angeles Record documents his hosting a group of watercolors by Nicholas Brigante there in 1933, a couple of years before Feitelson became involved with the space.[71]

Parties were another League tradition that further strengthened the camaraderie between members. In the early years they were usually planned in conjunction with the exhibitions held at Blanchard Hall; about thirty students attended one such event, described as a "smoker," in 1907.[72] While the parties were typically group events, occasionally they were for an individual, such as Nicholas Brigante's farewell party given at the downtown restaurant Fioritalia when he left for World War I in 1917, or the good-bye party Benji Okubo organized for Hideo Date at the Dragon's Den restaurant when he traveled to Japan in 1936.

No doubt the most popular social events held at the League were the flamboyant "stag" parties that took place every other Saturday night after class. Frank Stevens said they were held on alternating Saturdays to work around the schedule of the Los Angeles Symphony, since some of the League members regularly attended those concerts.[73] The students usually took turns cooking, and everyone paid twenty-five or thirty cents for the meal.[74] Henry Clausen remembered that the food was "supplemented by Fazzi's grocery-store wine and buckets of good, lethal coffee,"[75] and Albert King noted that Frank Stevens often paid for those luxury items. The core group was generally made up of fifteen to twenty-five regulars who became a sort of "clan," according to Hideo Date.[76] Outsiders were welcomed to these intellectual events to spice up the mix -- members could bring one guest -- and the visitors often included musicians, writers, directors, actors, and art patrons, such as writer Sadakichi Hartmann, movie director Frank Tuttle, and actor Lew Cody. The League's big model stand was covered in newspaper and used as their dining table. The dinner would end with a ritual of someone putting a match to the paper and then the evening would progress into a sing-along, while others would play poker. The party typically ended around two or three in the morning, but sometimes it spilled over into a Sunday morning brunch at Jack Wells' apartment because of the intense conversations. Architect Chalfant Head, who attended these parties prior to and after his travels throughout Europe, reported to Morgan Russell upon his return to Southern California in 1927 that the "Art Students League has in my opinion quite gone to Hell! It has become a sort of inane 'arty' place. The famous old Saturday nite dinners end in dirty jokes and drivel about sex."[77] Herman Cherry found them intellectually stimulating; he remembered:

I found friends, for the first time in my life, that thought the way I did. I didn't realize that...there were people like me that were interested in other things, rather than just existing, or having fun...they were serious, they talked about philosophy, they talked about books...[they] were very aware of everything that was in literature, that was in art, that was in music...I used to go to those Saturday nights and meet these people I would never have met.[78]

Hideo Date claimed that because of these intimate gatherings the group "became friends for life."[79] In fact, the League parties continued long after the demise of the school -- another sign of the lasting friendships. They were sometimes held at Robert Boag's house at Redondo Beach, as illustrated by two photographs, one of a party held in 1949 just before Fred Sexton revived the League, and another one held ca. 1960, although the core group had grown much smaller by this time (figs, 4, 5).

Despite the congenial atmosphere that permeated the League, conflicts were inevitable, especially with so many artistic egos involved, although the documented problems mainly had to do with the directors. Nicholas Brigante, relaying the League's early history to Carl Sprinchorn in a letter, described an incident between the sculptor Charles Cristadoro and the painter Rex Slinkard in which they struggled for control of the school. The students had handpicked Cristadoro as their director after the sudden death of Warren Hedges in January of 1910. Later that summer Slinkard rejoined the League, full of enthusiasm after his studies in New York with Robert Henri, and immediately their personalities clashed. Cristadoro greatly disliked the dynamic Slinkard, since his was a personality the sculptor could not control. Brigante described Cristadoro as the "quiet, retiring type [who] quickly gave up the fight and school to Rex" in 1911.[80] Throughout this episode another League member, Frank Curran, sided with Cristadoro, and Brigante recalled that these two were the only members he knew of who were ever antagonistic towards Slinkard. (Not everyone at the League was pleased with the new director's teaching methods, though. Conrad Buff quickly became disenchanted with the style Slinkard had learned from Henri and promptly quit.) Brigante noted that even Stanton Macdonald-Wright never said anything disparaging about his former colleague, perhaps because Slinkard was so much beloved by his League students that his presence and influence lingered at the school many years after his departure as director.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, on the other hand, easily made enemies of both students and colleagues, because he was the "supreme egotist," according to Brigante, as well as being rather blunt about his dislikes. Another colleague claimed his attitude was fairly straightforward: "If he respected you, you got along fine with Macdonald-Wright; if he didn't, you wouldn't."[81] But he was reportedly very patient with even the least promising student, as long as that person was "cooperative and eager to learn."[82] In fact, he very cleverly managed the egos of the younger talent at the League by individually telling several of them that each was his most promising student, which also guaranteed their devotion to him. However, Hideo Date recalled a certain amount of backstabbing between Macdonald-Wright and instructor Lorser Feitelson -- not surprising, since they were quite competitive with one another, particularly after Feitelson's Post-Surrealism movement gained national attention.[83] Still, they managed to work together for a number of years, both at the League and elsewhere. Ultimately, the school survived these minor skirmishes and continued to thrive, meanwhile remaining sacred in the hearts and memories of most who attended.

Possibly one of the most amazing aspects of the League's history is that a unique intellectual and stylistic movement thrived there for about twenty years, but today very few scholars have acknowledged its existence. This "Asian-fusion" style lasted roughly from 1923, when Stanton Macdonald-Wright became director of the League, until 1942, when Benji Okubo closed down the school because of the forced incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans. The style is characterized by a specific formula that includes a delicate but emphasized flowing outline, perhaps copied from Persian miniatures, called "linear composition," flat areas of pure color, sometimes with stylized patterns of design found across the surface, and specific motifs from Asian art dominating the background -- typically a large tree, rock, or mountain surrounded by curving foamy water or clouds. Hideo Date's Still Life from this era is a good example (see fig. 13, page 10). Often all of this was combined with a skewed perspective borrowed from Cézanne and/or a Synchromistic palette gleaned from Macdonald-Wright.[84] So far at least twenty League artists working in this style in a wide variety of mediums[85] have been identified, and there were probably others. It originated with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who initially combined his earlier Synchromistic theories and painting techniques somewhat randomly with Asian-inspired subjects.[86] While a formal manifesto has not emerged, eventually the artist clarified his goal, which was to blend "Oriental" influence with "Occidental" ideas to create an entirely new modern art.[87] Some of his followers intelligently reasserted their own belief in the merging of East and West; for example, in 1933 William von Herwig said:

The marked influence of the East on our younger painters I believe is indicative of a new and greater expression in Art, blending the best of the East with the knowledge of the Wes...I regard the Pacific Coast as the scene of the new impetus.[88]

Also, like their mentor, some of the non-Asian students immersed themselves in Eastern studies; James Redmond became fluent in both Japanese and Chinese, while Donald Totten studied Zen and other Buddhist philosophies the rest of his life as a result of this influence. Archie Musick found himself defending the movement's principles in 1932 when he left the Los Angeles League to study in Colorado with Boardman Robinson (1876-1952), who had said, "You're not a Chinaman, so why try to paint like a Chinaman?"[89] At one point even Hideo Date felt compelled to travel to Japan and further study his own culture, in order to better understand the developments in Los Angeles. Eventually he concluded that West Coast artists naturally turned to the Far East for inspiration, while East Coast artists had instead turned to Europe.[90]

Other artists associated with the League were interested in Asian art and sometimes original work was available for the students to study. Original Ukiyo-e prints were displayed at the Blanchard Hall studio of League instructor Leta Horlocker in 1910,[91] and Rex Slinkard kept a couple of exquisite Japanese screens as well as some fine Japanese prints in his studio.[92]

Although League cofounder Hanson Puthuff expressed an interest in Asian perspective,[93] Rex Slinkard was the first instructor known to have introduced Asian art to his students. His enthusiasm would send a young Nicholas Brigante on a quest to understand and capture elements of Chinese Sung painting in his own work, perhaps best illustrated in his masterpiece in watercolor titled Nature and Struggling Imperious Man (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Brigante, like the League's Asian-fusion artists, did not want to copy directly from his Eastern sources; instead, he wanted to find a balance between the art of past and present as a way to create something entirely new. Lorser Feitelson later described Brigante as the "father of Oriental Art" in Los Angeles, although he said others tried to claim the title -- presumably referring to Macdonald-Wright.[94] But it was clearly due to Stanton Macdonald-Wright and his beliefs that a much larger and more influential movement stemming from Asian principles flourished at the League and elsewhere in Southern California.

Another factor to consider in the development of this movement is that a number of Asian students attended the League throughout its history, and their welcomed presence no doubt further directed interest to the East. For instance, Asian elements appeared in Stanton Macdonald-Wright's post-Synchromistic work of the mid-1920s, but around the time Hideo Date studied at the Kawabata Painting School in Tokyo in the late 1920s, noticeable changes begin to appear in Macdonald-Wright's work as well. He had previously painted in a much looser style, almost crudely combining Synchromistic colors with some sort of Asian subject, as in the 1923 Chinese Valley Synchromy (see fig. 7, page 6). His later technique becomes more polished and adopts the compositional formula mentioned earlier. See, for example, his 1930 Dragon Trail: Still Life Synchromy (fig. 14, page 10). It is difficult to establish how much the student affected the teacher, and Hideo Date was typically modest about any influence he might have had on his mentor, but Date's refined, delicate style resulting from his training in Japan, as well as his newfound knowledge of the nihonga tradition of looking to the East and West for inspiration, possibly contributed to the changes in Macdonald-Wright's style, as well as those of the others involved with this movement.[95]

Through informal talks, class criticism, and weekly lectures, Stanton Macdonald-Wright introduced his students to the techniques he admired most in the old and new masters, particularly Michelangelo and Cézanne, as well as the purity of approach of, for example, Chinese artists. In a lecture series given at the League during August and September of 1925, Macdonald-Wright rather verbosely laid down his fundamental principles on the importance of balance, color, rhythm, and form in a work of art.[96] (He would also display images by the artists under discussion and even paint in their styles sometimes to illustrate a point.[97]) He concluded this particular lecture series by pointing out the necessity of a "deeper spiritual content" in an artist's work in order to make the work meaningful; later some critics thought that he abandoned this ideal in the Asian-fusion movement. In 1934 the ever-supportive Arthur Millier discussed the progress of this style in an article about the latest artistic developments in Southern California. He ardently claimed:

A school of painting which has no parallel elsewhere in America consists of Stanton MacDonald-Wright and his followers....This school of painting is not at all understood by Eastern critics. They cannot see...the destiny of this region [is] to absorb wisdom from beyond the Pacific. This school has a future.[98]

Two years later, when Macdonald-Wright and some of his followers exhibited their Asian-fusion work at the Carl Fisher Gallery in New York, Millier's comment that East Coast critics would not understand the style was corroborated when one reviewer interpreted it as decorative, another was openly unenthusiastic about it, and a third claimed that the idea of creating something modern by turning to the Orient was "far-fetched."[99] Obviously, these critics thought that something deeper was missing in the stilted but colorful style presented by the group. Regardless of the lackluster reviews, this pastiche style continued to flourish in Southern California and ultimately found a wider audience through the intervention of the United States government, i.e., the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project, hereafter called "the Project."[100]

In 1935, with Stanton Macdonald-Wright at the helm as district supervisor for the Project in Los Angeles (he later became regional director for Southern California), the style found a new momentum, since over thirty artists from the League participated locally, including many of those most active in the Asian-fusion movement. Some of the work created for the Project was even executed at the League, such as James Redmond's mural for the Compton post office, Early California (see fig. 12, page 9) and Donald Totten's Untitled easel painting (fig. 6).[101]

Macdonald-Wright would eventually be accused of favoritism towards certain participating artists, although some League artists recalled they had to submit examples of their work to a committee to be accepted on the Project. In any event, the Asian-fusion League artists were given the freedom to continue working in this style, as seen in the mural titled Landing of Cabrillo-1542, painted by Charles H. Davis for the Los Angeles County Hall of Records (fig. 7). The most ambitious mural done in this style was the mosaic titled Recreations of Long Beach, which Macdonald-Wright and Albert King redesigned in the Asian-fusion style (fig. 8). Other League artists were part of the larger group of artists who worked on this mural as well. So by this time, a good number of Macdonald-Wright's students truly had become his disciples, and they redirected their own beliefs to his ideals. Together they were working towards a goal of intelligently combining East and West in their work, although ultimately the movement would end around 1942.

The question of why it ended does not have a simple answer. First of all, this movement had never really caught on with either the critics or the general public, even though there were a few other non-League artists working in the style.[102] The end of the movement also coincided with the winding down of the Project; once again these artists had to sell their work. Since the style was not very popular, some may have turned to more mainstream subjects in order to survive. Possibly the rising anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast contributed to a move away from using overt Asian motifs. Most likely the end of the movement occurred because of the breakup of its most ardent followers. Many in this tight-knit group relocated immediately before or during the war. Benji Okubo and Hideo Date were interned from 1942 to 1945 in Wyoming, Donald Totten moved to Washington in 1942 for a year, and James Redmond joined the Corps of Engineers in 1942 and was killed during the war. Others, like Archie Musick and Herman Cherry, had previously moved east. Although some of the Asian-fusion artists directly readdressed Macdonald-Wright's color theories in their later work, apparently none of them ever returned to this unique style.

Ideas, both theoretical and stylistic, that had developed at the League would surface in the later careers of many students. This legacy is basically two-fold: there is the influence on an individual's personal style or philosophy, and the influence that they somehow incorporated into their post-League careers and perhaps even passed along to the community at large. Certain students responded directly to the school's charismatic leaders, particularly Rex Slinkard and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and they subsequently devoted considerable time and effort to thoroughly absorbing the lessons they were taught. Others responded emotionally to the congenial atmosphere, to a place that became a haven for them, and for some students it was a combination of all of these elements that they would somehow carry into future.

As previously noted, Rex Slinkard studied with Robert Henri in New York between 1908 and 1910, and six months after his return to Los Angeles the young, energetic artist became director of his old alma mater. Henri's dark, intense style influenced Slinkard's personal style as well as his teaching, as seen in his undated Reclining Nude (plate 6), with its dramatic contrasting colors, playing light against dark. It must be emphasized that Slinkard taught Henri's vigorous style and not his own mystical experiments with color to his League students. Those progressive paintings emerged later, when the artist was living on his family's ranch near Saugus. Slinkard had quit the League in 1913, after removing himself from Los Angeles society because of a hasty marriage to his pregnant model. He occasionally turned up at the school to visit and offer advice to the students, but he only mentioned exhibiting one painting throughout this period. Consequently, during Slinkard's lifetime the work he is famous for now was not publicly displayed. His poetical letters to close friend Carl Sprinchorn discussing the paintings and his life of isolation reveal a sensitive soul responding to the natural world around him. Perhaps this was an idea learned from Henri, although the darker elements apparent in some of these pieces may be linked to the artist's guilt over his scandalous marriage and pending divorce.[103] Nicholas Brigante always claimed that Slinkard's final paintings developed free of any outside influences and that his was the first true modern work produced by a Southern California artist. However, in the surviving letters from Slinkard to Sprinchorn, it becomes apparent that he was inspired not only by his surroundings, but by artists such as Puvis de Chavannes and Arthur Davies, as well as El Greco. After Slinkard's premature death from influenza in 1918, retrospective exhibitions were held in Los Angeles (1919) and New York (1920), and in both cities again in 1929. Ten of his works were included in the League's 1923 "Group of Independents" exhibition as well. It was probably these later exhibits of his mystical paintings that inspired subsequent League artists, such as Mabel Alvarez and Lawrence Murphy, to emulate his style. Obvious compositional and stylistic similarities may be seen, for example, when comparing Alvarez's study for the painting Dream of Youth to Slinkard's The Path (figs. 9, 10). Today it is unknown if either Alvarez or Murphy had access to the artist's letters, which address the motivation behind his symbolist style, or whether their response to Slinkard's work was purely visual. Slinkard's mystical paintings as well as his poetical writings describing an isolated lifestyle amidst the majestic California landscape fascinated other artists as well, particularly Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), who became enamored with Slinkard and his work. In fact, he and Carl Sprinchorn tried for years, in vain, to publish a biography of this early modern Southern California painter. Earlier, Sprinchorn had made the drawing Rex Slinkard RIP, reminiscent of Slinkard's linear style, to commemorate the passing of his dear friend (fig. 11).

According to Brigante, the spirit of Rex Slinkard remained at the League long after his departure, and he was certainly forever linked to the younger artist's memories of the Main Street studio. In 1922 Brigante did a series of pen and ink drawings in Slinkard's style to commemorate his time there; the series includes some interior views, the only known images of this space. Twenty-five years later, a nostalgic Brigante returned to this topic in three different works, perhaps because he had been absorbed in revisiting his memories of Slinkard and the school for Hartley and Sprinchorn. The first two were studies on paper, one done in 1946 and the other in 1947. In his first "memory" piece, Memories of the Old Los Angeles Art Students' League, Brigante lets his subconscious go wild, depicting abstract areas of compartmentalized boxes within boxes formed by bright colors, perhaps representing different thoughts about the school (fig. 12). In the second one he reworks his earlier drawings of the interior setup with easels (fig. 13). He wrote to Sprinchorn about the motivation behind his second drawing, in which he repeated the inside view of the studio but with a major change:

It's a place dear to me because there I was in constant contact over a greater period of time of people I became very fond of -- and of Rex. Each spot [i.e., easel] in the picture that represents a drawing or painting will be utilized in reproducing in miniature a painting by each of you whom I respect and admire -- Rex will be in a spot about 2 _ x 4-Using his self portrait...I went thru all of my collection of your work I have in reproductions...Then one of Val's, and possibly one of Wright's...I hope to truly make it a picture of Remembrances of things past, if I succeed.[104]

The artist left much of this piece incomplete, except for his two easel miniatures of Slinkard's self-portrait and Sprinchorn's portrait of a dancer, but even in its unfinished state one senses Brigante's poignant attachment to this place and time from his youth. Eventually these two studies were merged in his final painting of this subject, a semi-abstract landscape oil of 1950 (fig. 1). This time he combines the compartmentalized sections of vibrant colors found in the first study with the studio interior of the second, and together they represent different parts of his memories. For instance, in the upper right of the canvas is an Asian-influenced landscape, perhaps signifying the importance Chinese Sung painting held for him at one time, while below it the viewer is given a distorted peek inside the League studio on Main Street. Once again Brigante allows us a glimpse into the importance of the League in his life and career as an artist.

In 1919, when Stanton Macdonald-Wright returned to Los Angeles from New York and, before that, Europe, he inadvertently changed the style of many artists working in California. He was personally moving away from Synchromism, the movement he had cofounded earlier, in Paris, with Morgan Russell. After their Synchromist work was exhibited in Los Angeles and San Francisco, other artists in those cities copied the colorful palette, although few probably understood the theory of choosing color based on musical scales or "color chords."[105] Macdonald-Wright's students at the League would also paint in this style, although he apparently never encouraged them to copy it. Synchromism no doubt appealed to those interested in music or who were musicians themselves, such as James Redmond, Donald Totten, Earnford Sconhoft, and Hideo Date, all of whom had a basic foundation in place to help them understand its complexities. It lingered especially in the memories of Hideo Date, who was always frustrated with his earlier explorations, and so he decided, thirty years after he had permanently left Los Angeles and severed contact with his teacher due to political differences, to re-address Macdonald-Wright's color theories.[106] Never having seen Macdonald-Wright's hand-painted color wheels that accompanied A Treatise on Color, Hideo Date designed his own, adjusting their format to his ideas, and then he set about exploring the possibilities of color in relation to notes on a musical scale. Oddly enough, the paintings he produced from these experiments resemble Macdonald-Wright's later stylized Synchromist pieces (figs. 14, 15). So both teacher and student later returned to Synchromism and ended up producing hauntingly similar stylized versions.

Other League students, such as the Bay Area painter John Gerrity and architects Chalfant Head and Harwell Hamilton Harris, turned to classic Synchromism later in their careers. Gerrity, who was slated to head a branch of the League in San Francisco only to have it shut down after the stock market crash of 1929, continuously returned to exploring Synchromism throughout his career. For example, his earlier images of large, heroic nude females inspired by Michelangelo surrounded by a Synchromistic palette (fig. 16) would evolve into Cézanne-inspired pieces of intersecting lines and colors. By the late 1960s Gerrity had abandoned the figure for pure color abstractions, although the basic principle of color creating form was always evident in his abstract work. Chalfant Head returned to painting after retiring from architecture, and produced a small body of work that evokes the theories of Synchromism (fig. 17). Head was probably reaching back to his studies with Morgan Russell in France, as the formal arrangement of deeper color tones more closely resembles the expatriate's personal style. In a succinct analysis of Synchromism's influence on Harwell Hamilton Harris while he was at the League, architectural historian Lisa Germany points out that the lessons on color theory learned from Stanton Macdonald-Wright provided the foundation for Harris's understanding of architectural form.[107]Harris also referred to color chords when designing houses, using specific colors around the trim of doors and windows, for example, to create movement on the façades of his structures, thus transforming a two-dimensional theory into a three-dimensional practice.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright's abilities as a speaker were legen-dary and the topics of his lectures greatly influenced his students as well. They often mentioned learning about subjects never taught to them before, and said that he introduced them to a world of knowledge they would never encounter again. Movie director and actor John Huston (1906-1987) attended the League in 1923, at the time Macdonald-Wright assumed control of the school. Huston described the impact the artist had upon him when he wrote, "S. Macdonald-Wright furnished the foundation of whatever education I have. He steered me not only in art, but in literature...Personally, I owe such a debt of gratitude to Wright that I can't begin to express it. I wish I had done better because of him"[108] Obviously, Huston did just fine, but not as a professional artist, a career he abandoned in the late 1920s, influenced by Morgan Russell's constantly precarious financial situation.[109] Macdonald-Wright's distinct style of teaching drawing, with an emphasis on creating balance and movement, or contrapposto, was also noteworthy. John Hench, who started working for Walt Disney in 1939 as a sketch artist, eventually becoming senior vice president of the Imagineering division, introduced Macdonald-Wright's drawing techniques to the Disney sketch artists and called them "Mickey's Ten Tips on Drawing."[110] For decades, until his death in 2004, Hench was the official portrait painter of Mickey Mouse, and a Synchromistic palette may be seen in some of these images. Redmond, Totten, and Okubo copied Macdonald-Wright's drawing techniques and incorporated his stimulating lectures on art history when they assumed leadership of the school after 1932. Furthermore, Benji Okubo extended these teaching methods to his students at the Heart Mountain League between 1942 and 1945. He taught drawing as Macdonald-Wright did -- using the same number system to guide students to develop the balance and flow in a figure, he gave similar lectures on art history, and he organized exhibitions and parties for the students, precisely as had been done in Los Angeles, but within the confines of an internment camp.[111] Donald Totten subsequently taught studio and art history classes in Southern California, while continuing to paint and exhibit his own work. Many of Macdonald-Wright's ideas surface in Totten's lectures to his students, such as this comment:

In the line of [modern] painting descent...I follow from the impressionists through Gauguin and Matisse, Delaunay, Wright and Russell. I believe with them that the real contribution to the craft of painting in the 20th Century is color and that it is possible to build a kind of visual music using scale and chords.[112]

When Totten turned to Abstract Expressionism in his final years he abandoned the ideals of classic Synchromism, but the theories on color that he learned from Macdonald-Wright and Russell were central to his mature style and personal philosophy. Color theory continued to be important to other League artists, like Albert King and Herman Cherry, as well as Academy Award­winning costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, who applied both the drawing lessons and color theories she learned at the League from Macdonald-Wright and Benji Okubo to her exquisite clothing designs for countless movies and theatrical performances (fig. 19).[113] Albert King cofounded Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1931. He taught there for over twenty years and he was head of their color department. King became nationally known as an expert in color theory and applied his knowledge to a wide range of professions, from teaching camouflage classes during World War II to developing and rediscovering ceramic techniques for his Lotus & Acanthus studio (fig. 20). Herman Cherry, like some other League students, claimed that it took him a long time to let go of Macdonald-Wright's influence, but one lesson he never forgot was how Macdonald-Wright taught him to see color: it became the means by which he created form in his later abstract pieces (fig. 21).

From the beginning, Antony Anderson had seen the potential of the school when he speculated, "The league, it will be seen, is a school with an idea -- and that idea is also an ideal -- artistic growth for the individual man or woman who seeks its instruction, as well as the spread of appreciation and understanding in the community at large."[114] And though the story of the League was almost forgotten -- perhaps not an uncommon occurrence in a city famous for reinventing itself -- its influence was quietly spreading out into the world beyond the studio. One final thought to consider is that most of the artists who attended the League had the worst generational luck imaginable, since their early careers were wedged between two world wars and interrupted by the Great Depression. By the time the United States started rebounding financially from the Second World War, most of them were middle-aged, no longer youthful hotshots; there were, as there always are, younger artists with news ideas out to replace them. The dealer Irving Blum, codirector of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, claimed that upon his arrival in Los Angeles in the later part of the 1950s, the up-and-coming artists were attempting to extend beyond and destroy, not absorb, what had previously existed in Los Angeles, and this attitude may have contributed to the League's disappearance from the local scene.[115] Ironically, those who attended the school and later achieved some level of financial success or prominence did so by moving on to another creative profession or leaving Southern California altogether. Costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, movie director/actor John Huston, architect Harwell Hamilton Harris, and New York-based painter Herman Cherry come to mind. Furthermore, as Arthur Millier noted, Los Angeles as a city had changed dramatically after the war. New industries brought about a population explosion that resulted in an urban sprawl extending farther and farther away from downtown. In fact, downtown Los Angeles was no longer the center of the city; it was just one of many centers, and it was no longer as popular as it had been during the heyday of the League.

Ultimately, the League was really nothing more than a studio and an idea, and it could have easily closed down numerous times throughout its history. Instead, in the spirit of the original New York League, it became "one of the prime movers and shakers"[116] in pre-war Los Angeles. Today the Art Students League of Los Angeles deserves to be acknowledged as an important and progressive center in the chronicles of the artistic development of Los Angeles.

 

Notes

1. Los Angeles Times, 16 January 1910, III, 10:3.

2. Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1929, III, 14: 7-8.

3. Nancy Moure's numerous publications on Southern California art provided the groundbreaking research into this topic; more recently Sarah Vure discussed the League in her essay found in the exhibition catalog Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art 1910-1930 (Newport Beach: Orange County Museum of Art, 2000).

4. Everything now known has been painstakingly gathered from a wide variety of sources, but mainly from the families of those who attended the school. This essay is based on those resources, as well as interviews and letters from surviving League members. Furthermore, the interviews conducted by Betty Hoag with those League members who participated in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project in Southern California have proven invaluable to this project. Consequently, more emphasis has been placed on the atmosphere in the later years of the school. This essay is not intentionally ignoring the earlier history nor should it be seen as any less important; unfortunately, there is just far less primary documentation to work with from that period.

5. The term "pre-war" will be used throughout this essay as a matter of convenience; it is not quite accurate when referring to the League, since the school was revived from 1949-1953. However, the heyday of the institution was during the formative years, from 1906-1913, and under Stanton Macdonald-Wright's leadership, from 1923-1932.

6. The journal is located in the Arthur Millier Papers, reel 3887, frames 272-290, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. His third and most lengthy essay mentions numerous concerts, operas, and musical and theatrical performances, from Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) reading "Phedre" at the Orpheum Theatre during her last World Tour, to the premier of Otto Klemperer (1885-1972) conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the 1930s, but it is strangely lacking in any information on achievements in visual arts. Presumably he planned to develop something on this topic, because in the side column on page 16 of the journal he wrote down the name of one of his teachers, former League director Rex Slinkard.

7. Ibid., reel 3887, frame 290.

8. Leslie Baird letter to Eva Totten dated 8 February 1988, in possession of the author.

9. Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast (New York: Praeger, 1974), 117. In the introduction to the 1999 reprint of Sunshine Muse Plagens states he did not know very much about the art produced during the pre-war period and in hindsight regrets such generalized statements. It should be noted that Plagens was certainly not alone in his original opinion; this book was chosen to cite mainly because it perpetuated so many of the typical misconceptions about the art world in Southern California in the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, this attitude continues even today, evidenced recently by a writer for the Los Angeles Times who said, announcing an exhibition in July 2003, "Long before there was a burgeoning art scene in Los Angeles, Frederick Hammersley was here": another case of someone assuming the area had very little to offer artistically prior to 1940, when Hammersley arrived as a student. See Los Angeles Times Weekend section, 3 July 2003, E2, "Three-Day Forecast" column.

10. See for example Bram Dijkstra's article "Early Modernism in Southern California: Provincialism or Eccentricity?" in On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art 1900-1950, Paul J. Karlstrom, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

11. Plagens, Sunshine Muse, 28.

12. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, Publications in Southern California Art 1, 2 & 3 (Glendale: Dustin Publications, 1984), B-16.

13. There was a significant difference between the California Art Club and the Art Students League: the former was an exhibiting and social club, while the latter was all of that plus a school; despite the fact that many of the earlier artists were members of both, the educational experience was no doubt more stimulating and the League provided an environment that was more open to experimentation.

14. Cherry was in a position to compare the two, as he was part of the "Club" in New York City. Herman Cherry, "Los Angeles Revisited," Arts 30, no. 6 (March 1956): 18.

15. See Paul Karlstrom in Paul Karlstrom and Susan Erlich, Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920-1956 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1990).

16. Dijkstra cited quotes from Lorser Feitelson, Hans Burkhardt, Edward Biberman, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright to illustrate this point; see Karlstrom, On the Edge of America, 158-159.

17. Nicholas Brigante letter to Carl Sprinchorn dated 15 June 1947, reel 3004, frame 203, Carl Sprinchorn Papers, Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine.

18. See, for example, Ruth Westphal's article "The Development of an Art Community in the Los Angeles Area" in her Plein Air Painters of California, the Southland (Irvine, Calif.: Westphal Publishing, 1982) or Margarita Nieto's witty compilation "Mapping of a Decade: Los Angeles during the 1930s" (http://artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles1999/Articles1099/MNieto1099.html, 13 April 2007).

19. The diaries of Mabel Alvarez begin in 1909, when she was 18 years old, and continue on and off throughout her lifetime. She briefly logged not only the progress of her own work, but also her social and educational activities, on almost a daily basis. They are on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

20. See Moure, Publications, part 2, to get an idea of other organizations and their participants. There were other, less formal groups not cited in her publication, such as the one surrounding Sadakichi Hartmann at Marjory Winter's Sargent Court House, which included League artists Ben Berlin and Boris Deutsch, the Mexican muralists Orozco and Siqueiros and their local followers, and Lorser Feitelson's students and his followers of Post-Surrealism.

21. Los Angeles Times, 30 December 1923, III, 19:1-4.

22. This group included Val Costello, Rex Slinkard, Lawrence Murphy, Carl Sprinchorn, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Perret Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, unpublished autobiography ca. late 1930s or early 1940s written by Brigante for Ferdinand Perret.

23. Letter from Kirby Temple to the author postmarked 4 April 2000.

24. Perhaps in order not to scare off prospective students, Macdonald-Wright is cautiously described as "A young old man speaking a language that you understand. Not radical, not dull, but interesting."

25. The brochure incorrectly claims that the school was in its twenty-first year.

26. Many of the earliest students, like Val Costello and Aaron Kilpatrick, worked professionally as either sign painters or commercial artists.

27. Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1907, II, 2:3-6.

28. Presumably all of the paperwork from the pre-war League was destroyed after Benji Okubo was sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in 1942; most of what we know about the school, especially its formation, appears primarily in Los Angeles Times articles written by its cofounder Antony Anderson.

29. Raymond J. Steiner, The Art Students League of New York: A History (New York: CSS Publications, 1999), 41.

30. For a more complete history of the New York League see Chapter I, "These Ungrateful Students," of Steiner's Art Students League of New York.

31. Steiner, Art Students League of New York, 29-30.

32. As a member of the New York League, Anderson would have been given a copy of their constitution and been obliged to read and sign a contract as well; consequently he should have been quite familiar with the formal philosophy of the school.

33. The New York manifesto guaranteed that "the League will form and sustain classes for study from the nude and draped model" (Steiner, Art Students League of New York, 30).

34. For further discussions of the early drawing schools in Los Angeles, see Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, Drawings and Illustrations by Southern California Artists before 1950 (Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Beach Museum of Art, 1982), 5-6.

35. Both John Huston and Nicholas Brigante mentioned that they had a plaster cast to work from at the League when necessary, but according to Brigante it disappeared after Macdonald-Wright assumed leadership. See John Huston, An Open Book (New York: Da Capo Press, 1980), 28, and Nicholas Brigante's interview with Fidel Danieli, 28 January 1975, tape 1; tape on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

36. Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (Columbus, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1983), 34.

37. Archie Musick interview with Mrs. Sylvia Loomis, 10 November 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

38. These books are housed at the Charles E. Young Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, and include about 50 publications ranging from a 1913 National Geographic Magazine titled "The Wonderland of Peru" to Carlos Carrá's 1925 Giotto.

39. Art Students Leagues appeared in other cities, most of them started by former students of the New York school, but none of them had any official affiliation; some of the others were located in Atlanta, Washington D.C., Toronto, Chicago, and Philadelphia. This information was sent to the author by Stephanie Cassidy, archivist at the Art Students League of New York, in an email dated 20 November 2002.

40. The 1945 date is suggested because the document refers to Mrs. Benji Okubo as the secretary of the Heart Mountain League; Benji Okubo and Chisato Takashima married in Billings, Montana, in June of 1945.

41. "Art Students League" ms., rule 7, "By-Laws," (e). Benji Okubo Papers, Japanese American National Museum.

42. Hideo Date labeled all of them "good friends of the League" in a list of members sent to the author on 26 April 2000. Apparently Stevens did start out taking art classes, but quickly decided it was better to be a patron and dealer, rather than a painter. See his oral interview with Betty Hoag on 2 June 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

43. Confirmed by Stephanie Cassidy, ASL-NY, in an email dated 11 July 2003.

44. Henry Clausen recalled the trio as "a colorful updated version of the 'The Three Musketeers,' and their dialectical jousting was quite comparable to the swordplay of the said Musketeers." See Henry Clausen, "Recollections of SMW," in American Art Review 1, no. 2 (January-February 1974): 58.

45. Stanton Macdonald-Wright interview with Betty Hoag on 18 April 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This discussion came up because Hoag was horrified by Frank Stevens' treatment of his paintings. Possibly she was referring to a group of Morgan Russell's work that was later unearthed beneath a house Stevens owned around 1970. Stanton Macdonald-Wright recounted their history in Maurice Tuchman's "Morgan Russell: Unknown Paintings," in California, 5 Footnotes to Modern Art History (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977), 11. The circumstances of how and why Stevens had this work were never fully addressed by either Tuchman or by Gail Levin, in her article in the catalog. According to letters that have surfaced between Russell and his sup-porters at the League, he and Macdonald-Wright had a falling-out during his visit to LA from 1931 to 1932. Several League members thought that Macdonald-Wright, who was acting as Russell's agent in Los Angeles, had not been fairly compensating him for his paintings. This is probably why Stevens, instead of Macdonald-Wright, had these pieces and how afterwards Mabel Alvarez became Russell's representative in Los Angeles. Macdonald-Wright, of course, did not mention any of this when he wrote about the history of these paintings. This episode was mentioned in letters of Mabel Alvarez, Chalfant Head, Fred Sexton, and Morgan Russell.

46. Some of the surviving books from the League's library are inscribed by Stevens; for example, inside of Albert André's Renoir is the note "LA 9/1/24 To the Art Students League With Best Wishes F. L. Stevens."

47. Albert King discussed both Wells' and Stevens' generosity in an interview with Betty Hoag on 10 June 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Herman Cherry mentions them as patrons of Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, as well as League students James Redmond, Albert King, and Fred Sexton; see Cherry, "Los Angeles Revisited," 18.

48. This was probably a common practice among the group: Kirby Temple re-called Albert King giving him a porcelain head of Lohan after Temple had posed for and assisted the artist on his mural for the Ventura Community Church in 1930.

49. Telephone interview with Kirby Temple on 21 March 2002.

50. Letter to the author from Hideo Date postmarked 21 May 2001.

51. His roommates included Wylog Fong, Donald Totten, Benji Okubo, James Redmond, Charles Davis, and Henry Clausen. Date actually lived at the League at different times with Fong, Totten, and Okubo; the Spring Street studio had two twin beds, according to a floor plan Hideo Date sent to the author in a letter postmarked 15 September 2001.

52. Date letter, 21 May 2001. Most of this work was returned to Los Angeles in 1999 when the artist donated 190 pieces to the Japanese American National Museum; a retrospective, largely of his pre-war career, was held at the museum in 2001. See Karin Higa, Living in Color: The Art of Hideo Date (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum and Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001).

53. This exhibition was mentioned in "Night and Day" by Ted LeBerthon in the News, Los Angeles, 27 June 1940: Perret Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library.

54. Los Angeles Times, 22 July 1945, found in the LA Art Association scrapbook, Box 5, 1941-6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

55. Sam Hyde Harris interview with Fidel Danieli, 24 July 1975; tape on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

56. The trip is mentioned in the Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1925, III, 13:2.

57. Brigante/Danieli interview 28 January 1975, tape 2.

58. Their trip was discussed in The Graphic, 2 October 1909, 2:9.

59. Benton sent students to the Los Angeles League as well, such as Archie Musick, Joe Meert, and Bernard Steffen. Artist model and future rare book dealer Henry Clausen was the conduit of information between Macdonald-Wright and his old friend Benton, as Clausen traveled back and forth from coast to coast modeling for both leagues and worked as a professional wrestler along the way.

60. Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1907, III, 2:3-5.

61. Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1907, VI, 2:3-5 and 13 October 1907, VI, 2:4-6.

62. The Graphic, 20 August 1910, 8.

63. It is presently uncertain if George, a.k.a. Gjura, Stojana (1885-1974) attended the Art Students League, but later he was president of the Modern Art Workers, an association made up of many League artists, and his name was mentioned in a couple of Betty Hoag's interviews in the 1960s, so it seems likely he was somehow associated with the school.

64. Charles P. Austin responded vehemently to Macdonald-Wright's criticism in a subsequent column and a young Arthur Millier, who was then working as a dealer, even got into the act by pointing out all of the unheard-of free publicity the two were generating. See Los Angeles Times 4 March 1923, III, 39:7-8.

65. Los Angeles Times, 18 February 1923, III, 41:3-4.

66. Albert King interview with Betty Hoag on 10 June 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

67. Saturday Night, 7 April 1928, from California Art Club album, Vol. 1, 1928, on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

68. Date letter, 26 April 2000.

69. California Art Club, Bulletin IV, no. 4 (April 1928).

70. Los Angeles Times, 28 February 1932, Los Angeles reel 2, frame 544, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. What this critic failed to recognize was that the group was now following Macdonald-Wright's more refined Asian-fusion style; see discussion later in this essay.

71. Los Angeles Record, 10 January 1933, 5:7. Herman Cherry discussed his version of how the gallery started in an interview with Judd Tully on 8 May 1989, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Lorser Feitelson claimed he designed this gallery for Stanley Rose in 1935. See his interview with Fidel Danieli on 2 March 1974, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles.

72. Los Angeles Times, 24 November 1907, VI, 2:4-5.

73. Stevens/Hoag interview, 2 June 1964.

74. Date letter, 26 April 2000.

75. Henry Clausen, "Recollections of SMW": 56.

76. Date letter, 26 April 2000. The core group during Date's time included Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lorser Feitelson, Jack Wells, Frank Stevens, James Redmond, Albert King, Wylog Fong, Nicholas Brigante, Henry Clausen, Donald Totten, Lee Jarvis, Benji Okubo, Kirby Temple, and Herman Cherry.

77. Chalfant Head to Morgan Russell, 27 August 1927, reel 4524, frame 714, Morgan Russell Archives and Collection, the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey.

78. Cherry/Tully interview, 8 May 1989. It should be noted that Cherry, too, noted the "sad changes of the League from what it was five years ago" in a letter to Fred Sexton dated 9 August 1932.

79. Date letter, 26 April 2000.

80. Nicholas Brigante letter to Carl Sprinchorn dated 7 March 1952, reel 3004, frame 251, Carl Sprinchorn Papers.

81. Paul Babcock interview with Betty Hoag on 11 May 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The transcription of this interview has many errors. For example, in this quote the artist's name is incorrectly given as "McDonald Ray."

82. Clausen, "Recollections of SMW": 56.

83. For example, Feitelson would call Macdonald-Wright a "son of a bitch" behind his back, while Macdonald-Wright referred to Feitelson's work at the time, with its brown palette, as "gravy paintings." Date letter, 26 April 2000.

84. Hideo Date and Benji Okubo, for example, painted similar images of women in the 1930s, the former in watercolors and the latter in oils, in which the subject's face is blue or green and the eyes are an intense red. They were experimenting with Macdonald-Wright's Synchromism, although he never specifically taught it to them. Previous students might have been more directly influenced by Macdonald-Wright's publication A Treatise on Color, written for his League students in 1924; some of them, such as Mabel Alvarez and Chalfant Head, held on to their copies for the remainder of their lives. However, Hideo Date said there were no longer any copies around when he was a student at the school beginning in 1928 (Date letter, 26 April 2006).

85. Work in this style has been identified in oils, pencil drawings, murals, mosaic murals, lithographs, watercolors, and porcelain.

86. Hideo Date said the League artists working in this Asian-fusion style were influenced directly by Macdonald-Wright. Letter to the author postmarked 18 August 2001.

87. See Claudia Colonna, "The Art of Stanton Macdonald-Wright," June 1927, Los Angeles reel 5, frame 222, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

88. William H. von Herwig, quoted from the "Independents" catalog for an ex-hibition held at the Palos Verdes Public Library and Art Gallery, 31 October to 31 December 1933, in possession of the author.

89. Archie Musick, Musick Medley: Intimate Memories of a Rocky Mountain Art Colony (Colorado Springs: Jane and Archie Musick, 1971), 52.

90. Letter to the author from Hideo Date postmarked 16 August 2001.

91. The Graphic, 20 August 1910, 8.

92. Everett C. Maxwell mentioned the prints and discussed the screens in great detail, after he visited Slinkard's studio on North Main Street. See The Graphic, 7 September 1912, 9:1-2.

93. The Graphic, 20 August 1910, 8; "Background," Museum Graphic, November-December 1926, 73-75.

94. Lorser Feitelson interview with Molly Saltman, 1965; tape on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. It should be noted that by this time Nicholas Brigante was somewhat removed from the local art scene, after a serious accident kept him housebound. Brigante himself always credited his earlier mentor, Rex Slinkard, with introducing him to Asian art and said that Macdonald-Wright briefly, during one month in 1923, helped him to refine his personal goals concerning Asian art. Another one of Brigante's goals was to raise the watercolor technique to an art form respected on the same level as oil painting. In fact, his efforts may have been the real impetus for the watercolor movement that developed in Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, an idea that should receive further study. So while Brigante was no doubt always aware of the activities of Macdonald-Wright and his followers, he was probably only indirectly influenced by this movement.

95. See Karin Higa's discussion of the influence of nihonga on this artist, Living in Color, 10-14.

96. This was in the last lecture in the series, dated 24 September 1925, titled "On the Philosophy of Aesthetics as dictated to the Art Students League of Los Angeles," transcribed by Mabel Alvarez and housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art library.

97. Hideo Date discussed Macdonald-Wright's painting like Renoir, Matisse, and Cézanne in a letter to the author postmarked 16 September 2002.

98. Arthur Millier, "New Developments in Southern California Painting," American Magazine of Art 27, no. 5 (May 1934): 243­244.

99. See Los Angeles reel 5, frames 312-315, Archives of American Art, Smith-sonian Institution.

100. For a more complete history of the Project in Southern California, see Marilyn Wyman, "A New Deal for Art in Southern California: Mural and Sculpture under Government Patronage" (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 1982).

101. Donald Totten discusses the connections between the League and the Project in his interview with Betty Hoag, 28 May 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

102. The work of Jerre Murray (1904-1973) and Tyrus Wong (b. 1910), for example, shows influences from the Asian-fusion movement. Neither one attended the school, although they were both friends with many of the League students.

103. See Rex Slinkard's letters to Carl Sprinchorn reproduced in Contact, number 1­5, 1920-1924.

104. Brigante letter to Sprinchorn, 15 June 1947.

105. See Will South's essays for an explanation and analysis of this movement in Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2001).

106. Interview with Hideo Date, 22 February 2003.

107. See Lisa Germany, Harwell Hamilton Harris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 15-19.

108. Huston, Open Book, 28­29.

109. Ibid., 49.

110. Stephen Totten interview with John Hench, July 1998.

111. Author interviews with Chisato Okubo, Benji Okubo's widow and his former student at the Heart Mountain League, 2002 and 2003.

112. Donald Totten papers in the possession of the author, ms. lecture titled "Painting in the 20th Century."

113. See Dorothy Jeakins interview with Betty Hoag on 19 June 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

114. Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1907, II, 2:3-6.

115. Telephone interview with Irving Blum, 9 January 2001.

116. Steiner, Art Students League of New York, 41.

 

essay © Pasadena Museum of California Art

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on March 4, 2008 with the permission of the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jenkins Shannon and Maureen St. Gaudens for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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