From Pasadena to Santa Barbara

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Pasadena to Santa Barbara may sound more like a scenic drive than an art exhibition but the show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art offers a different sort of scenic pleasure. The subtitle is "A Selected History of Art in Southern California, 1951-1969" and it is indeed just that, a visual chronicle that highlights the venerable institution's exhibition history. There are a couple of connections to Pasadena. Both modestly sized but well-to-do communities had philanthropic citizens who, though often conservative, did subsidize modern and contemporary art and presented younger artists in the context of more established figures. The other connection is Thomas Leavitt, director of the Pasadena Museum of Art from 1957 to 1962, when it was housed in the Chinese style mansion that is now home to the Pacific Asia Museum. Leavitt was behind many notable exhibitions but his biggest coup was the Marcel Duchamp retrospective of 1963. Yet before that show opened, Leavitt was hired to become director of the Santa Barbara Museum, where he reigned from 1963 to 1968. By then, he had hired the brilliant if eccentric Walter Hopps, who was curator of the Duchamp show, and who was promoted somewhat prematurely to director. At Santa Barbara, Leavitt brought a retrospective of Piet Mondrian in 1965 but also showed the geometric abstract paintings of L.A.'s Frederick Hammersley and June Harwood the same year.

This show offers samples of work by the artists who showed under Leavitt at Pasadena or Santa Barbara and includes some terrific work including the famous Nine Mallic Molds and other pieces from the Duchamp exhibition.



William Dole, Tower of Babel, 1962
Collection Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson

You will see a trio of impressive canvases by John Altoon, known as a key member of Ferus gallery but who had his first show at SBMA, much earlier, in 1951. Early figurative paintings, a small still life and landscape by Richard Diebenkorn, who showed at PAM in 1961 and 1962, pre-date and offer insight to the work he made before the Ocean Park series now on view at Orange County Museum of Art. The show includes three 1958 abstract paintings of Robert Irwin as well as a later painting and a disc of white light so you can see the heady progression of his ideas. And then there are the always impressive postcard-like paintings by Llyn Foulkes. An enormous Sam Francis 1967 white canvas with the red, blue, green splattered border is as stunning as a sudden thunderclap. A white on yellow abstraction by John McLaughlin, others by Helen Lundeberg and Karl Benjamin, eccentrically detailed paintings by Ynez Johnston and Lee Mullican, all are reminders of the disparate traditions of abstract art in Southern California in the 1950's and 1960's. They are seen here in the context of East Coast counterparts like Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston.



Richard Diebenkorn, Woman and Checkerboard, 1956
Collection Santa Barbara Museum of Art

We are coming to the end of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. Like others that I've discussed, this show fills in the gaps in our collective grasp of this area's visual history. Many of the PST exhibitions have focused on this sort of institutional history. While some would have preferred the focus be on individual artists and their accomplishments, I find that these shows have given me a much firmer sense of the real experience, not just hearsay or written accounts, of the area's art history. It was organized by SBMA curator Julie Joyce who, with Leah Lehmbeck and Peter Plagens, provided essays for the catalog. This documentation, along with the the show demonstrate the ways in which modern and contemporary art gradually took root in these two unlikely locations. The show continues through May 6.

Banner image: Karl Benjamin #1, 1961; Collection Santa Barbara Museum of Art