Report: Orange County

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Two Orange County museums, separated by eight miles on Pacific Coast Highway, are presenting illustrative yet divergent shows of modern art. Laguna Art Museum’s “Peter Krasnow: Maverick Modernist,” opened mid-summer and runs through September 25, with paintings and sculptures by this significant artist (1886-1979), whose works were, nevertheless, shown only sporadically throughout his career and afterward. In Newport Beach, the Orange County Museum of Art recently opened “American Mosaic: Picturing Modern Art through the Eye of Duncan Phillips,” on view through December 5, 2016. While both exhibitions feature art from the early to mid-20th century, their inherent differences aptly reflect the distinct vision of each institution. Viewing the Phillips exhibition is to enter a space bursting with inspiring, deftly rendered paintings that affirm the importance of modern art history. “Maverick Modernist” complements the Phillips show by displaying the oeuvre of an overlooked, yet exemplary artist, who also embraced Modern Art.

Actively engaging with the local community, LAM built a reputation through its consistent focus on California art. This is fitting for a museum formed by pivotal figures of the early California art scene, such as Edgar Payne who served as the institution’s first president in 1920. As LAM’s website explains, the museum “collects, cares for, and exhibits works of art that were created by California artists or represent the life and history of the state.” OCMA states its mission to, “enrich the lives of a diverse and changing community through modern and contemporary art,” and to, “build a destination museum that is locally relevant and internationally significant” without such geographic distinctions. Accordingly, the LAM show displays work of a transplanted Angeleno, while OCMA presents work by several dozen artists, including several iconic figures of early American Modernism, most working outside of the state.


“Edward Henry Weston,” 1925, Peter Krasnow, oil on canvas, 50 x 38 inches
Courtesy: Laguna Art Museum

The Krasnow exhibition documents the artistic evolution of the prolific artist, from his early representational paintings (1910-1930), to abstract wood sculptures (1936-1943), to his later geometric and patterned paintings (1940-1979). Throughout, Krasnow maintained his artistic independence and technical adeptness, qualities he exulted in during his Los Angeles years, 1922 until his passing. The Ukraine-born artist received his academic training from the Art Institute of Chicago (before moving to New York City and later to LA), and demonstrated early on keen understanding of the expressionistic modern style. About Under Brooklyn Bridge (1920) of a lower east side street scene, curator Michael Duncan writes in the catalog, “With its pulsating network of vibrantly colored planes, [it] demonstrates Krasnow’s new, more vivid palette and the influence of Cézanne.” Moving forward, Krasnow’s Portrait of Olaf Olesen (1921) and The Dreamer (Portrait of Dr. Wissotsky) (1925) have an expressionistic edge. By 1925, Edward Henry Weston, a portrait in deep blues and browns, depicts the renowned photographer with a reductive modern style. Weston’s somber expression, eyes staring out at the viewer and carefully drawn face are echoed in the geometric approach in the depictions of shrubbery and mountains behind the figure. Several wooden sculptures combine abstraction with human inspired forms; examples are Massive Torso (1936) and Supplication (Female Figure) (1936). Other sculptures, including Totemic Figure (1938) and Demountable (1940), are influenced by totems, while their slender shapes recall the work of Constantin Brancusi.

But Krasnow’s Hard-Edge and patterned paintings are the most dazzling. These large abstract canvases employ corals, deep pinks, purples and lime greens, tempered by thick brown lines. The pure unmixed colors are so vibrant that they evoke the natural light and ambiance of the artist’s adopted Southern California home, while their themes often utilize Jewish symbolism; an example is Psalm 19 (1976) with Hebrew lettering emblazoned across a candy-colored orb. Duncan writes, “Abuzz with colors, marks and shapes, his aesthetic is a celebratory exhortation.”


“Red Sun,” 1935, Arthur Dove, oil on canvas, 20¼ x 28 inches
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 1935

The Phillips exhibition presents a fresh look at American modern art through the eyes and heart of Duncan Phillips. The works came to OCMA in part due to its director, Todd DeShields Smith’s ongoing relationship with the Phillips, a venue he worked with previously as director of the Tampa Museum of Art. The founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1921, was a combination museum owner, curator, art critic and benefactor of several artists, whose works are now in his extensive collection. “American Mosaic” traces a similar evolution as seen in the LAM solo retrospective, but along more familiar territory. This show of 65 works is arranged thematically with didactic material which describes major art movements and trends that shaped over a century of American art history, from 1845 to 1959.

The first, and earliest chronological, section, titled “Realism and Romanticism,” features Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom (1845-46), an illustration from the Book of Isaiah. The catalog explains, “Hicks gave imaginative life to the spiritual message embodied in his paintings, which carry the conviction of medieval manuscript illumination.” A prime example of American Realism, Winslow Homer’s classic To the Rescue (1886) depicts a fisherman and two bystanders looking out at a dark and brooding sea. The “Impressionism” section features paintings by significant American artists, including Childe Hassam, who were influenced by their French counterparts, but who employed more realism and three-dimensionality in their work. Moving through the exhibition, a lonesome figure resides in Edward Hopper’s Sunday (1926) in “Modern Life;” “Forces in Nature” includes John Marin’s turbulent The Sea, Cape, Split, Maine (1939); while “Nature and Abstraction” features colorful, reductive and biomorphic paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove.


“Interior with View of the Ocean,” 1957, Richard Diebenkorn
Oil on canvas, 49¼ x 57 7/8 inches
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 1958

The story concludes with “Abstract Expressionism,” which includes two paintings by California’s Richard Diebenkorn: Interior with View of the Ocean (1957) and Girl with Plant (1960), where remnants of figuration continue to inhabit the composition. Legend elucidates that Diebenkorn acquired inspiration for his paintings with their indoor/outdoor scenes during visits to the Phillips in 1943, when he was stationed in the army in nearby Quantico, Virginia. In 1974, he remarked about a Matisse painting he had spent long hours perusing there: “I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there … right up front.”

Lead image: Installation view: “Peter Krasnow: Maverick Modernist”
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rtesy: Laguna Art Museum