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"Sundial", oil on masonite, 7-7/8"x30", 1934.

by Mario Cutajar

(Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood) Helen Lundeberg is one of those artists whose work would have been dismissed as provincial a few decades ago because although she started painting in the twenties, she never "evolved" and embraced abstraction. The agnoistic overreaching that characterizes postwar American painting is absent in her work, which from first to last is defined by modest ambition and absorption in the trance-inducing power of the sustained contemplation of ordinary objects. The influence of other painters, predominantly but not exclusively Surrealist, is easy to spot in her paintings. She expresses a familiarity with Cezanne, de Chirico, Dali, Magritte, O'Keefe and possibly Balthus, to name those that come to mind, but except in some early atrocious experiments in biomorphic surrealism, she was never overwhelmed or captivated by her influences. Rather, it seems that the work of her more famous contemporaries served to deepen her faith in her own contemplative vision.

Born in 1908 in Chicago, Lundeberg, whose work was included last season in the show at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts that coincided with the publication of "On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950" (edited by Paul J. Kalstrom), studied art at the Stickney School of Art in Pasadena. Her teacher was Lorser Feitelson, whose other students in cluded Philip Guston and Reuben Kadish. She started exhibiting in the late thirties and during the Depression did a stint as a muralist for the Federal Art Project.

The current show focuses on Lundeberg's still lifes, and including not only paintings but also lithographs and several exquisite pencil drawings. They all reflect a shy withdrawal from the larger bustling world in favor of intense concentration on one or two more manageable details, an introvert's defense against impingement. Her better pictures, such as Peaches (1948) combine tight composition with extremely keen observation, the tension between the flat pictorial space and the detailed rendering of the fruit exploited to startling effect. The less engaging of them are those in which the artist allowed fantasy to get the better of her. These tend to remind one of second-rate Dalis or Ernsts.

The pictures Lundeberg produced in the eighties, after the death of her husband and former teacher Feitelson, are flatter, airier and more luminous. They also reveal the influence of Pop in their minimal use of modelling and the accentuation of flat geometrical areas of color. By this time, fashion had come around full circle. Figuration was no longer provincial, it was hip. However, as happens so often, it was when the artist was out of sync with fashion that she produced the images she most deserves to be remembered by. The merit of this show is that it provides a context for those works to give us a rounded picture of Lundeberg's gifts as a painter.

"Pansies", oil on masonite, 10-1/2"x8-1/4", 1947.

"Pink Shell with Mirror"

"Red Pears", arylic on canvas,
35"x50", 1987.