Hans Burkhardt, "The Parting",
o/c, 22 x 28", 1939.

 

 


Helen Lundeberg, "Persephone,"
oil on celotex, 25 x 17", 1933-34.

 

 


Edward Biberman, "Wilshire Corner", oil on masonite,
27 x 32", 1950.



 
John McLaughlin, Untitled,
oil on masonite, 19 1/2 x 23 1/2",
1948.

"ON THE EDGE OF AMERICA:
CALIFORNIA MODERNIST ART"

by Ray Zone


(Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood) Presented in conjunction with publication of a major book edited by Paul J. Karlstrom, On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950 demonstrates the importance of California to the evolution of modern art. Southern California, far from being just an "island on the land," to use Carey McWilliams' famous phrase, has, in fact, played a seminal role in pushing key individuals deeper into the currents of a modernism that has given us Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and much more.

The book features essays by twelve different scholars that examine diverse aspects of the contribution California artists have made to the modernist enterprise. It gathers under one critical umbrella a much broader context of the backdrop of the California art scene during this century. There have been several exhibitions in recent years to have spotlighted California modernism, but their focus has been more specific than this. On the Edge of America, like the book on which it is based, illuminates the general diction of modernism as it was expressed by the many art world travelers (along with a few natives) who have resided on this sunny cliff of the Pacific Rim.

This exhibition is a monster and features numerous works not published in the book. It arguably completes, in a visual sense, the theoretical side of the theses that are presented in the essays. It is possible to see here the evolution of modernism and how the early works present, in one piece, aspects of it that were subsequently isolated into separate schools and "isms." The landscapes by Edward Biberman, for example, combine elements of Josef Albers' magic squares, minimalism and (what was later to be) Pop Art is a generally sundrenched and open representation of what could only be Los Angeles.

There are some real surprises here, such as an untitled abstract painting of 1958 by Edward Kienholz, as well as Karl Benjamin's Black Pillars (1957), which exemplifies the visual vernacular of the 1950's, replete with muted tertiary colors and rounded corners.

Two works that are showcased in both the show and the book are Hans Burkhardt's The Parting (1939) and War, Agony in Death (1939-40). These two anti-war paintings are for Burkhardt what Guernica was for Picasso. They are overwhelming works that display an uncanny prescience of World War II's impact as well as a full panoply of modernist, painterly techniques. Wisely, they are hung side-by-side so that they form a heart-wrenching narrative. In The Parting a father figure bids adieu to his grief torn family, whose world is being turned upside-down. Loss and nostalgic yearning pervade the image. In War, Agony and Death the father figure has been transformed into a monstrous blood-drenched machine of death that faces a strife-torn landscape of countless crosses. In the upper left corner the same family group of The Parting appears, overlooking the universal devastation.

Masterpieces stud this show like jewels. We may be surprised to see that a very minimal black and white ink on paper (1958) is from the hand of Richard Diebenkorn. Then there is an alluring painting by Lee Mullican, Peyote Candle, that adds a flare of transcendental light to a yellow chromatic grid of vertical stripes.

Whether the viewer has any interest in California modernism's history or not, there is much here to delight the eye. And if one has the least interest in how California influenced the course of the art world, then both this exhibition and the book itself are essential.