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When Surrealism Moved West (1995)

Art history is a continuum, a genealogy of blended families and quirky offspring who twist and drift far from the parental source. It often falls to scholars to determine whose side of the family they resemble. Art historians take on this task for many reasons: because they have to write a thesis, because no one else has done it, because of intellectual curiosity. They label, box and organize art's family trees into essays, folios, books and exhibitions. Their work is difficult, for art possesses an anarchistic heart and a magician's genius for escaping boxes.

Dr. Susan Ehrlich, an art historian who lives in Los Angeles, has spent two decades tracing her way back and forth along the leafy branches of California modernism. Her Ph.D. thesis on early Los Angeles Modernists, a subject few knew anything about, provided a data base of information and references that teemed with myriad possibilities. Many of the artists in question were still alive, providing rich primary material not only on their lives and work but on an era. Her first museum exhibition and catalog, co-curated with Barry M. Heisler and co-authored with Paul J. Karlstrom, was Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists. In the show, which came to the Oakland Museum in 1990, "names" such as Hans Burkhardt, Rio Lebrun, Oskar Fischinger, Helen Lundeberg and Karl Benjamin were placed with "unknowns" like Grace Clements, Ben Berlin and Agnes Pelton. History, like a careless child who drops toys and clothing in its wake, tends to misplace once-important people and events.

Ehrlich's next venture was an extension of the previous work but along another branch-that of California surrealism. Her exhibition, Pacific Dreams: Currents of Surrealism and Fantasy in California Art 1934-1957, answers the question, "What really happened when surrealism migrated West?"

"There are certain constants in human beings that get played out on different stages, depending on era and location," Ehrlich reflects. "Taking the California strain of the surreal that deals with introspection, fantasy, even some spirituality, we're in a sense dealing with eternals that appear and reappear in our own time in different guises. Artists are receptors of these truths, and their communicants."

A high-energy Angeleno who teaches art history and criticism at her alma mater, the University of Southern California, Ehrlich is a blend of aesthete, detective, psychologist and academic. A great talker and ebullient personality, she combines knowledge and snappy recall with humor and warmth towards her subjects, some of whose reputations she has worked to revive. Her fascination with surrealism is an outgrowth of her interest in psychology; both her parents were psychologists and Freud was her childhood hero. She earned a B.A. degree in psychology, but early on her interests turned to art, and she went on for advanced degrees in art history and art education.

For this show, organized by UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center and premiering at the Oakland Museum, Ehrlich organized artistic responses to surrealism in California into nine categories that reflect its complex peregrinations. There are some 130 examples of work by 36 artists, including some with international reputations who are usually not associated with California, such as Man Ray, Philip Guston and Salvador Dali; others of national or local renown-Charles Boardman Howard, Hans Burkhardt, Lucien Labaudt, Beatrice Wood and Clay Spohn, for example and still others whose reputations have languished, like Rose Mandel and Gerrie Gutmann.

Initially a European movement of the 1920s in literature and art, set down in two manifestos by the French writer Andre Breton, Surrealism (the capital "S" usually is reserved for the original movement) attempted to portray or interpret the workings of the unconscious mind as manifested in dreams, often by juxtaposing objects in an irrational or fantastic way, and by tapping into myth, memory and universally potent symbolism. Drawing from the preceding dada movement's experimentation with chance, biomorphism and automatism (pictorial free association), Surrealism gave these concerns a psychological twist. The revolutionary work of Sigmund Freud is at the heart of its concern with dreams, sex and the unconscious.

Surrealism spread through Europe and crossed the sea to America, changing as it went. The California post-surrealists (who in 1934 formed America's first surrealist group and issued its first surrealist manifesto) adopted the Europeans' subjective content and exploration of psychology. But they were opposed to Surrealism's bizarre elements, grotesqueries and strongly erotic content. European Surrealists often depicted women as sex objects and imbued the work with psychotic, violent overtones. This is not surprising, considering the fact that when Surrealism emerged in the middle '20s, Europe had just endured a horrendous war and soon would be gearing up for another.

Here in California, where the weather was warm, where there had been no war, where life was good and all manner of delicious things grew, Surrealism lost some of its fervid edge. The 1934 manifesto by Los Angeles artists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson declared they would focus on the "normal works of the mind." "The artists took the ball and ran in different directions that suited their interests," Ehrlich says. "But they weren't loners, self-taught or naïve. They saw themselves as part of an international stream of art. They were professionals and wanted to enter into a dialogue with others. But at the same time, they were individuals in a particular place, in a particular era, and their work reflects that."

Some of the objects in representational post-surrealist paintings bespeak the California environment: split avocados, sea shells, oak limbs. Others come from a universal lexicon of the unconscious: light bulbs, eggshells, clocks bridges, curtained windows, open doors. It is the juxtaposition of these objects, the way the relate to cone another, making their own sense and allowing the viewer to interpret them in his or her own way, that constitutes post-surrealism's most salient ties to European Surrealism. Ehrlich places seven of her featured artists in this category-Lundeberg and Feitelson, each of whom credited the other with having spearheaded the movement, Philip Guston, Harold Lehman, Lucien Labaudt, Knud Merrild, Ben Berlin and Grace Clements. Feitelson, a gifted painter and teacher who was variously a gallery director, public speaker and later a television host, grew up in New York City, spent time in Paris and moved to Los Angeles in 1927. He died in 1978. Lundeberg, now 86, lives in Park La Brea, where Susan Ehrlich still visits her, finding her a soft-spoken woman of quiet strength.

"Lundeberg and Feitelson were interested in fertility, which they linked to the creativity of the artist," Ehrlich says, "and both drew analogies between plants and animals. Lorser took a greater interest in birth, Helen in biology and astronomy. With him you see these human life processes, while she linked plants, trees, fruits and vegetables with human procreativity in diagrammatic schemes, using biology texts as sources of inspiration. Both artists worked with extreme care. They were meticulous, calculated and cerebral.

Phil Guston's post-surrealist works (done under the name Philip Goldstein, which he changed after moving to New York) are little known, although the famous Abstract Expressionist lived in Los Angeles for a period along with his friends Jackson Pollock and Harold Lehman, and actually studied with Lorser Feitelson. His painting Nude Philosopher in Space Time is being exhibited for the first time in Pacific Dreams. Many of Feitelson's concerns were his, too-fertility, the ages of man, the macrocosmic paradigm, distorted perspectives and juxtapositions.

Lucien Labaudt owned a couturier shop. In Telepathic Travels to Tahiti he selected objects related to his shop-flowers, gloves, pieces of fabric, shoes-and wove them, tapestry-like, into his composition. Unlike her post-surrealist colleague Labaudt, art critic and writer Grace Clements used a cubistic infrastructures of layered planes onto which she attached surreal forms. Inspired by motion pictures, she argued that artists should appropriate montage techniques to grab a viewer's attention.

Harold Lehman continued the dialogue about the nature of art and the limits of representation. In a variation of the Pygmalion story, Portrait of a Dancer Plus a Sculptor, Lehman painted a man turning to stone as he holds the strings of a marionette dancer. In Surveyor, a surveyor measures the land while reaching into a cloud.

Knud Merrild established his own direction with what he called flux painting, which was automatic painting that projected pure thought without reason's controls, springing from the unconscious or subconscious. "Freudian free association became a means for many painters to release and find new images," Ehrlich says. "They tried to work quickly, without thinking, and often ended up with images hidden in the work or just enjoyed the free flow of the brush. Merrild's painting Perpetual Possibility presages Jackson Pollock's drip paintings by several years."

Asked to name a surrealist, most Americans would doubtless cite Salvador Dali or Man Ray. Although not usually associated with California, Dali was in southern California on and off during the '40s, where he summered at Pebble Beach and did commissions in Hollywood. Dali (who saw Hollywood itself as surreal) loved slapstick and the Marx Brothers. He met Harpo, his idol, at a party in Paris and later sent him a surreal Christmas gift, a harp with barbed strings. Harpo Marx and Dali collaborated on a script called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, which was never produced. Dali's most enduring Hollywood commission was the anguished dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's movie Spellbound.

Man Ray (né Emmanuel Radnitsky) had already lived more than two lives before arriving in California-as a co-founder of New York dada with Marcel Duchamp and Beatrice Wood, and as a photographer and experimental filmmaker in Paris. Shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles in 1940, he met his future wife, dancer Juliet Browner, who became his frequent model. He stood against the principle of straight photography, as represented by Edward Weston (also in the show) and others. For photography to be an art, Ray believed, the image must be manipulated. The exhibition includes some of his solarized photographs, an effect he achieved by exposing negatives to light.

In the 1930s, representational images reigned supreme in California post-surrealism, but after World War II abstraction became dominant. Abstract surrealism is represented in Pacific Dreams by Charles Houghton Howard, Robert Boardman Howard and their respective wives Madge Knight and Adeline Kent; Claire Falkenstein and Clay Spohn of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute); and Hans Burkhardt. Among these, Burkhardt and Charles Howard are perhaps the best known. Burkhardt came to New York from Switzerland as a teenager to join his father. Earning his living as a furniture restorer, he became a close friend of Arshile Gorky, whom he met at the Art Students League. Later, in the throes of a divorce and custody settlement, Burkhardt left New York for California. He worked at movie studios, did furniture restoration, and early on started as an abstract painter with a special interest in curvilinear cubism and surrealism's biomorphous shapes.

Charles Howard, according to Ehrlich, preferred not to be categorized. "He was a formalist, but his use of biomorphic shapes and willingness to invoke metaphor also made him a surrealist," she says. "He began with automatic drawings, and that's a surrealist practice, dependent on intuition; then he would build rationally on those forms. He found inspiration in what he called the 'amiable' throwaways of our civilization."

The detective work that goes into an exhibition is sometimes frustrating, but fun and exciting, Ehrlich says. "Following one artist leads to another. I love the surprises and locating bodies of work that come to us by mysterious ways. Many times we'll hit a cul-de-sac, but other times it's worth it."

Two surprises were photographer Rose Mandel and painter Gerrie Gutmann. Mandel, a Polish Jewish intellectual, was forced to flee Europe in 1939 when Hitler's armies invaded Poland. She and her husband eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she studied with Ansel Adams and Minor White. During the '40s and '50s she started to build a solid reputation, soloing at museums in New York and San Francisco, but when her husband became ill she stopped her creative photography to care for him, and her career went into decline. Ehrlich saw a Mandel image in a group show of California photography quite by chance, found out through other scholars in the field that she was living in Berkeley and went to see her. She hopes the three pieces in Pacific Dreams will revive Mandel's reputation.

Ehrlich also interviewed John Gutmann, an émigré artist who established studio and modernist art history courses at San Francisco State College and created a film series there. He had exhibited as a painter in Berlin, but after arriving in San Francisco turned to photography, taking photos of American life to sell to German magazines. His images have a surreal twist-he calls one series Beyond Reality. "You must see Gerrie's work," he told Ehrlich, referring to his late wife, who committed suicide in 1969. Ehrlich found paintings in the Carlson Gallery in Carmel. "I was impressed and intrigued," she remembers. "Gerrie Gutmann dealt with her personal psychology. She has a wonderfully moving self-portrait where she shows herself in old Victorian garb, chained by spider webs to a toy doll in the corner. I thought it was beautifully rendered, beautifully stated, a real externalization of her fears-webs of obligation and memory chaining her to a domestic chamber of horrors. She had a few exhibitions in the Bay Area, a few in New York. Then she died, and one doesn't hear of her anymore. It's hard to see how artists can be lost like that."

"It was the human contact that really kept me going," Susan Ehrlich says of her lengthy sojourn among California's surrealists, "and establishing friendships with these artists. It's like a mission, too. Some are deceased now, but I wish somehow they could see what's happening down here. They could see that their recognition, their time, is coming."

Each generation learns from those who came before. In California, as elsewhere, the surrealist impulse continues to sprout new growth-Michael C. McMillen's juxtapositions of odd found objects, for instance, or Jonathan Borofsky's deliberate streams of unconsciousness. Curators exist, in a sense, to retrieve and restore the past, to make sense of relationships. And perhaps, when all is said and done, relationship is the operative word.

© 1995-2012 Oakland Museum of California.
Originally published in Volume 19, Number 1 of
The Museum of California magazine, Winter 1995.

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