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January 26 - March 1, 2008 at San Marino Gallery, Pasadena

by Margarita Nieto

. . .When I started painting, I (was) working with Tom Craig and. . .we spent every moment we could painting. And we gave equal attention to oil and watercolor. It just seemed like we wanted to work in both mediums. The change came during the war. I was selected as one of the 42 war department artists. I carried watercolors because they were expedient, easy to handle and travel. And then after I came home. . .trying to make a living, and teaching, and working in the studios, and if I got a day. . .or some chance to travel, I’d take my watercolors and go. So gradually I became identified with watercolor to the extent that I just gradually worked away from oil painting.

--Milford Zones, Oral History Interview conducted by Susan Anderson for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.

“#007," untitled, watercolor
on paper, no date.

“Untitled," drawing, ca. 1943.

“#015," untitled, watercolor
on paper, no date.

“#017," untitled, watercolor
on paper, no date.

In 1921, with the founding of the California Watercolor Society, artists in California began developing the first movement to be defined as a regional school of art in California. While initially allied with the premises of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School, by the thirties these painters were already being hailed as a California School,  “a. . .tangible school of good watercolor painting, (by) a body of artists who take this medium seriously” so wrote Arthur Millier, then the Los Angeles Times’ art critic. In focusing on the California landscape, including the urban scene, the CWCS created a regional identity for California art that was recognized nationally and internationally. In the twenties, however, watercolor was seen as a secondary exercise, a tool that functioned as a preliminary sketch for a painting.  The emerging schools of American watercolorists and a renewed interest in J.W.M. Turner and Winslow Homer began to change that perception. By 1937, ten members of the CWCS participated in the Sixteenth International exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute, largely through the efforts of artist/teacher Millard Sheets. One of those ten was Sheets’ student,  Milford Zornes .  

This retrospective exhibition, “Last Man Standing,” consists of approximately sixty works by Zornes, dating from the 1940s to the present. The show also celebrates Zornes’ 100th birthday, thus headlining his contributions to California art history as the last surviving member of this seminal group.  Also included are a large number of works produced during Zornes’ wartime service as one of those 42 War Department artists serving in Asia (1943- 1945). Until recently these works remained stored in the War Department (as the Defense Department was called in those days) archives. Zornes’ work reveals the shifts that the California watercolorists experienced in forming and experimenting with a new language of watercolor painting.  

Despite their regional affiliation and admiration for the American Scene artists, the California watercolorists were aware from the beginning that their geographical location and their awareness of the cultural affinities with Asia and Mexico would widen and expand their regional boundaries. So while the California space remained a focal point of pride and exploration, there was a consciousness of what lay beyond its borders. Zornes for example, began traveling during his adolescence (working as a Merchant Marine), and has continued to travel widely, sketching, painting and teaching throughout the world. The appropriations of stylistic shifts, the transformation from regionalism toward modernist tendencies in the CWCS can be attributed to those experiences and to the expansive spirit of painterly experimentation.  

As early as the thirties, Glen Wessels, a painter and professor at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland spoke of three influences on these painters: “a form of cubism, the atmospheric qualities of impressionism and the spontaneity of Japanese and Chinese painting.” (Quoted in Janet Blake Dominik, “The California Watercolor Society: Genesis of an American Style” in American Scene Painting: California 1930’s and 1940’s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Dominik, Westphal Publishing, Irvine, CA, 1991.) During that period according to Zornes, both watercolor and painting were involved with scenes. The major difference was that the California weather allowed for working outdoors year round. Most importantly, they experimented with the wet-on-wet techniques, wetting the paper and dropping color on it (“#007,” untitled, watercolor on paper, no date). Along with that, they valued white paper, using white as a color in and of itself. Balancing black to white, intensely warm to cool, allowed for the small paper space to retain the impact of the large scene that was being painted. Zornes refers to this as “storytelling graphically.” Zornes explains that this group sought to go “beyond watercolor” again, visually overstressing and overstating color and values.

Animation, the “moving picture” and the preparation of successive frames influenced the way the sketch “read” ( “#006” and “#009,” untitled, watercolor on paper, 2002). Zornes, like many of his contemporaries, worked in the film studios and attributes the defined focusing on the idea and the quick “read” to the preparation of each single frame in the animation process. Exaggeration is again a factor here. The image must be clear to be instantly read.  

Movement, rhythm and design also evolved as key elements of the storyline. Zornes talks about the line as it conveys rhythm: “. . .vertical (line) up the trunk, stop. Under the curve of a branch stop. . .You can write it in those word symbols. Curve is to curve, vertical is to vertical and horizontal is to horizontal.” Instead of a representation, the artist moved toward the abstract. The artist’s unique view of say, the tree is what is abstracted from it.

Even as these experiments continued in Zornes’ work, it is undeniable that  “sketching the war,” a project proposed by the Bay Area artist George Biddle, presented him with the awesome experience of traveling as an Army Tech Sergeant for twenty-eight months through India, China and Burma. Sketchpad in hand, witness to war, famine, abject poverty and misery, as well as wondrous palaces and landscapes, his facility to see and capture these scenes with watercolor and paper was further developed. After having been unseen all these years, these sketches offer fresh insights into Zornes’ body of work.  

Blessed with a long, rich and adventurous life, Milford Zornes has bestowed his own blessing on California art history through his innovative and prodigious body of work. We congratulate him on this singular occasion, and celebrate him with his own words: “He was a good painter.” And happily, still is.