Los Angeles

“The Artist’s Environment: West Coast”

UCLA Art Galleries

The UCLA Art Galleries have presented three exhibitions of West Coast Art in the last few years. Combined they have served to present a few new talents, give some recognition to several of the old guard who painted here against all odds, and, most importantly, to composite a skeleton heritage (presented in the catalog for this show) for future generations. Now, one hopes that it will be left to another generation to tidy up. With very few exceptions this exhibition, selected by Frederick S. Wight, Chairman of the UCLA Art Department, does not offer any visual stimulation that a consistent gallery-goer has not already experienced; but that is not his purpose. The selections are historical-educational and serve as an adjunct to the excellent catalog which exposes, first in generalities and then in specific biographies, the reasoning behind each choice. Unfortunately, even this rewarding exercise is hampered by the tight hanging, which tends to be depressing.

The title of the exhibition “The Artist’s Environment,” asks the viewer to think in these terms, and before you know it categories begin to develop. It is nothing as simple as that West Coast painting is more colorful than that of the East. It is more complex, more as if the nature that nurtured Marin’s rocky coasts, Dove’s essences of dirt and dung, even Wood’s crop of Iowa corn had shifted her residence for reasons of health. This sense is most immediate in the rain forest art of Graves, Tobey, and Callahan where the mustiness of damp cedar bark, the cry of asthmatic sea birds, the intense quiet of space, and the reflection of the moon in a rain barrel spell out their primitive-mystic respect for a nature that can still dominate the actions of man. It can also be seen in the Bay Area art of Davis, Wonner, Simpson, Diebenkorn, Park, and Bischoff who are emphasized here. One wants to discard the title of “Bay Area Figurative Painters” in favor of “Bay Area Nature Painters” which is broader and more meaningful, for one feels a close kinship between these seekers of sea, sand, and solitude and the “Bridge” group of German Expressionists who painted a similar philosophy into their spiritual presentations of unashamed nude girl friends relishing the benign caress of sun dappled forests. They also felt an angry resentment against their too-confining industrial areas. And, finally, those truest of all to their environment, the Angelenos, who are at home with nature. Though they may not admit it, there is no doubt that the ghosts of Tom Mix, Valentino, Monroe, and Minnie Mouse ride hard herd on their spawn; demanding independent action, surface non-conformity, and an intense inner drive. Most simply, they love the action; surfing, motorcycles, sunglasses, and all the rest including soft soap and hard sell. They are defiant in the defense of a center that has too often been the butt of criticism by her sisters who then turn around and buy her product by the bushel basket and clamor for more.

Henry T. Hopkins