Helen Lundeberg at Laguna Art Museum

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Surrealist imagery and geometric abstraction would seem to be oppositional but Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999) convincingly pursued both styles in paintings made over half a century. Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum through May 30 is an opportunity to assess the work of this unassuming but determined artist.

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Helen Lundeberg, “Self-Portrait,” 1944
15 ¾ x 27 3/16 inches
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University
Gift of Lorsen Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Foundation
© The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

The Pasadena native showed early talent in drawing, doing striking illustrations in early biology courses. Taking classes at Pasadena's Stickney Memorial School of Art, her instructor, Lorser Feitelson, became an early mentor, then lover and then husband. Together they formulated theories of incorporating classical imagery into a Surrealist-based painting termed Post-Surrealism. Lundeberg's paintings, especially in the 1930s, were influenced by the Renaissance Italian landscape and light and the fallen statuary used by Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. A rare honor for a young and female Southern California artist, her painting Cosmicide (1935) was included in the 1935 Museum of Modern Art's important exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.

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Helen Lundeberg, “The Red Planet,” 1934
Oil on Celotex, 30 x 24 inches
Collection of Rick Silver and Robert Hayden III
© The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

Like many women artists of the early 20th century, Surrealism was an outlet for exploring ideas about identity. Lundeberg's approach is unusually reserved and analytical, in keeping with her personality. When she left figurative painting behind, her move to abstraction was similarly cool. After the death of her mother and marriage to Feitelson, her paintings of the 1950's appear initially as geometric abstractions of earthy hues. On closer inspection, each represents the confinement of the walls, ceilings and windows of a room. Views to the outside are obscured. In the painting Nocturne (1958), a stylized landscape rests on an easel within a well-lit room but a door is open to the darkened outdoors. In Scene of a Dream, (1961) Lundeberg paints angular planes of olive, brown and black slit by a thin ray of illumination, as though a door had opened to break apart the shadows.

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Helen Lundeberg, “Aegean Light,” 1973
Acrulic on canvas 60 x 60 inches
Collection of Bram and Sandra Dijkstra
© The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

For me, these are the least known and most compelling works in the show and they are handsomely displayed in a well-proportioned gallery. Lundeberg's controlled approach to Surrealism gives way to what becomes her greatest talent, a gift for the nuance of perception. The late 20th century modernist era is largely devoted to the evolution of non-figurative art but Lundeberg never wanted to lose her tether to the actual world. These abstract paintings are peculiar to her, always retaining some semblance of the objective realm while initially appearing to be formal planes of color and shape.

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Helen Lundeberg, “Untitled,” 1960
Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
Lagune Art Museum Collection
Gift from the Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
© The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

Lundeberg's exploration of abstraction continues throughout the rest of her career with mixed results. Her life-long interest in astronomy, combined with launch of Sputnick and Apollo 11, led to some giant planetary meditations in atmospheric blues in the sixties but they don't bear the sense of mystery that fuels her best work. The 1970's abstractions based on architecture of the Aegean are more convincing. My favorite of the late pictures is Untitled, March 1971, (1971) a skein of white ovoids thrown over a pale pink background. Unfortunately, you can barely see this painting due to the strangely amateur track lighting in the gallery.

Catalog essays by Ilene Susan Fort, who organized the show, and Michael Duncan fill in many gaps regarding her life and art but Lundeberg's greatest paintings are those that reveal less and insinuate more.

Works by Lundeberg and Feitelson are also featured in a show opening today at the West Hollywood gallery of Louis Stern, who represents their estates.