California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media
Has California produced important art? Yes. Now the details of California's art achievements have been organized and condensed into a single tome, California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media (Glendale, Ca.. Dustin Publications, 1998). Copies are available at selected bookstores.
What is "California art?" For the purposes of this book California art is any art made by an artist who has established a period of residency in the state. While the book' s main thrust is painting, the medium most people collect, periodic chapters briefly survey sculpture, printmaking, photography, and arts and crafts, both to establish a setting for the style changes through which painting evolved and to show painting's relationship to other media. The volume covers the entire history of California art from the early mapmakers and explorers to the landscapists of the early twentieth century, the post-World War II modernists, and the late twentieth-century "idea" artists who champion personal, social and political issues.
There are many possible approaches to the telling of California art. This book focuses on style, which the author sees as integrally tied to the corresponding era's social, political, and economic conditions. Thus, when looking at the earliest pictorial images of California - maps and scientific drawings of the landscape, flora, and fauna - the reader is made to understand that these art forms evolved from the needs of the times, the need to document the newly discovered areas of the world and the need to illustrate the spate of new scientific treatises. The reader understands that art flourished in the Spanish era missions thanks to a sensitive and educated clergy but that fine art floundered during Mexican times, because wealth was in the hands of rancheros whose interests were in "earthly" things such as raising cattle.
California' s art changes drastically with the Gold Rush of 1849 and the sudden influx of "Yankees" with their practical natures and their belief in individualism. Suddenly Northern California had towns and these developed art communities with all the complexity associated with sophisticated towns in the East. Included among the populace were artists. They survived financially by making art that responded to their constituents. Artists painted views of the Gold Rush to satisfy the curiosity of Americans about the event; others painted portraits of California's new class of wealthy individuals; others drew views of the young growing towns springing up in the gold country, while yet others designed pictorial letterheads for writing paper or made illustrations for the many newspapers and magazines that began to be printed in Northern California.
One of the most obvious things that makes California paintings different from those of other states is the geography they depict. Until recently California has been a rural rather than an urban state, and its artists have evinced particular strength in landscape painting. First taking form as palace-sized, magnificent panoramas of Yosemite and the Sierra painted by Northern California artists of the nineteenth century, landscape evolved, following stylistic traditions established in Europe, brilliantly climaxing with the light-filled, Impressionist landscapes of the early twentieth century. But California is so large, with such varied topography and ecological zones that no one terrain exemplifies the whole state. Besides the magnificent Sierra and rolling grass-covered hills, California landscapes can also depict the sear desert, the sunny shoreline, or most recently, smog-choked cities.
The attitudes of Californians are also revealed in their art. Just after the turn of the century California' s reverence and awe of the East began to wane. Thus, even though New York city's artists focused on the urban scene, Californians responded to the conditions in their own state and excelled in art based on rural subject matter. Perhaps defensively, perhaps with pride, their writings began to boast of their more healthful climate (with its associated more moral lifestyle), the beauty oftheir terrain, and the independence of their artists from East Coast and European influence. California's rural bent fostered an especially rich Arts and Crafts movement with its back-to-nature posit, and a movement of Impressionist landscapes, particularly strong in Southern California where its desire to capture light was facilitated by the area's naturally bright sunshine.
The state's attitude was particularly evident in the 1930s when California artists rejected New York's lead in painting scenes of urban conflict and depression, of which there was little evidence in the state, and opted instead to paint fertile farmlands and views of average people leading productive lives, scenes projecting positive American values and the goodness of the land.
World War II forced the dwellers in Eden to accept themselves as part of a world in conflict. California's long shoreline on the Pacific, its rich agricultural resources, its many military bases, and its aircraft and shipbuilding plants were put on overtime as the state became America's embarkation point to Pacific Operations. Art was affected when the state's many Japanese-Americans, some of whom were artists, were gathered into internment camps and when some of California's watercolorists were sent to war fronts by the U. S. Government and Life magazine to depict war scenes. On the home front other artists dropped their personal artistic goals to improve the drawings used in the aircrafl plants, to make training films, to teach art to recuperating servicemen, and to lend their art to decorate military bases.
Up to the outbreak of World War II, Modernism only found a few advocates. Notable were the handful of artists in Southern California who worked in their own versions of abstract styles originated in Europe about 1910. However the trauma of World War II broke Europe's cultural hold over America and saw the United States emerging as a world power. In post-World War II San Francisco artists created a version of Abstract Expressionism of equal validity to the more heralded version created in New York. And, in the 1960s, when Minimalist paintings of simple geometric shapes were the fashion, a handful of artists in Los Angeles stepped far ahead of New York by utilizing new materials such as plastic, glass, and light and by exploring human perception.
If California artists showed any affinity for Modernism it was for the Surrealist variety with its interest in the human and organic and its imagery derived from the mind. As early as 1934, two Los Angeles artists showcased their version of Surrealism - Post-Surrealism -- and the state was notable for the several European Surrealists who took refuge in it during World War II. Since 1960, particularly in Northern California, Californians' independent natures and predilection for fantasy have resulted in important artistic trends having no equivalent on the East Coast. These include the assemblage and paintings of the Beat culture of the 1950s as well as the rock posters and Visionary paintings of the hippie culture of the 1960s. It also includes the Personal Mythology art practiced by some of the Bay Area teacher-artists and those in Davis and Sacramento. Southern California had its own versions strongly influenced by the fantasy of Hollywood and the car and surfer cultures of the 1950s and 1960s. The trend survives today in still lifes marked by enigma and in the narratives painted by some artists using iconography appropriated from cartoons, the state's various countercultures, Hollywood films, and advertising.
California' s racially rich population mix has exerted particular influence on the state's art. Prior to World War II, aesthetic elements such as calligraphic brushwork and bird's-eye perspective associated with Asian art were noticed in California watercolors; from south of the border came Mexican subject matter, robust figures, and strong colors. In the immediate postwar period the Zen philosophy exerted particular influence on California's crafts and on Beat painting. But the greatest impact was witnessed after the mid 1960s and the Civil Rights revolution when African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American artists merged style and iconography from their racial backgrounds with those practiced by the establishment art world, to deliver their pleas for equality and understanding.
In the last thirty years, a time period art historians term Post-Modern because it follows the great postwar period of Modernism, California art has swung away from an interest in style toward subject matter and messages. Thus, abstraction has given way to representational painting through which the latter can best be conveyed. The revolt began in the early 1960s with Pop Art, and California artists distinguished themselves by depicting things identified with the state such as items from the automobile culture.
...California art has swung away from an interest in style toward subject matter and messages. Thus, abstraction has given way to representational painting through which the latter can best be conveyed.
The revolt continued with the Photorealist style that was pioneered by three Northern California artists in the 1960s and is distinguished by its merging of painting and photography. Realism has been the main vehicle with which most of the "minority" groups that emerged during the 1960s voiced their concerns. Individual realistic motifs having implied meanings are appropriated by Conceptual artists to present their posits. And, a large body of painters continues to create figurals, still lifes, and landscapes in various realistic styles.
In the competition for America's top art center, San Francisco and Los Angeles have frequently given serious challenge to New York. In recent years it was most evident when San Francisco artists created their own brand of Abstract Expressionism and when Los Angeles artists worked with new materials of spray paint, glass, plastic, and light and investigated human perception. Since the mid 1970s Los Angeles is again taking a world lead in the creation of paintings based on idea-ridden motifs appropriated from earlier eras, particularly from the popular and advertising cultures.
Although the book's emphasis is on painting, interspersed chapters show that California has also made important contributions to other media such as sculpture, photography, printmaking, and arts and crafts.
Five years in the research and writing, authored by Nancy Moure who has been defining pre-1945 Southern California art for the last twenty-five years, the book is the first to treat the whole of California art and the first to summarize and put some organization to the art of the last twenty five years. The single author brings a uniform writing style and analysis to both pre- and post-1945 art. The main points are presented in a simple, straightfonvard manner, free from aesthetic verbiage and pretentious language. The authar sets the scene by describing each trend's attributes, explains how California's version differs from that of other states, and then presents examples by the top artists of that style. Readers wanting more information are provided with an extensive bibliography following each chapter.
Note: The book is available from Dustin Publications in Glendale. For information on how to order, call 818-242-7000 or write 935 West Mountain Street, Glendale, California 91202. Credit cards accepted. Requests filled in order of receipt.
This page was originally published 12/4/98 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11
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