Fallbrook Art & Cultural Center
photo: John Hazeltine
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The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960
Selections from the Michael Johnson Collection
From the Introduction of the exhibition catalogue, guest curator and collector Michael Johnson states: "From the Great Depression through the turbulent era of the 1960s, a select group of California artists produced what is today referred to as American Scene Painting. Their work, particularly the watercolors featuring regional California and western subjects, received national recognition. For nearly the past fifty years, this work has been largely ignored as the spotlight shifted to abstract expressionism and subsequent artistic developments." While not intended to cover all of the notable artists of the period, the exhibition does include worthy examples of watercolors from a number of California's most memorable depression-era artists.
The Lighter Side of the Depression
Working in the American populist tradition of Duke Ellington, William Faulkner, George Gershwin, and Sinclair Lewis, California artists of the Depression-era depicted a fascinating region and pattern of life quite different from other parts of the country. The Michael Johnson Collection makes the work of such artists its focus, in particular the watercolor paintings of the California School - a loose association of artists who interpreted the "American Scene" in a uniquely California way.
Images from left to right: Ritchie A. Benson ( - 1996) "Lake Union Boat Works" c. 1950s; Mary Blair (1911 - 1978) "The Circus" 1935; Blaire Field (Active c. 1940s) "Under the Bridge" 1939; James Fitzgerald (1899-1971), "Berta Ranch," c. 1930s
The California School's love of the natural California landscape as well as for the ad hoc cacophony of the built environment is obvious and infectious, particularly in Johnson's collection. Collecting few works that express the more difficult side of things during the Depression, Johnson gravitates toward paintings with narrative power that are lighthearted slices of life.
From about 1928 to 1942, the national trend among American artists and writers was to play an active role in society and to create an art that was effective in communicating the cultural ideals of the nation. For the most part, the "American Scene" movement grew out of the disruptive upheavals that arose in the United States during the Great Depression and up to the outbreak of World War II. American Scene art and literature captured the country's social, political and industrial life, reflecting both the development of modern mass culture and nostalgia for a simpler, more agrarian past.
Prominent critics of the day like Thomas Craven and the New Republic's Edmund Wilson supported the American Scene, and writers like John Steinbeck and William Saroyan vividly captured it. It was poignantly documented in the photographs of Dorothea Lange, and central to the work of nationally known painters in the midwestern and eastern United States like Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and Grant Wood. Some American Scene writers and artists (called Social Realists) made work reflecting the difficult social conditions and everyday dramas created by widespread poverty. For the most part, however, literary and visual Regionalists took a more positive outlook, expressing their personal responses to a given environment based on direct experience without a reformist stance.
Images from left to right: George Gibson (1904 - ) "Toward Bunker Hill" 1946; Harold Gretzner (1902 - 1977) "State Capitol"; Ralph Hulett (1915 - 1974) "View of the Grape Vineyards" 1944; Emil Kosa, Jr. (1903 - 1986) "Moore Hill, Los Angeles" 1940
In Southern California, Regionalist artists such as EmilKosa, Dan Lutz, Ben Messick, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, and Millard Sheets were active in the California Water Color Society and in the artistic community that grew up around Chouinard School of Art. Prominent among the San Francisco Bay Area artists were John Haley, Dong Kingman, Erle Loran, Alexander Nepote, and George Post. The "Berkeley School" led by Haley and Loran championed somewhat brighter colors and a more modernist approach than that in Southern California (in a style borrowed from Hans Hofmann and Raoul Dufy).
Many artists in California, like Rex Brandt and Milford Zornes, survived the Depression by working as muralists and easel painters on the federal arts projects instituted under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. While most California Regionalists created mainly positive images of rural and urban life, paintings by some, such as Paul Sample, implied a mild social commentary. This was due to the vital presence of the Mexican muralists in California during the 1930s. The art cognoscenti of the day on the West Coast extolled Mexican art and were aware that it provided the model for the New Deal projects and propelled the national mural movement forward.
Numerous artists, including Lee and Mary Blair, Phil Dike, Hardie Gramatky, and Charles Payzant, worked in the film industry, especially the animation field. Because of the vivid interaction of film with the more traditional arts during the Depression, California Regionalist paintings share much with the cartoons of the Walt Disney Studios: humorous characterization, masterful depiction of action and movement, anthropomorphism, and rhythmic application of color to emphasize the emotional tone of the work. The film industry contributed to an economic recovery that was felt as early as 1934 in Los Angeles - far earlier than in other parts of the country. Therefore, the image of California as a Golden Land prevailed during the Depression.
Images from left to right: Jake Lee (1915 - 1991) "Oil Field, Signal Hill" c. 1940s; Phil Paradise (1905 - 1997) "Mining Town" 1938; Millard Sheets (1907 - 1989) "Symphony Under the Stars" 1956; Joseph Weisman (1906 - 1977) "Lew King Chair Repair" 1935
California School paintings have social and cultural significance as embodiments of the California Dream - promising freedom, individualism, and new possibilities. The paintings reflect a mobile society that emphasized recreation and entertainment as a way of life, as well as other features of life in California that make the state a tourist mecca. Because of the year-round climate, for example, many Regionalist artists in California elected to paint their scenes of everday life outdoors, directly from nature. They developed a plein-air approach in the portrayal of the American Scene, and used the medium of watercolor, which afforded gestural freedom and improvisation. The delightful interaction of the artist with the natural and man-made environment is tangible and invigorating.
During the 1930s, critics began to recognize and comment on the progress of this new and vigorous watercolor movement, calling it "the California School". Watercolor became a major vehicle of expression on the West Coast, propelling a national interest in the medium. This distinguished the California artists' work nationally and it characterizes The Michael Johnson Collection as well.
Johnson's primary prerequisites in choosing watercolors for his collection, aside from the aesthetic qualities of the work he so admires, are that they "tell a story about a certain time and place" and are expressive of the human element of the new industrial landscape. It seems natural that Johnson would gravitate toward the watercolor work of Depression-era artists rather than their oil paintings, which were usually completed over time in the studio. Painted quickly on location in one sitting, their watercolors are more highly expressive of a certain moment in time.
Aside from the work of artists who were major and minor players in the national and regional art scene in California during the Depression and through the war era, Johnson also collects postwar watercolors up to the early 1960s. The experience of World War II forced many American artists into a spiritual revolution, transforming them from painters of the local scene into seekers of a deeper meaning and significance to life. After the war, the Regionalist movement lost its impetus and largely submitted to radically new developments in American art. But for many artists the urge to paint their everyday surroundings continued.
Johnson collects the postwar work of key artists of the California School, as well as work by lesser-known "second generation" artists like Jake Lee, Ralph Hulett, Crandall Norton, Dorothy Sklar Phillips, Ken Potter, and Ed Reep, who in some way emulate the earlier American Scene artists. Johnson continues to enjoy discovering artists that have been overlooked, and is attracted to images that remind him of his youth in Southern California during the 1950s and early 1960s. He grew up in a highly creative and free-spirited atmosphere, with a mother who is a painter, and loves art and antiques. Most of the works in The Michael Johnson Collection make the collector smile. Like other private collections of art, it is somewhat eccentric and reflective of Johnson's personal taste - even the laborers in his Depression-era paintings look like they are having a good time.
Essay by Susan M. Anderson, independent curator and art historian.
The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960 opens September 11, 1999 at Fallbrook Art & Cultural Center and runs through Sepember 30, 1999.
Text and images from the catalogue of the exhibition. Courtesy of The Michael Johnson Collection. Mr. Johnson resides in Fallbrook, CA and may be reached at 760-731-0189.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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