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A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953
January 20 - April 13, 2008
Founded in 1906 as a school for modern painting in defiance of the academic tradition, the Art Students League of Los Angeles was a crucial institution in the development of Southern California art. Its early instructors taught in the Realist style of the Ashcan School until Stanton Macdonald-Wright assumed the directorship in 1923 and gave the school a new vitality. During his nine-year tenure, the League became a diverse center, stressing the art of as the Middle and Far East as well as Western Europe. When Macdonald-Wright stepped down in 1932, artists such as Lorser Feitelson and Benji Okubo directed the school, and a unique style developed at the League -- the blending of Japanese art techniques and themes along with Macdonald-Wright's color theories. After Pearl Harbor and during the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the school languished and eventually dispersed, but not before former Macdonald-Wright students Okubo and Hideo Date established a branch of the Art Students League at the Heart Mountain Concentration Camp in Wyoming.
A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53, organized by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, comprises the first comprehensive museum exhibition detailing the fascinating history of this group of gifted artists. Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten are guest curators. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, the Tournament of Roses Foundation, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Arts Foundation, Gerald Buck, Anthony and Mary Podell, George and Irene Stern, Lynn and Tim Mason, Jerry Solomon Custom Picture Frames, Louis Stern Fine Arts, Kelley Gallery, Whitney Ganz, Maurine St. Gaudens, National Mustang Association and Harris Art Works, and Simon Chiu.
Wall texts from the exhibition A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953 by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten
As the third oldest art school in Los Angeles, preceded only by Louise Garden McLeod's Los Angeles School of Art and Design and William Lees Judson's College of Fine Arts at U.S.C., the Art Students' League "always stood for unacademic modernity in art instruction," according to its co-founder, the Los Angeles Times art critic, Antony Anderson. Originally organized in the studio of co-founder Hanson Puthuff, where it soon outgrew the format of an informal sketch class, the school moved to downtown Los Angeles into an "amply large and well equipped" studio at the Blanchard Hall Music and Art Building, where the California Art Club also was located. The League offered morning, afternoon, evening, and Saturday classes to individuals and professionals who were unable to attend a regular academic school. During its formative years the League's curriculum featured life classes, as well as classes in drawing, painting, and illustration. It eventually evolved into a mecca for those interested in the more avant garde artistic styles, and soon became the center where ideological dissent was encouraged and experimentation had much virtue and was equally valued as hard work. Individualism was deemed paramount. While never achieving longevity, as experienced by its Eastern counterpart, the Art Students League of Los Angeles engendered an atmosphere for diversity and creativity from which today's Southern California art was built. Among the instructors and directors during this early period were Warren T. Hedges and Rex Slinkard; both students and devotees of Robert Henri, a member of the Ashcan School of Realist painters, who encouraged individuality in the work of his students. Many aspiring artists were impacted by their teaching. A notable example was Pruett Carter, who attended the League after graduating from Los Angeles High School, then went on to study with Henri in New York, and later became a nationally known illustrator and art director for Good Housekeeping and head of the illustration department at the Chouinard Art School.
The untimely death of Hedges and the departure of Slinkard left a void in the school, and while informal instruction continued for a time under Lawrence Murphy, it was after Stanton Macdonald-Wright took over the directorship in 1923 that it regained its vitality. During his tenure as director, a unique style developed at the League -- the blending of Japanese art techniques and themes, along with Macdonald-Wright's color theories -- that affected both the Asian and non-Asians students. He subsequently supervised the Southern California region of the Federal Arts Projects/Works Progress Administration, and this technique may also be seen in examples of FAP/WPA murals, paintings and graphic works created by League members. When he stepped down in 1932, his "disciples," first James Redmond, then Don Totten and lastly Benji Okubo, directed the school from 1932-1942. Following Pearl Harbor and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, former Macdonald-Wright students Okubo and Hideo Date established an Art Students League modeled upon its predecessor at the Heart Mountain Concentration Camp in Wyoming from 1942 until 1945. Fred Sexton, another former Macdonald-Wright student, revived the League in Los Angeles in 1949, continuing in the tradition until its final closing in 1953.
When the Art Students League moved to Blanchard Hall in April of 1906 the school offered a variety of morning, evening and weekend classes. Many of the original students worked during the daytime, and without this flexibility they would have been unable to continue developing their skills as artists. The League's two co-founders understood this dilemma firsthand, as plein-air painter Hanson Puthuff was a commercial artist, while Antony Anderson was the art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Although undocumented, certain aspects of the newly established school could have been loosely based on the well-known Art Students League of New York, which Anderson had previously attended. Among the ideas they emulated were the presence of a nude model in the sketching classes, the formation of a study library and the encouragement of camaraderie among the students, which became a fundamental part of the League experience in Los Angeles. Consequently, the students participated in group exhibitions, they traveled together on sketching trips both locally and abroad, and they frequently socialized with one another. Equally important was the school's modern outlook that allowed attendees the freedom to explore different techniques and styles, and not necessarily follow the rigid academic methods typically found in more traditional art schools.
Many of the early instructors and students naturally responded to the spectacular local scenery. Landscapes and seascapes were common among their oeuvre, as found in Val Costello's pastel-colored landscape of Malibu Canyon, and Bert Cressey's vivid approach to the colorful Palos Verdes coastline. Some of them focused on capturing the unique light found throughout Southern California. Joseph Greenbaum, for instance, explored light and shadow in his Southland Landscape, while Lauren Barton emphasized the intense sunlight in her Sunny Day at Balboa. Despite an environment that encouraged academic freedom, some League instructors inevitably influenced the work of their students. Sam Hyde Harris was obviously inspired by the landscape paintings of his earliest League instructor, Hanson Puthuff, as seen in his painting of the Arroyo Seco. The dramatic palette and painterly technique that Rex Slinkard adopted from his studies with Robert Henri in New York, found in Reclining Nude (a study of League model, Al Treloar), would influence a number of the early students. But Nick Brigante would later credit Slinkard with building the foundation of his knowledge of art history as well.
So during the first decade of the League's existence, the school attracted a number of students and had a strong following. A hand full of talented instructors taught during these formative years; two of them, Joseph Greenbaum and Charles P. Neilson, arrived in Los Angeles after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. But perhaps the most notable individual to emerge during this era was Rex Slinkard, whose charismatic presence would continue to influence the school long after his departure at the end of 1912. It was, perhaps, his spirit that encouraged Val Costello and Nick Brigante to keep the League going in the following decade, despite the fact that it was reduced to more of a weekly sketching group, rather than a full-fledged art school. Eventually they offered the directorship of the League to the internationally known artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright in 1923, and he would revitalize and re-establish it as an important place in the local art scene once again.
The basic skill of drawing was among the most important traditions to be found at the League. Sketching classes were offered from the very beginning, with the original students sometimes even attending extracurricular outdoor classes near Hanson Puthuff's studio in the Arroyo Seco. While students would continue to sketch outdoors throughout the school's existence, probably the main attraction of the League was the nude model available at the weekly sketching classes. Since drawings were produced mainly for study purposes, they were typically done on lightweight newsprint sketching paper. Despite their fragile state, nude studies may be found among the surviving sketches of many League artists, including some who participated in the school during its formative years, such as Rex Slinkard and Nick Brigante.
When Stanton Macdonald-Wright became director of the League he emphasized the Renaissance notion of creating balance and movement -- contrapposto -- when drawing a nude figure. He would typically circle the room during a class and stop to comment on a student's work, sometimes drawing over the figure to make a point, or writing comments about the overall impression of the piece, as he did on many of the surviving drawings by Everett Richardson. He also devised a system of numbering a figure, to give students a better idea of how to create the shift in balance. His disciples who taught at the League and elsewhere adopted the same teaching methods. For instance, some of the student drawings done at the Heart Mountain League under the direction of Benji Okubo are numbered in exactly the same way, while John Hench extended these techniques beyond the League to yet another group: the Disney sketch artists. Hench, who started working for Walt Disney in 1939 and ultimately became president of the Imagineering division, recalled introducing Macdonald-Wright's ideas into the studio, calling them "Mickey's Ten Tips on Drawing."
While the League traditionally had models available for the sketching classes, throughout the school's history both instructors and students frequently posed for one another as well. It was probably a way for many of them to save having to pay a model, although occasionally portraits were done as commissions, or given as gifts to their friends. A surprising number of these portraits remained with their original recipients, the artists themselves, or ended up in the collections of other League members.
The portraits were executed in a variety of mediums and styles, although many were formal oil paintings, like Fred Sexton's portrait of Carl Anderson, or the one of the handsome Herman Cherry done by Mabel Alvarez in 1934 titled Man with a Beard. Two years later Cherry himself made a lithograph portrait of his good friend Archie Musick holding a cat, a favorite motif found in many of their Asian-inspired work, along with the rocky background surrounded by stylized water. These motifs may also be found in Benji Okubo's colorful painting of Woman with Cat, depicting League member Margaret Scott. Another portrait done in this manner is Earnford Sconhoft's pencil drawing of Don Totten, in which the artist used a stylized flowing outline to create his subject.
Some of the more unusual portraits that surfaced include Jimmy Redmond's wonderfully colorful image of the lovely Gwain Noot Sexton in a cloche hat, which was directly inspired by the Synchromistic paintings of his mentor Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The anonymous nude drawing of Everett Richardson was found among his League drawings and papers. It was possibly drawn by fellow student William von Herwig, since it is signed "Bill." Richardson's head playfully appears on a muscular body obviously referencing the style of Morgan Russell's heroic nudes. A number of League artists also painted self portraits, as seen in Helena Dunlap's rather somber version of herself, and in Edouard Vysekal's charming rendition of himself with his wife Luvena. Both paintings, as well as the ones done by Ben Berlin and Kinichi Nakanishi, were executed in a style popular with some of the League artists in the late teens, and undoubtedly inspired by the work of Édouard Manet.
Influences of the Art of Asia and Synchromism
Exposure to Asian art, with "its delicate fancy, its poetry, and its freedom of spirit," by students of the Art Students League of Los Angeles during its early years was limited because the early teachers' backgrounds fostered the styles of Tonalism, Impressionism, and Realism. But interest in the Chinese and Japanese lifestyles and culture fascinated Charles Peter Neilson, whose painting in this exhibition, In Fish Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco, though undated, was probably painted in the late 1890s. His emergence on the scene in Los Angeles and at the Art Students League after the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, possibly his interests had some impact on his students. Also one of the early teachers, Leta Horlocker, became known for her Satsuma pottery after leaving the League. Despite this, reviews of exhibitions held at Blanchard Hall at this time, which included the work of Japanese artists, regularly evoked comments that the works of these painters were largely European in style and technique. So this poses the question as to when and how Asian art became so identified with League artists. Evidence seems to indicate that the seeds were first planted after Rex Slinkard became director. Carl Sprinchorn, who followed him as director, noted, "Although Slinkard showed no preferences at this time for East or West in art..., it is certain that he came under the strong 'Pacific Basin' influence now for the first time, just as he had in the East come under the so-to-speak 'Atlantic Basin' counterpart of this. It was all of a single, 'breathless' piece of excitement and revelation with which to work." He introduced them to modern European painters such as Cezanne, Renoir and Matisse while encouraging them to acquire an appreciation of Asian art and to fuse the methodology of the Far East with their experience and training in Western art. His enthusiasm resulted in providing Nicholas Brigante with the ability to capture elements of Chinese Sung painting into his own work. Brigante did not want to replicate directly from his Eastern sources, instead, he wanted to create a sense of balance while producing something entirely new. His watercolor painting, Porcelain and Oranges, is an example of this balance.
The "Asian fusion" style was most apparent during the directorship of Stanton Macdonald-Wright. While in Paris in 1913 he met Morgan Russell, and together they had developed Synchromism, a theory of color selection based on the musical scales or "color chords." Although Macdonald-Wright had given up hopes of further developing this approach to painting by the mid-1920s, his own work and teaching emphasis continued to stress its most distinguishing qualities. His students were the beneficiaries of this, as well as of his lectures on trends in modern art, and most notably his captivation with Asian culture that had become a major inspiration for his latest paintings. This blending of the two art forms impacted the works of many of his pupils, both Asian and non-Asian. Some of the latter immersed themselves in Eastern studies, religion, and language. Among the former, Hideo Date, while reminiscing about this period, recalled: "During the late 1920s and 1930s, we were influenced by the Orient across the Pacific just as New York was influenced by Europe across the Atlantic. We called ours 'Linear-Composition' whether it's from Japan, China or Persian miniature paintings and we were influenced by Mr. Macdonald-Wright. Whether it's a still life or landscape drawing, artists observe from the top of the mountain and behind the mountain, [three dimensions] and express it in a linear composition so the spectator sees the work in two dimensions." And as a result of his teacher's words, he felt compelled to travel to Japan and to further study the culture of his native land and returned having been exposed to the art movements that were influencing Japanese artists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- such as nihonga, a Japanese style of painting that was distinguished from those works influenced by Western styles. It is after Date's return that the infusion of the techniques became strongly associated with League members. Also, some surmise that it is difficult to identify if the teacher (Macdonald-Wright) was teaching the student (Date) or visa-a-versa.
This style continued to flourish among League members and ultimately found a wider audience throughout the Southern California Federal Art Projects Works Progress Administration. Among the many non-Asian League members whose works done for FAP/WPA were impacted by this fusion of Western and Eastern art and philosophy was James Redmond. His United States Post Office murals in Compton, California, titled Early California, possess "a personal poetry which permeates the flowing oriental line and prismatic coloring of the school. The style is his teacher's, but the delicate drawing of nature forms, as flowers, grasses, etc., is his own." The end of the movement seems to have occurred with the reduction of FAP/WPA assignments and the beginning of WWII. Another contributing factor was the rise in public sentiment as a result of a half-century of anti-Chinese and Japanese legislation and stereotypical caricatures due to fear incited by the "yellow peril" that may have caused some artists to defer from using Asian motifs in their work.
Federal Arts Projects/Works Progress Administration through WWII
In May of 1932 Stanton Macdonald-Wright taught his last class at the League before he departed for an extended visit to New York, so his former students, James Redmond, Donald Totten, and Benji Okubo, successively directed the school until the latter was forced to close it down when he was incarcerated in 1942. Throughout this period the League and many of its students struggled financially as a result of the Great Depression. In the state of California a series of five different New Deal programs existed between 1933 and 1943. Artists were hired to create works of art -- typically murals -- for both federal and non-federal public buildings. Once relief was in place, over thirty artists from the League participated in the Federal Arts Project/Works Progress Administration on a variety of assignments. Some of their work created for the Project was even executed at the League, such as James Redmond's mural for the Compton Post Office.
In 1935, Macdonald-Wright became district supervisor for the Project in Los Angeles (later he became the regional director for Southern California) and he encouraged stylistic freedom to the participating artists. As a result, many of his students who had embraced the Asian-fusion style that developed at the League continued working in this style while on the Project. It was characterized by the formula described above that included a delicate but emphasized flowing outline, flat areas of pure color, sometimes with stylized patterns of designs across the surface, and specific Asian motifs dominating the background, like a large tree, rock or mountain surrounded by curving foamy water or clouds. A skewed perspective, along with a colorful palette adopted from Macdonald-Wright's earlier movement, Synchromism, was typically as well. Donald R. Smith's painting Cats at Play exemplifies this style. The mosaic mural Recreations of Long Beach, which is still on view to the public today, is another example, and at least five League artists are known to have worked on its design and creation.
Some disgruntled Project artists accused Macdonald-Wright of favoritism towards his former students and colleagues. But when the League artists initially applied to the Project they had to submit their work to a committee for approval just like everyone else. They were typically paid either $85 or $94 per month for their efforts, depending on their professional credentials. While many of them designed and worked on public murals, a number of them created other types of art, or participated in other types of jobs. For instance, Nick Brigante and Ben Berlin only produced easel paintings, Carl Winter honed in on lithography, while Archie Garner sculpted a number of pieces in various mediums. Model and aspiring artist Mary Campbell Craig sometimes posed for publicity pictures. Henry Clausen and Frank Stevens worked as administrators, while Al and Louisa (Etcheverry) King along with Lorser Feitelson acted as supervisors as well as artists. Thus, for over a decade, participation in the Project offered many League artists some sort of financial security, and certain aspects of the Project would directly influence their future work. In 1964 Don Totten noted that he had become used to working on such a grand scale because of the Project murals, and that their size subsequently influenced the large abstract paintings he was producing twenty years later, which he described as "portable murals."
Heart Mountain Concentration Camp Art Students League
The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by war hysteria brought on by public opinion and strong urging by politicians and newspapers, greatly influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066 on 19 February 1942. It ordered the removal of all citizens and aliens of Japanese descent from the Western Military Command Zone (California, Oregon, Washington, and parts of Arizona under the command of Lt. General John L. DeWitt). The President did so despite the fact that, two days earlier, Attorney General Francis Biddle had written that he had reservations about the incarceration of American citizens. F.D.R. also ignored the Human Rights concerns of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Between February and June, 110,000 citizens and aliens were removed, some voluntarily, but most by force, from the West
Coast and later transferred to ten concentration camps in California (Manzanar and Tule Lake), Idaho (Minidoka), Arkansas (Jerome and Rowher), Colorado (Granada), Arizona (Gila and Poston), Utah (Topaz), and Wyoming (Heart Mountain) under the War Relocation Authority.
Art Student League members Benji Okubo and Hideo Date were incarcerated at Heart Mountain. While there, they revived the Art Students League and continued the teachings of its Los Angeles predecessor. From the beginning Date was an instructor and participant, but Okubo was the "heart and soul" and dominating figure of the Heart Mountain school. They were joined by instructors Shingo Nishiura and Bob Kuwahara. The Heart Mountain League, like its predecessor, held classes in the evenings and on Saturdays, and boasted an enrollment of fifty students. Art supplies were not available at the camp during the early days, so used-butcher paper was cut into drawing paper-sized sheets. And like the old Los Angeles League, they wanted to use live models, and when paid models were not available, students drew each other. Each student would benefit from their teachers' talents and techniques, receiving criticism and having them demonstrate on their sketches. When it was apparent that the students in attendance were serious about art, Okubo expanded his courses to include the interconnection between the cultural and historical aspects of art and taught an appreciation of the arts of many diverse cultures, such as Greek, Roman, Persian, Mayan, Peruvian, and Asian, which gave his students a strong intellectual and spiritual basis for their art. The League held its first exhibition, a well-attended event, in the camp's recreation hall in December 1942. An article in the Heart Mountain Sentinel stated, "The art which attracted more than 3,000 persons was held not in a salon or in the spacious colonnaded halls of a metropolitan museum, but in the crowded recreation hall of Heart Mountain."
Date soon left the League and became reclusive, spending much of his time drawing cats and listening to classical music. Unlike Date, Okubo depicted his experience in the camp with poignant portrayals reflecting his attitude about the war and his incarceration. He also continued to teach and hold exhibitions, even after the number of students at the League declined following the segregation of the "No, Noes," the installation of the military draft, and the voluntary departures of inmates to destinations east of the West Coast Military Command Zone, keeping the League doors open until the camp closed in September of 1945. To the end, he had a following of students who admired him in the true fashion of Macdonald-Wright. They were known as "Benji's Disciples."
Legacy: Individuality, Inspiration and Independence
The League's long-term affect on its students was often complex and not always something that could be easily measured. For some, the theoretical ideas and stylistic elements they explored while attending the school would continue to challenge them, and be absorbed in their post-League work. Then again, certain students responded to the personal style of their charismatic teachers, while others thrived under the League's congenial atmosphere and formed friendships with fellow students that lasted a lifetime. As discussed in some of the examples below, many who attended were influenced by a combination of these factors, but at the same time there were some students who for the most part remained unaffected by the school.
When Nick Brigante acknowledged a debt to all of his League instructors for their role on his development as an artist, he singled out Rex Slinkard as perhaps the most inspiring teacher, both to himself, as well as many others who attended under the direction of this charismatic individual. Thoughts of Rex and the school had lingered in his memories, and so a decade after Slinkard's departure from the League, Brigante was inspired to create a series of pen and ink drawings done in the director's bold, linear style. These drawings depicted different scenes of the interior and exterior of the North Main Street studio. Then twenty-five years later, when Brigante was writing about the early history of the League, his recollections stirred up old memories and once again inspired him to record his impressions of the school. His three Memories of the League pieces, which include the two studies done on paper that led to the final painting in oil, all symbolize his poignant attachment to this important place from his past.
Many who attended under the leadership of Stanton Macdonald-Wright were profoundly affected by the importance of color, undoubtedly a legacy from this director's role as a co-founder of Synchromism. Herman Cherry claimed that it took him a long time to let go of this influence, but at the same time he acknowledged that Macdonald-Wright taught him to truly see color. In Cherry's case it became the means by which he created his later abstract paintings of brilliant tones and simple forms. Hideo Date, who settled in New York after the war had ended, also found it difficult to let go of Macdonald-Wright's influence. In the mid-1970s he decided to face his frustrations head on, by specifically re-addressing his teacher's Synchromistic color theories. Date even created his own hand-painted color wheels to assist him in this quest. Oddly enough, Macdonald-Wright had also revisited his earlier color theories, and these two artists, who had not been in touch for decades and lived on opposite coasts, ended up producing hauntingly similar paintings that are very stylized in their form.
Conrad Buff and Paul Sample are two painters who remained stylistically independent from the impact of their League teachers. Buff, who attended during the tenure of Rex Slinkard, quickly became disenchanted with the methods that Slinkard had recently learned from Robert Henri, and he promptly quit. Buff returned on occasion to attend the sketching classes, probably lured back by the nude model consistently available, but his signature style depicting mountains and desert landscapes in flat broad planes of color developed away from the League. Paul Sample attended in the following decade, when the school was under the leadership of Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Later he would recall the inspiring intellect of Macdonald-Wright and describe the exchanges between teacher and students as unpredictable and exciting, but his work from this period and beyond never displayed any recognizable influences.
Ben Berlin created the unique paintings that he is best known for today throughout his long association with the League. He would continuously experiment with different ideas and styles, and his wild abstract visions must be ranked among the most unusual work every produced by a League artist. However, Berlin also produced Post-Impressionistic styled paintings at the same time, which reflect much more traditional influences from his early years at the League. He would continue to paint in this manner up until the time of his death, mainly out of financial necessity, because a market existed for this type of work. Sadly, while the experimental abstractions were clearly his style of choice, he reportedly gave most of them away because they did not appeal to then-contemporary buyers. Boris Deutsch, a fellow student from the League, would observe that Ben Berlin's abstract work "will be remembered 200 years from now for his strange adventures in paint, while virtually all other California painters of this period will be forgotten."
© Pasadena Museum of California Art
Art Students League of Los Angeles Chronology
Compiled by Phil Kovinick
Resource Library editor's note:
The above wall panel texts were reprinted in Resource Library on February 29, 2008 with the permission of the authors and the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Julia Armstrong-Totten, Thomas Kellaway, Marian Kovinick, Jenkins Shannon, and Maureen St. Gaudens for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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