Before the Museum of Contemporary Art, even before the L.A. County Museum of Art, large art exhibitions in this city were held at what was then called the Museum of Natural Science, History, and Art, a lovely old 1913 beaux arts building in Exposition Park. This show
is something of a recreation of that arrangement with many works that were actually exhibited there in the years before LACMA opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965.
Independent curator Charlotte Eyerman went through old catalogs for the annual juried shows to find paintings, prints and drawings, tracked them down and mounted them on the walls of the museum's mezzanine in the rotunda under a stained glass ceiling. There are plenty of surprises.
Robert Irwin, Lucky U, 1960
Oil on Canvas. Collection Joni and Monte Gordon, Los Angeles.
© 2011 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
An early red and green splashy abstract Micropainting by John Baldessari, who is now known as a pioneer of Conceptual art; an bold yellow abstract painting called Lucky U, after a Mexican restaurant where a beer cost 10 cents, is by Robert Irwin, now known for his work with light. A resonant watercolor by Larry Bell, known for his glass boxes, was completed when he was a student of Irwin at Chouinard. A lovely, somber landscape by Betye Saar was inspired by the desolate appearance of Laurel Canyon, where she lived after a big fire.
Watercolor. Collection of the Artist © Larry Bell.
Photograph courtesy of Alan Shaffer Photography
This is the work of artists made before their trademark styles were established.
There are hard-edge geometric paintings by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin called the Abstract Classicists after their 1959 show, as well as influential figurative artists like Rico Lebrun, who was, among other things, a teacher of Baldessari.
In the 1950's, this was the place to see art in Los Angeles. Significant exhibitions were held in a great hall next to the wildlife dioramas and the dinosaurs. Indeed, to get to this show, I walked through the new Hall of Dinosaurs, where the bones of t-rex and giant birds offer a bold reminder of our transitory existence.
This small exhibition is truly a step back in time. It may be the sleeper show of Pacific Standard Time but it is well worth the effort.
Artistic Evolution: Southern California Artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1945–1963, on display in the Museum's historic 1913 rotunda from October 2, 2011 to January 15, 2012.