California Scene painting was tough art for a tough time. Created mainly in the 1930s and 1940s, its talking point is familiar to all following the 2016 Presidential race. The little guy/gal has been shafted. The California Scene movement now has a museum of its own, the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Admission is free, parking is free, and it’s steps away from a Metrolink station. (At top, Fletcher Martin’s Lad From the Fleet, 1938).
The Hilbert Museum is a 6000-sq. ft. space created to show the collection of Mark and Jan Hilbert. The Hilberts own many of the best, most exhibited and reproduced watercolors and oil paintings of the movement. They have donated 247 works, of which just over 100 are now on view. The Hilberts plan to donate their entire 1000-piece and growing collection, and Chapman University plans to install it in a larger 18,000 sq. ft. building c. 2019.
There aren’t many more narrowly focused art museums than the Hilbert. Neither the names of the artists nor “California Scene” itself rates much recognition with the general public. Those who know who Fletcher Martin or Millard Sheets or Barse Miller are, generally rate them as footnotes to the global history of modernism.
Actually, these artists once had national reputations. MoMA bought Martin’s Trouble in Frisco in 1939 (today the brawling sailors rarely leave MoMA’s brig). Sheets had commissions from DC to Honolulu, including Notre Dame’s “Touchdown Jesus” mural.
California Scene was our region’s brand of Regionalism. It replaced idyllic plein-air views of scenic California with Grapes of Wrath squalor and morally compromised urbanity. Though a conservative movement, its artists were aware of the New Objectivity, surrealism, magic realism, and precisionism. Many of the works show cinematic framing devices and are inflected by film noir. That is no coincidence. Much California Scene painting was a personal project by artists who paid the rent in a Depression gig economy of doing set paintings, posters, and animation cels for Hollywood studios. Other artists were commercial illustrators, some working for the auto club’s Westways magazine. The Westways covers were the paradise wing of the triptych, and consequently less memorable.
A section of the museum’s inaugural exhibition presents works recently acquired by the Hilberts. The collectors are acquiring more abstraction and later works building on the California Scene legacy, such as the unclassifiable Edward Biberman (Cityscape, 1960s).
Barse Miller had successful careers on both coasts. His L.A. work often explores the seedy side of the California Dream. If I Had the Wings of an Angel (1937) is an oil painting that look something like a watercolor. The carousel was in Lincoln Heights.
St. Louis-born Burr Singer moved to L.A. and become a habitué of the long-gone jazz scene of South Central. She exhibited at the pre-LACMA County Museum. Touch Up is dated to the 1940s.
One of the few African-Americans in the Hilbert collection is Raymond Howell. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury, and his Evening Out, San Francisco, was created in the summer-of-love/Black Panther sixties. It’s nothing like you might expect from that. A Mars Attacks! ray gun has transformed the city’s women into Degas ballerinas with Lisa Marie bouffants. An adult-faced child grabs the crotch of a doll that is just like her Stepford mom, and herself.
Long before Catherine Opie, freeways were a counterintuitively rich subject. Ralph Hulett’s Diversion (1960s) documents the destruction of Bunker Hill for the god of real estate. It’s a decorative style applied to California at its most dystopian. The leaden smog light is haunting, and for good measure Hulett supplied a dab of red, just as Turner might have.
For Roger Kuntz (Arches, 1961) and Edward Biberman (Under the Freeway, 1960s), the freeway was the road to abstraction, and the journey was more important than the destination.
Jean Swiggett’s Construction Zone (1963, at bottom) is magic realism in the Eugene Berman mode. Swiggett went on to paint homoerotic tableaux of nudist hippies.
Do we need a museum devoted to California Scene painting? The movement is quintessentially a watercolor medium. These can’t be displayed permanently, so the collection is effectively smaller than the numbers might indicate. It’s said that about half the Hilbert collection is lithographs, also light-sensitive. There are other museums regularly showing California Scene painting, such as the Pasadena Museum of California Art (which has no permanent collection) and the Laguna Museum of Art (which does). Those museums also show other phases of California modernism, and contemporary art as well. The Hilbert Museum will have a challenge in building audience awareness. But unlike many vanity museums, the Hilbert Museum has a laser-sharp mission. The message of the inaugural display is simple: Whatever you know about California Modern is wrong.
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