MERLE SCHIPPER

SOME THINGS YOU DIDN'T
KNOW TILL NOW, MAYBE


Careful now! Did I just catch you about to toss that pile of papers that's filling up your studio? Or maybe the garage? Yes, I'm talking to all of you artists and anyone else who may have accumulated even a few scraps or art-related stuff that might well contribute to documenting the history of art here in Southern California. Well, have you ever heard of the Archives of American Art? There's your answer.

For anyone who has ever undertaken research in the field, the Archives, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has no equal as a resource, and it is truly indispensable. Nothing exists anywhere to match the job that agency does in collecting and storing documentation of all sorts of letters, diaries, journals and whatever. Old newspaper clippings, no matter how yellowed, photographs and sketchbooks. There are even some loose drawings among the holdings, all adding up to thirteen million documents. Transferred to microfilm, they are available to researchers at any of five regional centers or through interlibrary loan. And now the catalogue is on line. Just dial up the URL (universal resource locator) at http://www.siris.si.edu.

 
George Herms interviewed by Paul Karlstrom for the Archives of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution. December 10, 1993.

 


Funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the Archives was founded in Detroit in 1954, a time when American art didn't exist as a field of study, with the purpose of collecting the professional papers of artists from Colonial times to the present. The facility became an agency of the Smithsonian in 1970, with regional centers opening around the country. The West Coast Regional Center was first installed way up in the tower of San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museums in 1973, where it remained until 1984 when it was transferred to the newly constructed Virginia Steele Scott building at the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

According to Regional Director Paul Karlstrom, whom I first knew as a fellow Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, what prompted a keener interest in L.A. by the Archives was the recognition of the Southern California art community and the area's scholarly research potential. He recalled a concerned letter from the late Fidel Danieli [see Schipper's article About Fidel Danieli, January 1989--Sorry, it's not on line--Ed.] to the Archives' Washington office when the opening of the West Coast Center in San Francisco was announced. Danieli pointed out that it was unlikely that documentation of the rich art history of Southern California could be handled from the Bay Area. Karlstrom agreed, inviting Danieli to share his contacts and expertise in an advisory capacity as the Archives began to gather the papers of senior Southern California artists.

At the same time, with the help of scholars E. Maurice Bloch and Robert Wark, a center was established for Southern California. Ultimately, this became the West Coast Regional Center and Karlstrom, most recently editor of "On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950" (Berkeley & L.A.: UC Press, 1996), despite being cozily settled up north with his wife Anne, the Publications Director at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and their daughter Clea, found quarters here and took up commuting between the two cities.

Danieli's alerting Karlstrom to the presence of a number accomplished older artists here led to the exhibition "Nine Senior Southern California Painters" (Florence Arnold, Nick Brigante, Hans Burkhardt, Annita Delano, Lorser Feitelson, Peter Krasnow, Helen Lundeberg, Emerson Woelffer and John McLaughlin) at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) in November 1974. Preceded by the October, 1974 LAICA Journal cover story by Danieli that was nothing short of a call to arms, as well as a passionate plea, the exhibition catalogue was published in the following issue of the Journal (which also contains an article on the Archives by Karlstrom). Danieli's own papers, by the way, a massive set of documents, are with the Archives.

Pointing to that generation, of which the selected group was only a sampling, Danieli offered a long list of names whose role in the history of the region had not been documented. With this he warned readers that the same might be the outcome for those of more recent history, as well as the present. Consequently, while seniors may hold priority, mid-generation figures are not overlooked. At the outset this was under the auspices of the California Oral History Project, funds raised in 1979 permitting the Archives to tape interviews by Karlstrom and others.

Interviewing began in 1974, and twenty-nine had been conducted by the time of the California Oral History Project, undertaken from 1980-82, which permitted Karlstrom and others to tape their candidates, a grant from the California arts Council covering the cost of transcription. Artists interviewed included Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Wallace Berman and Ed Ruscha. Ruscha's taping, for example, ran ten hours over four sessions. The artist recalls in it long-forgotten childhood events as well as those of more recent years. Others included Richard Diebenkorn, Joyce Treiman, and the still-thriving (at 103 years) Beatrice Wood. A 1964 letter in her papers tells of her being shocked, while flying back from New York, to note that her male seat partner spent the flight gazing at a picture of a naked woman in a copy of Esquire. To Rhea, the friend to whom she was writing, she queried, "Can you see either of us enjoying the picture of a naked lifeguard?"

The generation of the '60s actually makes up the heaviest aggregation in the Archives, not just artists but others in the field such as scholars and critics, dealers and collectors, among them Billy Wilder and the late Vincent Price, Betty Asher, Armand Hammer, Jules Langsner and Frank Perls, as well as artist Ray Eames and, in Santa Barbara, Herbert Bayer, along with architect Charles Moore and the recently deceased Edmund Teske.

Nevertheless, gathering papers may take years of courting. Although Claire Falkenstein, now in her late 80s, has been interviewed, her massive collection, while hopefully safe in the Venice house she maintains for storage, is promised but awaits retrieving. Currently Karlstrom is interviewing middle-generation artists such as Peter Alexander, Terry Allen, Michael McMillan and Terry Allen. He conducts his interviews as far east as San Antonio and throughout the Northwest.

Papers in the collection include records of long-closed galleries such as David Stuart, Stendahl and Ankrum, as well as the more recently closed Space, and institutions like the Women's Building (over 130 boxes there), the Baxter Gallery at Cal Tech, the ARCO Center for the Visual Arts, and LAICA. These names recall the 1970s, an exciting decade of growth for the L.A. area then on its way to becoming a major international art center. Also in the collection are the SPARC mural documents.

A focus on women was initiated by Karlstrom and is still ongoing as well as a Latino documentation project funded by the Smithsonian. Along with interviews of artists such as John Valadez and others working both here and throughout California, the latter includes material on Los Four, the collective whose 1974 installation was a landmark event at LACMA, and the Carlos Almaraz/Elsa Flores papers. Margarita Nieto serves as advisor for that activity.

The Latino undertaking is an outgrowth of a Chicano project originated by Stella Paul, area collector of the San Marino Center prior to 1984. In 1986 she also organized the major symposium, The Visual Arts and the Myth of Southern California, 1900-1950 (I was a participant), which was followed in 1988 by Earthquake to Albright: Modernism in Northern California, 1906-1945, undertaken by Karlstrom at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor.

My own acquaintance with the Archives began in 1972 when I visited the agency's Washington headquarters while preparing for my doctorate. There I was shown the vast spaces of its storage room filled with boxes overflowing with papers, the originals of all that microfilm. Later, in 1976, at the Saché, France home of Alexander Calder, where I spent an extraordinary twenty-four hours in connection with research I was then pursuing, I noticed cartons of papers under the dining table. Calder assured me that they would be chucked out before long. Alerting the Archives through Karlstrom resulted in their rescue.

Visiting the Center here, if only as an excuse to amble over the tree-lined lane that runs from the parking area to the building, is an eye-opener. Indeed, it is hard to believe that all of this material is stored in the space of two rooms on the building's second floor. The facility is managed by long-time staffer Barbara (Wilson) Bishop, assisted by Marian Kovinick.

"The Archives," Bishop points out, "is truly a wonderful repository of primary source material, unpublished personal and private stories on art activity in America. This is not published opinion about an artist, it's in the artist's own words! And there is so much, 6,000 rolls of microfilm."

For me, just rolling film in search of my subject (with only three microfilm readers there you much have a reservation) can be full of revelation. That activity often takes up at least two hours. Most recently, while skimming microfilm, I found one particular collection, that of one Ferdinand Perret, a huge clipping/scrapbook documenting L.A. art activity from 1769-1942. There I found the object of my search, papers of an abstract painter whose name, Donald Totten (1903-1967), is today somewhat obscure. Also there were those of fellow artist Albert King, which produced a mint of data on the 1950s and '60s.

On another occasion I poked around what were then the just-received papers of artist Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985), still in cartons on the floor. I was carried away for the rest of the day, especially by the catalogues and other material dealing with the scene around her!

The anthology "On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950" is the outgrowth of the symposia in the 1980s mentioned above. You will learn lots of things you never knew before from essayists such as Richard Candida Smith, who points to the presence of modernism here early in the century, defining Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, begun in 1921, as an assemblage linking "past, present and future, as well as a magical act. . ."

Susan Landauer covers moderism during World War II. Bram Dijkstra reveals what attracted artists to California, and what kept them here. The late David Gebhard focuses on Southern California architecture, particularly the California bungalow and innovations like precast concrete blocks, introduced here as early as 1910, while offering a close-up focus on Irving Gill. Much of its documentation, and even anecdotes, is drawn from the archives--like the encounter in New York between Lorser Feitelson and Edward Hopper in the 1950s. Feitelson replied to Hopper's startled utterance, "I thought you had died somewhere way out in California a long time ago!" with "I did, but I wanted to be buried in New York, so they shipped me back here."--the book will invite rethinking and a new appreciation for California's artistic achievement over the first half of this century. Indeed, a worthy document.

The achievement of the Archives of American Art, and for those of us undertaking research on the art of own area, is truly immeasurable. And for those who have been wondering what to do with that pile of papers--and whatever else might just have a measure of importance for scholars and researchers--Aha! You have the answer!

Note--My thanks to Barbara Bishop and Paul Karlstrom for their patience, help and interest in the preparation of this article.