Return to Articles


June 4 - September 10, 2005, at Spencer John Helfen Fine Arts, Beverly Hills

by Kathy Zimmerer

One of the largest exhibitions ever assembled of California Women Modernists, “Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945,” at the Autry Museum of the American West and the magnificent retrospective, “Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature”, at the Pepperdine University’s Weisman Museum were startling and seminal events, revealing the richness and beauty of works by women artists who worked for decades in relative obscurity.

Lillian May Miller, “Orange Sailed Junk
of the Han,” 1920, woodblock print.

Mabel Alvarez, "Reverie,"
1925, oil on canvas.

Now another opportunity to explore the fascinating art of these pioneering modernists is on display with “California Women Modernists: At the Forefront of American Modernism.” It is a thoughtful selection of over 30 artists from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s that range from well-known local stars such as Helen Lundeberg and Agnes Pelton to more rarified artists such as Claire Van Scoy. Unusual gems such as the luminous Japanese woodblock print, “Orange Sailed Junk of the Han” (1920) by Lilian May Miller, in which the Japanese boat is bisected by a more intensely hued foreground tree, is just one of the highlights of this exhibition of 50 works of art, mostly oil paintings, but also temperas, watercolors, graphite drawings, woodblock prints, lithographs and sculpture.

Permeated with the Regionalist, Surrealist and abstract styles of the time, the exhibition reveals how each woman created her own unique vision. Nadine Overpack’s lush figurative painting, “La Dame a la Plume Rouge” (1939) is a study in expressionistic brushwork and deep, vibrant colors reminiscent of the Ashcan painters. Another well known figurative painter, Mabel Alvarez, is represented by four incandescent works, including a marvelous ceramic “Madonna and Child” (1935), an incisive, luminous portrait of a woman in lemon yellow titled “Reverie” (1925), and a symbolist painting in lush hues, “(Untitled) Adoration” (ca. 1925).

In her stormy landscape, “School house and Graveyard, Columbia” (ca. 1945) Marion Randall Parsons evokes an overtly romantic response as trees blow wildly through a purple sky over a darkened graveyard, akin to the stylized chaos of nature in Charles Burchfield’s work. Helen Lundeberg’s barren landscape is an eerie yet poetic ode to the desert, with striated canyons marching back to the horizon, the whole framed by the rhythmic branches of a dead tree. Lundeberg manages to give the landscape a surrealist cast with a chord of absolutely desolate isolation. Another surrealist, Dorr Bothwell is represented by the exquisite “Figures in a Landscape” (1927), where monumental, primitive nudes in tangerine and royal blue reside in a dynamic, constructivist landscape. Perhaps this tropical landscape is a reflection of her exposure to Samoan culture, where she lived for a year.

Working with abstraction, Helen Clark Oldfield’s “Brown Bowl” (1937) is a beautifully cohesive still life that seamlessly knits together warm colors and geometric shapes. Her other abstraction in brilliant pinks, purples and blues, “Tabletop Abstraction” (ca. 1942) is a dynamic study in color, composition and angles. Also immersed in abstraction are Leah Hamilton and Elsie Seeds. Both use a jazzy rhythm to wed together their lively images. Hamilton’s “San Francisco Abstraction” (1946) includes a glimpse if the Bay Bridge and sailboats, while Seeds’ lines dance all over the canvas in Jitterbugs (1950).

Also fine is the shimmering spirituality of Agnes Pelton’s “Voyaging,” where luminescent chains and a golden bell hovers over a delicate tinted shell pink sky and deep green ocean. Her symbolic works speak of a great and abiding love of nature, the essence of her philosophy. Intriguing too is Claire Van Scoy’s glowing painting, “Medieval Lady” (1936), a harmonious study in green, brown and black hues enhanced by the calm presence of an almost contemporary looking woman reading her book.

Adeptly mixing styles and viewpoints, this exhibition is a welcome and superb acknowledgement of the high caliber of work created by these talented but often overlooked California Modernists.

Helen Clark Oldfield, "Brown Bowl,"
1937, oil on canvas, 22 x 18".

Claire Van Scoy, “Medieval Lady,”
1936, oil on canvas, 36 x 30”.