Harlem Renaissance History Painting in L.A.

Fluff shows of corporate art collections are generally the lowest of the low. An exception is at the California African American Museum through next June. “The Legacy of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company: More Than a Business” surveys a storied patron. In 1965 GSM initiated a corporate collection of African-American art at its Los Angeles headquarters. That was three years before the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem. GSM became a crucial collector when the art market and museums weren’t interested in black art unless it came from Africa.

Then Golden State Mutual fell off a fiscal cliff. In 2007 it sold the cream of its art collection at Swann Auction Galleries, New York. The works at CAAM are mostly second-string, supplemented by a few loans. The quality is wildly uneven, but that’s part of the interest. This is a core sample of one of the first systematic collections of its kind. A hopeful wall label talks up the possibility of the museum acquiring the remaining works in the GSM collection.

Most interesting are two works that aren’t properly in the show. In 1949, before the official art collection began, GSM commissioned two major Harlem Renaissance painters, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, to paint a pair of murals for their Paul Williams-designed building at Western and Adams. They were titled The Negro in California History, with Alston doing Colonization and Exploitation (top of post) and Woodruff Settlement and Development (above). In 2011 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History offered $750,000 for the two murals. They withdrew after a West Coast outcry (and claims that the murals were worth more than offered).

That leaves the fate of the murals in the air. Though neither painting is at CAAM, they have an instructive room on their history with documents, installation photos, and large color reproductions. For the time being, both murals can be seen by appointment in the GSM building.

Both Alson and Woodruff had achieved fame in the 1930s, when Mexican-style murals were in vogue. Alston is best known for his Harlem Hospital murals (left, Modern Medicine, 1937). He was a stylistic chameleon, also doing trippy surrealism, portraits of working folk, and abstract expressionism. To get by he did cartoons, war posters, and album covers for Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. The white-horsed Spaniard in the center of Alston’s GSM mural represents the founding of Los Angeles. Most of the city’s original settlers were African-descended subjects of the Spanish crown.

Woodruff’s Settlement and Development is about as dystopian a take on the American dream as you could expect to find in an insurance company office. Still, it’s tame next to Woodruff’s famous Amistad murals at Talladega College (1937, below), a mass of writhing, Thomas Hart Benton figures going Django on each other. Recently conserved, the Amistad murals began a seven-city tour this past summer.

There’s a case for keeping the GSM murals where they are, in Williams’ landmark moderne building. But the building’s future is equally uncertain. No one knows who will own it and with what intention. It’s been reported that community groups are trying to raise funds to buy the murals. As Golden State Mutual is bankrupt, a sale would have to be at market value—whatever that is.

The murals were made to be removable. Should they be sold and moved, their size (16’5″ by 9’3″) will limit their appeal to private collectors and raise issues for public display.

Museums tend not to like large paintings unless they’re quintessential works by major artists. The GSM murals aren’t either artist’s greatest work artistically. They do represent a type of painting with few parallels in Los Angeles (one being Siqueiro’s America Tropical). As art and as visual history, the two murals would fit perfectly into CAAM’s collection. Barring a miracle, it probably doesn’t have the money to buy them.

One thing’s for sure: The murals mean more in Los Angeles than they will anywhere else.

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