Shock of the New: Los Angeles vs. Modernism

Between the pueblo’s founding in 1781 and the city’s first transcontinental rail connection in 1876, Los Angeles lingered on the colonial margins of Spain, Mexico, and the United States.

Depopulated of its indigenous people by the mission system, lightly settled, and located far from San Francisco and Sacramento, small and violent Los Angeles held no mirror of art up to itself. Indigenous Angeleños had been stripped of their artistic traditions, and colonists who had come north from Mexico were tainted, in Anglo eyes, with Catholicism and mestizaje.

To newly arrived Americans, the image of Los Angeles was foreign, crude, and racially ambiguous. And what the world beyond Los Angeles valued as fine art – the world “back East” – required a long and expensive journey to acquire.

Los Angeles spent an unusually long time at the margins, with little to recommend it except its climate and its landscapes. Something might be made of these, however. In the canyons of Hollywood and along the shore after 1900, local artists composed sunny paintings of eucalyptus groves and swales of golden poppies in bloom. Their paintings were loosely Impressionistic in a taste that had already grown stale

As newer movements revolutionized art in Europe before and after World War I, Los Angeles consumers continued to prefer an art akin to the booster images in magazine illustrations: Southern California as a domesticated Eden.

In Exposition Park, the county’s Museum of History, Science, and Art – its name a hierarchy of local values – represented civic art to cultured Angeleños on terms they found familiar. Museum curators mounted loan exhibitions among the mastodon skeletons of European paintings from the 19th century and earlier.

A more engaged and contemporary art only emerged in the 1930s, fostered in part by New Deal cultural projects and partly by the artists who taught at Chouinard, the Art Center, Otis, and UCLA.

Serious collectors could find Matisse and Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky at Earl Stendahl’s gallery on Wilshire Boulevard and Frank Perls’ gallery nearby, but Stendahl and Perls were practically alone in promoting modern art in Los Angeles. Outside a tiny avant-garde, 20th-century art was suspect.

County Museum
County Museum. Modernism wasn’t wanted. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Story continues below

In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board turned down a gift of modern works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. In 1944, the Arensbergs tried to interest UCLA in the collection, but nothing came of their offer. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art to keep the Arensberg collection in Los Angeles, but the institute closed when funding ran out. When James Byrnes, the first curator of modern art at the county museum, sought to buy works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in 1947, he was advised by one of the trustees to keep the paintings off the museum walls.

By 1950, Los Angeles was bigger and richer, an industrial powerhouse, and the factory of the world’s entertainment. But beneath the exuberance were fears about what else would Los Angeles become. Many of the city’s new people – Okies and Arkies and other white ethnics – had only arrived with the war. So had a  resurgent community of Latinos and, for the first time, large numbers of African-American residents. Adding to the city’s anxieties were the trauma of racial segregation, the likelihood of another war, and the narrowness of the city’s elites.

Anne Bartlett Ayres, writing in the catalog for the exhibition “Art in Los Angeles: Seventeen Artists in the Sixties,” describes the city in 1950 as “(v)ulgar, extroverted, spontaneous, energetic, proudly unsophisticated – Los Angeles discouraged a civilized sense of art historical continuities.” It also seethed with resentments.

Kenneth Ross, the energetic director of the city-funded Municipal Art Department, had a pragmatic solution, drawn from New Deal models of social action. Art, film, dance, and music – without much discrimination except that it should be lively and interesting – could be brought to every Los Angeles neighborhood, even to communities of color. In his way stood the art politics of mid-century Los Angeles, a mixture of anti-immigrant, anti-modern, anti-Communist, and anti-New Deal sentiments that flowed through the influential California Art Club to city council members equally unsettled by manifestations of the new. The club and its city council allies had tried to block Ross’ appointment as department director, only to be overruled by the Municipal Art Commission in 1949.

Ross hoped his eclectic approach would accommodate every taste (and quiet some of the criticism). The All-City Outdoor Arts Festival he planned for October 1951 was two weeks of community engagement held at parks and at the Greek Theater. Dance and music performances were included, but the focus was on the jury’s selection of 180 paintings and sculptures in a wide range of styles, including art that was influenced by Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.

That was too many “isms” for traditionalists. As Sarah Schrank notes in “Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles,” Ross’ critics used the Los Angeles Times to complain of the festivals’ art and Ross’ politics and patriotism even before the exhibitions closed. The San Fernando Valley Professional Artists’ Guild and the Coordinating Committee for Traditional Art went directly to the city council. Ross, they wrote, championed “Communist art,” and, besides, there weren’t enough of their own members’ works in the festival.

All-City Art Festival hearing
All-City Art Festival hearing. Howard Warshaw explains art history to city councilmembers Charles Navarro, Harold Harby, and John Gibson. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.
The shock of the new
The shock of the new. Councilman Harold Harby compares a drawing by a mentally disabled artist with “Bird in the Moon” by Edmund Kohn, a proposed gift to the city by Howard Ahmanson. “If this is a bird,” said Harby, “the moon can have it!” Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Propaganda or a seascape?
Propaganda or a seascape? Harby concluded that “Surge of the Sea” by Rex Brandt included a hammer and sickle design on the sail on the right. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

When City Councilman Harold Harby convened the first of two days of public hearings on the controversy in late October 1951, a member of the Society for Sanity in Art smeared non-representational works in the festival as “meaningless lines and daubs with nothing that is uplifting or spiritual, only an affront to the sensibilities of normal people.” Other speakers informed the city council that modern art was unhealthy, dangerous, and perverse. Harby thought the works were “Communistic” in spirit if not actual Soviet propaganda. He singled out an abstract seascape by Rex Brandt, one of the festival award winners, pointing to a hammer-and-sickle he saw in one boat’s sail.

The harsh questioning that day of one of the festival’s deputed artists drove him to tears, lamenting that he had spent “two years in the Army fighting for freedom of expression.”

The conflict was partly generational. Art club members were older, genteel, and conservative. The contemporary painters were mostly former servicemen, some of those for whom the GI Bill had made an art education possible. They were young and uninterested in uplift. The dispute was also about the city’s other concerns: the passing of cultural authority to new Angeleños, the unmet aspirations of Latinos and African-Americans, and the changing character of Los Angeles urbanism.

Painting a landscape wasn’t about pretty terrain. It was about how you imagined Los Angeles should be or how you mourned what it had become.

Fletcher Bowron congratulates Norris Poulson.
Fletcher Bowron congratulates Norris Poulson. U.S. Rep. Norris Poulson (left) is congratulated by Mayor Bowron, loser in his campaign for re-election as mayor in 1953. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The second day of hearings, coming a week later, only deepened the confusion between aesthetics and politics. In the report submitted by Councilman Harby (along with council members Charles Navarro and John Gibson), the festival’s non-representational art was branded as anti-American.

Although the city council ultimately resisted this interpretation, along with Harby’s demand for a separate show for “sane” art, city council members did compel Ross to submit his budget to additional city council oversight. In the future, Ross would have less freedom to present an inclusive festival. Modern art would remain a flashpoint in Los Angeles even after the opening of the new county art museum in 1965.

The politics of modernism had split the city council in 1951 along the same lines that was dividing it over the issue of public housing. The two threats – modernism and urbanism – were conflated by Harby under the red banner of radicalism.

When Harby helped Norris Poulson become mayor in 1953, running on a platform that opposed public housing, Ross’ position as department director became even more difficult. Some of his business sponsors drifted away, fearful of being red-baited. A punitive audit of the Municipal Art Department made those inside City Hall even more cautious.

Harby continued his crusade against modernism until his political career ended in 1957. Ross continued to serve Los Angeles and the arts until he retired from city government in the late 1970s.

The conflict over what kind of art to admit to the All-City Art Festival highlighted fractures through mid-century Los Angeles that were real dividing lines between European and American-made ideas of modernity, between “high brow” taste and popular culture, and between the past and the future of the city. Despite its aspects of comic hysteria, the culture war over modern art was real and serious. Arts administrators were cowed, instructors were hounded in the city’s art academies, and public art works in modern styles were sequestered.

Los Angeles would remain in the shadow of New York’s cultural dominance until the end of the century.

Poulson opposes public housing.
Poulson opposes public housing. Home owners from Chávez Ravine, Rose Hills, and Pacoima tell Mayor Norris Poulson (left) in 1953 to continue his opposition to housing projects. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Abstract art.
Abstract art. Mrs. Rudolph Polk, vice president of Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission, views “Image” by Esther Rohr, which won $100 prize at All City Outdoor Art Festival in 1956. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes