Nobody does Modernism the way California does. Yet its depth and breadth had gone largely unexplored until Orange County Museum of Art curator Elizabeth Armstrong decided to build an exhibition around a group of West Coast painters known as the Abstract Classicists.
Working at midcentury, they had fallen under the influence of Modernism as it was practiced in the “sunshine and noir” atmosphere of Southern California. “The hard-edged paintings of the Abstract Classicists have a certain affinity with California’s Modernist architecture,” Armstrong explained. “It is undeniable when you compare them to [Julius] Shulman’s photographs of the Case Study Houses.”
Believing that other forms of art and popular culture were also informed by the principles of Modernism but not tracked in the context of the larger movement, Armstrong assembled an advisory committee. Experts in the popular arts †film, graphic design, music and culture †surfaced examples of Modernism across the disciplines, some as early as the pre-World War II years. By the late 1940s, Modernism was an accepted aspect of every working artist’s vocabulary. By 1959, it was an ingrained part of the American way of life.
Taking that seminal year as their timeline †1959 was, after all, the year Frank Lloyd Wright died and the Guggenheim opened; it was also the year Walter Gropius was awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe received the Royal Gold Medal †the experts, under Armstrong’s leadership, mapped the impact of high Modernism on popular culture.
Spinning “cool” into its many connotations, “Birth of The Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury,” on view at the Orange County Museum of Art, presents a vision of Modernist theory and application as it moved from “cool” †some would say cold †aesthetic of pure rationality and logic to the laid-back “cool” of the hipster.
Modernist collectors, viewing the show from a specially designed interactive installation that includes jazz lounge, media room, period art gallery and outdoor space, are more likely to call it red hot.
While the New York Armory Show of 1913 introduced the concepts of Modernism as seen through the eyes of Cubists and post-Impressionists, it was not until 1929 that California had its first experience with International Style. Richard Neutra, an Austrian refugee, who had studied with Adolf Loos, whose phrase “form follows function” has become shorthand for Modernist theory, and who was influenced by Otto Wagner, a leading Vienna Secessionist, provided the inaugural glimpse of the future when he completed Lovell House.
The cliffside home featured massive expanses of glass and balconies suspended from the roof frame by steel cables. A U-shaped concrete cradle nestled the suspended pool. Due to the location, plans for the house presented a construction nightmare. Neutra solved the challenges by having the home’s skeleton fabricated in sections and trucked to the site, that in itself a breakthrough concept.
While Lovell House introduced America to International Style, it also introduced Los Angeles to Europeans. California became the Promised Land for a generation of talented European immigrants. In a matter of time, experiments in glass and steel designed by Raphael Soriano, Rudolf Schindler, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig, among others, populated California’s landscape.
By 1938, Modernism had acquired a devoted advocate in the form of Art and Architecture magazine. Edited by John Entenza, the slick publication became a clearinghouse for ideas and innovation. It ran articles on design, architecture, photography, music and visual arts by leading members of the avant-garde.
In 1945, the magazine sponsored a remarkable building program known as the Case Study Houses. Well-known architects were commissioned to design and build efficient modern homes that could be translated into low-cost residential housing for returning GIs, thousands of whom found California far more to their liking than the places they had called home before the war.
About the time that Art and Architecture launched its landmark program, Neutra met a young photographer named Julius Shulman and invited him to document the recently finished Kun House. Working instinctively with just a Kodak Brownie vest pocket camera, Shulman caught the house in all its glory, effectively inventing the genre of architectural photography. Ultimately, Shulman became the photographer of record for the Case Study Houses. Approaching the project as though he were setting up fashion shoots, he peopled the houses with models and created iconic images that, half a century later, have become critical factors in the revival of interest in this period. (See related article.)
Advancing the precepts of Modernism on a more intimate scale were the designers Charles and Ray Eames. Using new materials such as molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire mesh and cast aluminum, the Eameses’ touchstone designs linked the intellectualism of Modernism with the needs of the middle class and corporate America. (Interestingly, the Eameses made their own Case Study House largely from off-the-shelf parts.)
Surrounded by light-filled houses and sleek designs, it does not now seem unusual that painters would find inspiration there. The works of Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin, artists who showed together as the Abstract Classicists, embody a reductive and restrained sensibility, much like the pavilion homes of the era.
Lundeberg, who had been, with her husband Lorser Feitelson, a co-founder of “post-Surrealism” in the 1930s and later an FAB/WPA muralist, moved through a decade of mood paintings characterized by subtle nuances of hue and intuitive form before exploring geometric elements and ambiguous space. By 1957, she confirmed hard-edge abstraction in a series of architectonic interiors, one of which was exhibited at the Whitney’s 1962 “Geometric Abstraction in America.”
Feitelson, born in 1898, attended the New York Armory show of 1913 that put Modernism on the map in America. Deciding that the best way to understand the oeuvre was to go to Europe, he spent eight years in Paris. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1927, Feitelson’s reputation as a pioneer American Modernist was in place. After working with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the co-founder of Syncromism, a Cubist Expressionist movement, Feitelson moved away from figuration toward biomorphic and hard-edged abstraction.
John McLaughlin went so far as to eliminate most traces of the human hand and all references to the outside world from his painting. Supporting himself as a dealer of Japanese prints, McLaughlin was deeply influenced by the Eastern aesthetic in which large intervals between objects are often more significant than the objects themselves. Though living and working on the periphery of the art world for most of his career, McLaughlin has come to be recognized as an artist’s artist.
Karl Benjamin migrated to California after World War II. A career educator, he did not begin painting until the early 1950s. Largely self-taught, Benjamin gravitated to the geometric imagery of Russian constructivism and Bauhausian experiments in pattern and form that he then enlivened with idiosyncratic color combinations and serrated forms. Benjamin, who still teaches art at the Claremont Graduate School, has influenced subsequent generations of California artists.
Frederick Hammersley got to know Benjamin while he was teaching art at Pomona College in the early 1950s. Hammersley had studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles prior to World War II and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris immediately after. Upon his return to California he experimented with “hunch painting” and set aside tradition. In 1959, Hammersley described his technique: “At first I would paint a shape that I would ‘see’ there&⁔he next shape would come from the feeling of the first plus the canvas.” Like a musician describing how he plays off another’s riff, Hammersley explained, “It just feels right&⁓ee this is where faith comes in. I was so astonished. I didn’t have to justify anything. I just listened to the body, listened to me, or the feeling.”
While the Abstract Classicists enjoyed a brief period of popularity, their presence was mitigated by the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists. Due in part to Art and Architecture ‘s move to New York City, which shifted the emphasis on the arts scene to the East Coast, the group retained a largely regional following. “Birth of The Cool” brings their work back into the public eye after many years of having been known as a “collector’s best kept secret.”
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, the movie industry was experiencing the effects of Modernism as it had been introduced by Oskar Fischinger. Prior to World War II, Fischinger was already a star in Weimar, Germany. His early experimental films were filled with animated geometries and mandala-like structures, nods to both Kandinsky and Buddhism. Interestingly, Fischinger worked for a time with Disney on Fantasia, but creative differences drove them apart. His work nonetheless had an impact on future generations of animators. Among them were James and John Whitney, pioneers of computer- and music-aided graphics.
As the exhibit makes clear, behind the façade of 1950s stability, a social dichotomy was growing. On one side were the “squares,” accepting and unquestioning of traditional values and goals. On the other side were the cool cats and hipsters, risk takers removed from the mainstream and leery of it all.
Admittedly, the closest most hardworking Americans ever got, or wanted to get, to the “scene” was through the magic of television. While Dobie Gillis’s beatnik sidekick Maynard G. Krebs was antiseptic enough to pass muster, a young publisher and talk show host named Hugh Hefner was not.
Hefner’s Playboy Penthouse was a lifestyle show, perhaps the first reality show. From a bachelor pad filled with Modernist furniture and designs, Hef played host to elegantly clad, cigarette smoking, cocktail swirling guests, among them, Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Nat King Cole. In 1959, the integration of talent and lifestyle was far too much for Middle America to accept. In fact, the show created so much controversy that some states banned it. In 1959, Playboy magazine published designs for “Playboy’s Weekend Hideaway,” a Midcentury Modernist house similar to a Case Study House, with an indoor/outdoor feel. It was never built.
One thing Hef’s show did manage to do, however, was promote jazz. While most teens were movin’ and groovin’ to the sounds of bebop, jazz clubs were turning night into day as musicians improvised on sets of overlapping harmonies and rhythms. But even this had an East Coast/West Coast component. Miles Davis’s 1949-50 recording “Birth of The Cool” (from which the show’s title is taken) was a particularly important influence on West Coast musicians.
Not unlike paintings of the Abstract Classicists, the West Coast sound had a strong compositional emphasis. As musicologist Ted Gioia described, “It delighted in counterpoint; it had a cooler demeanor than Bird and Dizzy’s bebop&⁴he West Coast sound was cleanly articulated, the execution †fluid and polished.”
Chet Baker’s innovative trumpet riffs and good looks epitomized West Coast cool. William Claxton’s photographs of Baker and other artists, including Dave Brubeck, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins, captured the laid-back style and attitude of the scene.
While cool has changed over the years, its essence has always remained the same “red hot”‘ barometer of whatever was in vogue. Fifty years after the final thrust of the Modernist Movement, it is again the darling of a design-obsessed generation.
“Birth of The Cool” is open through January 6. The Orange County Museum of Art is at 850 San Clemente Drive. For information, 949-759-1122 or www.ocma.net .
Julius Shulman: Modernism As Seen Through The Lens
By Regina Kolbe
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. †California may claim him, but architectural photographer Julius Shulman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent his formative years in Central Village, Conn., in a primitive house warmed by a wood stove and lit by kerosene lamps. Many years later, speaking from the Laurel Canyon house designed by Raphael Soriano that he has called home since 1950, Shulman reminisced about his career.
An articulate and charming man, at 96 he is as involved in the renaissance of California Modernism as he was instrumental in spreading its message across America. “I got into this by accident,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time.” Rather than be a diffident appraisal, it appears to be fact.
After spending seven years at UCLA “not really studying anything” while developing his photographic skills, Shulman returned to Los Angeles. There he met a draughtsman who happened to be lodging at his sister’s house while working for Richard Neutra. “Who is Mr Neutra?” he asked.
When the two friends drove out to view the as yet uncompleted Kun house, Shulman took a few pictures. The 8-by-10-inch photographs eventually made their way back to the architect. On March 5, 1935, Neutra asked to buy them. Hours later, Shulman, a newly dubbed professional photographer, was introduced to Neutra’s friend, Raphael Soriano. “I got my first two clients in one day,” he recalled.
While history and two new exhibitions in the LA area will recount his legendary ability to capture the heart and soul of Modernist houses, many of which have been destroyed, Shulman is rather self-effacing about his technique. “I liked to explain the building from the point of view of design composition,” he said. In order to gain that perspective, he insists that he did little in the way of preparation. “I walked away, about 50 feet away from the houses,” he said, “and turned around. From there I was able to identify its composition.”
Working out of doors with a large-format camera, Shulman never bracketed an exposure; he simply relied on his talent for “reading light.” The darkroom, he admits, proved a laboratory for improvement. So he dodged and burned, adding contrast or merely evening out the sky. He sometimes used infrared film to render details that would ordinarily not “read.”
But more than anything else, Shulman relied on his unique sense of “art direction” to enliven his images and cover “problem areas” of buildings.
Later serving as a staff photographer for John Entenza’s Art & Architecture, Shulman seemed a natural choice to chronicle the Case Study Houses underwritten by the magazine. By the mid-1940s, when the project began, he recognized the value of staging. Approaching the assignments much as a fashion photographer would approach a fashion shoot, Shulman peopled the interiors with hip models. Making themselves at home on sleek furniture set against breathtaking vistas, they quickly mythologized the glamorous California lifestyle that certainly was played out within the imaginative and technologically au courant edifices. Technically, they added a sense of scale to the pictures.
While the Shulman archive, recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Research Institute, defines the visual style of the period, it is clear that his own aesthetic incorporated the Modernist principles he was hired to record. In 1969, Julius Shulman was awarded the AIA Medal for Photography.
Today, Shulman shows few signs of slowing down. In 2005, he was commissioned to update photographs of Hollyhock House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Aline Barndsall. In 2006, he re-photographed Case Study House No. 21, also known as the Bailey House, designed by Pierre Koenig. The house was then sold at auction, as have several of the iconographic Modernist homes that are as integral a part of America today as the neoclassic style was in late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
In addition to his architectural work, Shulman photographed other subjects, including his beloved Los Angeles. “Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles,” on view at the Los Angeles Public Library, runs through January 20. It features several photographic narratives on the competing urban developments of Bunker Hill and Century City; exotic LA with its Watts Towers and Grauman’s Chinese Theater; the growth of Wilshire Boulevard; the industrial engines at the Port of LA and LAX; and Shulman’s role in popularizing the Case Study Houses and the tract house developments that came in the wake of Modernism. The exhibition coincides with October’s ArchiFest II, a month-long celebration of Los Angeles architecture.
On February 15, the Palm Springs Art Museum will debut an exhibition of approximately 150 Shulman images of architecture in the Palm Springs area. In conjunction with the event, Rizzoli will release the Julius Shulman Palm Springs book. For information, www.getty.edu or www.psmuseum.org .