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MARGARITA NIETO

MAPPING OF A DECADE:
LOS ANGELES
DURING THE 1930’s

Part 1

go to part 2


My appreciation to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution for the opportunity to research this material, originally extended during the course of a Smithsonian Senior Postdoctoral fellowship (1990-1991). Two files must be singled out for providing a crucial foundation for the present article, the Ferdinand W. Perret History of California Art, 1850-1950 and the Earl Stendahl Gallery files. What follows is a mapping and reading of a city of the past, as revealed in those archives.



Jessie Arms Botke,
"Peacock, Grapes
and Flowers, o/c.






Rinaldo Cuneo, "Candle,
Garlic, and Apples," 29 x 35".





Tokio Ueyama (1890-1954),
"Carmel Highlands,"
o/c, 32 x 40".
A trip through Los Angeles in the thirties is to catch glimpses of familiar streets with unfamiliar sights. The rise of Union Station amidst the rubble of Old Chinatown, images caught in forgotten woodcuts by Vernon Jay Morse. Views of the city from Hollywoodland and the J. W. Art Gallery, closed in 1933 after 37 years in Los Angeles, and later, down the hill in Hollywood, the Centaur Gallery and up the street, Howard Putzel’s cutting-edge gallery. There’s Olvera Street, with its artists’ studios, the Plaza Center Gallery, and the little theater with its Alson Clark curtain. In East Hollywood Barnsdall Park is the scene of the meetings of the California Art Club thanks to Mabel Barnsdall’s generosity. To the south is Los Angeles County Museum, then located at Exposition Park. By MacArthur park sits Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard’s art school, later to be aquired by Disney, then relocated and renamed CalArts. And of course, Seventh Street and the downtown department stores, the city’s “Art Lane.”

These places also set the scene for the conflictive debates and dialectics centering on, in the vernacular of the period, the ‘traditional’ versus the ‘new,’ the ‘foreign’ versus the ‘American.’ For the thirties in Los Angeles was a decade in which the political and economic realities of a global economic depression, and the threatening rumbles of tyrannical authoritarianism coming from Europe couldn’t be ignored. Sunshine and oranges, starlets and beaches could not in themselves filter out the anxieties of a period of global crisis. Los Angeles was already geographically situated to be a receptor of influences. So let’s climb aboard the metaphorical red car, slide into our wooden seats, grab onto the metal pole and go on this passage through time glancing briefly out of our cosmic windows at the scenes and activities that aroused the Los Angeles arts community’s attention, ire, enthusiasm and excitement during this decade of change.

But where are we now? Ah, its 1931 and--is this really Seventh Street downtown, all decked out as an Art Lane? It’s the California Artists Fiesta. Barker Brothers, Bullocks, the Biltmore Hotel, the Central Library have been transformed into galleries to celebrate. There’ll be a parade on September 1st and the Art Day itself will be celebrated on the 11th. At the Plaza Art Center the gallery director, F.K Ferenz, and painter-teacher-critic, Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna, are hosting a contemporary Mexican artists’ exhibition of 135 works made available through Alma Reed’s New York Delphic Studios and the Weyhe Galleries. De la Serna has also painted a mural for the occasion (since destroyed; he also had assisted José Clemente Orozco in the painting of the still extant Prometheus in Claremont’s Pomona College in 1930).

We rumble into October and the city is abuzz with the recent visit and lecture to the California Art club by the renowned French art critic and art historian, Dr. Elie Faure. Translated by Julian K. Garnsey for The Art Digest, Dr. Faure stated in essence that Paris is “. . .now only the capital of traders in painting,” and “Ancient America is. . .twenty times greater than Egypt.” Further along he said something even more sensational: That Americans have a greater obligation to restore the ancient American monuments than Versailles because, “You have an obligation in that those Aztecs are your real ancestors, for people are related to the land they live in rather than to their racial stocks. From whatever part of the world you or your fathers may have come, you have adopted America and this land transforms you into her own sons.” Entitled The Revolution in Art in the World Today and drawn from Dr. Faure’s book, The Spirit of Forms, The Art Digest article is nonetheless entitled Faure’s Diatribe.

But there, beyond on the horizon, we’re approaching 1932. Clattering on the tracks we ride over to Chouinard, where the internationally famous painter-muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros has taken the town by storm. Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard herself invited him to come up from Mexico to give a class on mural production. After all, it was Siquieros’ fellow painter Diego Rivera who won the Grand Prize just seven years ago at The First Pan American Exhibition of Oil Painting with his Flower Day, and since 1930 Rivera has been busily painting in San Francisco. By last year he had finished three murals there, including one at the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Closer by in Claremont their compatriot, the painter-muralist José Clemente Orozco painted the aforementioned Prometheus mural just two years ago. Maybe, just maybe, it’s Los Angeles’ turn now.

Siquieros is scheduled to lecture to the John Reed Club on the technical revolution in painting, a lecture entitled, “The Vehicles of Dialectic-Subversive Painting.” He’s organizing mural collectives with local artists, and holding exhibitions at the prominent Earl Stendahl Gallery. These works are snapped up by collectors like film writer-directors Joseph Von Sternberg and John Huston. In addition two mural commissions are in the works, one at Olvera Street and another at film writer-director Dudley Murphy’s home. Murphy is a friend of Siqueiros’ friend, the Russian filmaker Serge Eisenstein. And working with the “Bloc of Mural Painters,” including Paul Sample (President of the California Arts Club), Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Reuben Kadish and Fletcher Martin, he had directed the painting of a mural, Workers Meeting, in the Chouinard sculpture court.

From among this group Barse Miller and his Apparition Over Los Angeles this year took the Clara B. Dyer Prize for “the best representation of the local scene” at the Los Angeles County Museum’s annual show, yet saw it removed from the exhibition! Too controversial according to Director William Alanson Bryan. Actually, not such a big surprise, as the “holy” trinity poised in cloudy serenity above the landmark Angelus Temple (still very much a part of the local landscape in Echo Park) are none other than Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother, perhaps the then two most powerful women in L.A., and a man with whom McPherson was scandalously linked. But that’s a whole other story. . .

We clatter down into May, when Boris Deutsch’s first exhibition since 1926 will be held at the County Museum. There is a catalogue essay by Arthur Millier, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times and a great admirer of Deutsch’s work. June features Impressions in Silver, an exhibition of 40 silver nitrate photographs by Imogene Cunningham (including one of Frieda--Mrs. Diego Rivera, and Marta (sic) Graham--Dancer). A choice of coaches now. Choose your route. You may attend two different series of lectures running from April to December, one on Japanese art given by Professor Ken Nakazawa, and the other, on Chinese art, to be given by Hans Dordwin Baron Von Koerber, both from the Department of Oriental Studies at USC.

Back to Chouinard, where this summer brings internationally known artist Hans Hofmann [Hofmann is currently featured at Manny Silverman Gallery in West Hollywood; see also last month's write up--Ed.] in from Berkeley, where he has had “phenomenal success among his students,” to teach classes from June to September.

And now it’s July, with the first Olympic Games to be celebrated in Los Angeles at the beautiful new Coliseum. Right across the street, at the Museum, the art world celebrates with an Olympic Art Exhibition centering on the theme of sports and including works drawn from painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts. It opens on July 30 with 31 nations participating. The works fill fifteen galleries, the foyer, the rotunda and the main hall.


Newspaper clipping covering
removal of Barse Miller’s
“Apparition Over Los Angeles”
(The Art Digest, May, 1932).








Barse Miller, “Apparition Over
Los Angeles," o/c, 1932.









Newspaper clipping covering
the creation of David Alfaro
Siqueiros’ mural “America
Tropical” at Olvera Street (Los
Angeles Times, August 24, 1932).


But the Olympic spirit is all over the city. There are at least seventeen different exhibitions in local galleries (The Biltmore, Stendahl Galleries--newly located to 3006 Wilshire Boulevard-- the Ilsley Galleries, the Kanst Gallery, The Dana Bartlett Gallery), window exhibitions along Seventh Street, and more exhibitions in department stores and libraries. The Central Library downtown and Barker Bros. are holding daily lectures on art.

The ubiqitous Siqueiros is on the painting jury for the Museum’s Olympic show. As we ride Sunset Boulevard toward Downtown and Olvera Street, we see he’s working feverishly on the most public of his mural commissions, America Tropical.

Now, what’s that? Red flag up ahead! Dedicated on October 9, after unveiling his fresco at 53 Olvera Street, Siqueiros is being deported by November for his political activities. We’ll never see the likes of him again. . . And amidst protests, notably by 45 Latin American students from USC, sections of the mural visible from the street will be whitewashed before the middle of 1934. Actually, Mrs. Christine Sterling, the owner of the building, never really liked it.

But is this a coincidence? Just three months later, to the left, it’s February, 1933. And the Mural Bloc’s portable mural show is destroyed by an LAPD Red Squad shootout taking specific aim at figures of blacks painted in the murals. All is not complete harmony in the city of the Angels.

But in Pasadena, there’s a different kind of tension. Here in March, Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition, a combination of “Japanese and American traits,” at the Pasadena Art Institute unites East and West according to critic Arthur Millier. Of particular interest is a sculpture depicting José Clemente Orozco, which Millier describes as “just a lump of earth mysteriously endowed with the Mexican painter’s expression.” Meanwhile south and toward the coast, those planning to attend the Gardena High School annual purchase prize exhibition of California painting should know it has been postponed and may be held in April according to Principal John H. Whiteley [Painted Light, a selection of works from this collection, closed at the Irvine Museum last month; see also the ArtScene write-up from June,1999--Ed.].

And now a moment of levity. Here it is July, time to enjoy Hollywood, where Japanese-American art critic, novelist and poet Sadakichi Hartmann--the author of The History of American Art (two volumes, 1901) who was once described as “a samurai looking through the eyes of Walther von der Vogelweide,” a close friend of the French poet Mallarmé, and a disciple of Alfred Stieglitz--is throwing a lawn party at 50 cents a head “for all bohemia” at 3101 Ellington Drive. He’s to present a “sort of a preview of a new theory of Esthetics and his firm belief universal unrest can only be redeemed by ART.” Beer and pretzels are free by the way. And to quote Sadakichi’s enigmatic east/west verses: “Nothing has changed/since the days of the Gods/Drift of water/and ways of love.” Ah, nothing like a summer lawn party of food, drink and poetry.

September brings the passing at age 72 of John F. Kanst, longtime gallery owner and collector. Arriving here in 1895, he set up his gallery in 1911 and was long established downtown at Eighth and Hill, where he introduced painters such as Granville Redmond, Thomas (Tom) Moran, Edgar Payne and Elmer Wachtell. Moving west, he was influential in developing that lovely sylvan spot, Hollywoodland, where he relocated his gallery. He will be missed.

And speaking of galleries, as we roll by Exposition Park again, with its beautiful stadium, rose garden and County Museum, there’s a row brewing over a proposed show by the Wildenstein Gallery. Seems that the locals don’t want east coast art in the L.A. Museum, more specifically allowing a commercial gallery to use it as a clearing house for outside dealers. Why do that, goes the argument, if a show could be organized of equal or better quality among local collectors? And just who are these local collectors?

Now to the Architects Building at Fifth and Flower. There’s a first, a mural exhibition. It seems murals are the thing in this city according to Madge Clover, writing in Saturday Night. There are Dean Cornwell’s murals at the library, Conrad Buff and Hugo Ballin’s murals on the Edison Building. This September exhibition, curated by Miss Schmidt, elicits congratulations for such an interesting and prophetic a show. Who is this prescient Miss Schmidt who organizes the first mural exhibition in the history of the city? Of her we know precious little.

But she was prescient indeed. Because December brings an important announcement from Washington for the city, the establishment of the Federal Works of Art Project. Funding is set up for at least two months so that artists can gainfully earn a living in these hard times. We ride from Downtown to Hollywood and then continue west to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica to see select mural project sites at the L. A. Public Library (Charles Kassler), Hollywood High School (Haldane Douglas), Beverly Hills El Rodeo School (Hugo Ballin), and the Santa Monica Public Library (Stanton Macdonald Wright).

It’s 1934 and a long article by Merle Armitage, Regional director for California Arts and Architecture, focuses on the Public Works of Art Project. He describes the organization of the project and its impact in Southern California. Back to Exposition Park, for in March the Museum features an exhibition of the 14th Region-Southern California Public Works of Art Project. Included are prints (Franz Geritz, Paul Landacre, Arthur Millier, among others), sculpture (Roger Noble Burnham, Jason Herron, Henry Lion, Gordon Newell, George Stanley to name a few), mural panels (including Conrad Buff, Charles Kassler II, James Redmond, Brooke Waring, with a note about both Ballin’s Rodeo School murals and Macdonald Wright’s ongoing Santa Monica Library murals), and a group of 141 paintings by local artists George Barker, Conrad Buff, Grace Clements, Haldane Douglas, Henri De Kruif, Lorser Feitelson, Ejnar Hansen, Clarence K. Hinkle, Helen Lundeberg, Ben Messick, Edgar A. Payne, Paul Sample, Millard Sheets, Edourard A. Vysekal. There are also nine photographic studies by Edward Weston; Gail Cleaves’ Map of Los Angeles for the Central Public Library; a hand set print of the Declaration of Independence by the printer, Ward Ritchie; and a group of watercolors including Phil Dike’s Halleluiah.

Over on South Carondolet Street at the Foundation for Western Art, May is witness to a show of modern Oriental artists of California. According to reviewer Arthur Millier “. . .the San Francisco Orientals all paint western style. . . The Los Angeles group, largely through contact with S. Macdonald Wright, are trying to preserve their Oriental traditions.” These include Hideo Date, Tyrus Wong, Benji Okobu, Tokio Ueyama and the sculptor Gilbert Leung. Meanwhile over at Dalzell Hatfield, a Millard Sheets exhibition of watercolors opens, due to subsequently travel to New York, Mexico City and Honolulu. Millier in his review mentions Sheets’ fresco painting and “his adventures in house decoration” as influences in these “large. . .imaginative compositions. . .”

On Olive, at the Biltmore Salon The First Annual All-California Exhibition is sponsored by the Los Angeles Art Association. And despite the geographically inclusive tone of the title, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and Pasadena--indeed Southern California--artists dominate the show. They include Mabel Alvarez, Carl Oscar Borg, Cornelis Botke, Jessie Arms Botke, Maurice Braun, Alson S. Clark, Phil Dike, Maynard Dixon, Paul Lauritz (the president of the Los Angeles Art Association), Kathryn W. Leighton, Evelyna Nunn Miller, Edgar Payne, Hanson Puthuff, Paul Sample, Millard Sheets, William Wendt, and Stanton Macdonald Wright.

But it’s fall now and we head down Wilshire and then back up to Hollywood. Along with the usual activity at ongoing galleries--Earl Stendahl’s, the Foundation of Western Art, Dazell Hatfield, the Ebell Club--comes the announcement of two new commercial galleries. Bookseller Stanley Rose is opening the Centaur Art Gallery at 6310 Selma Avenue (near Vine) with a Rinaldo Cuneo exhibition, while Frances Webb is opening on Seventh Street with paintings, etchings, prints and sculptures by contemporary artists.

My, November can be cold and the wind whistles as we ride up to the Stendahl Gallery to look around and say hello to Earl. What’s that, a letter on the desk from the East-West Gallery in San Francisco? Inaugurating an exhibition of gouaches and drawings by Joan Miro and offering it to Stendahl? This guy, Howard Putzel, will ship the entire show for $7.00, including insurance. And here’s another dated November, offering twenty drawings and two small oils by Juan Gris. Not to mention two small oils, two large and small gouaches and seventeen drawings and collages by Max Ernst. Is this really 1934? Is this Los Angeles? And who is this Howard Putzel?

But now just ahead, 1935 emerges on our cosmic map and we careen to a stop at the Ebell on Wilshire where fresh troubles are brewing. . .

Next: a mid-decade mixture of locals, European Modernism, and, yes multiculturalism.