An artistic courthouse

July 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

By LYNDA MILLNER

Nature intervened in 1925 with a giant earthquake, which struck down the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and the Hall of Records. A $700,000 bond was passed, but expenses went up to almost $1.4 million. Now what? A stroke of luck. The Rio Grande Oil Co. struck oil at Ellwood, west of Santa Barbara. Revenue from the oil tax paid for the rest of the courthouse. And amazingly it was finished just two months before the stock market crash in 1929.

The Mural Room has never been a courtroom, but was the meeting place for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors until the 1960s. Now the Mural Room is used for weddings, ceremonies, parties and the like.

Artist Dan Groesbeck wasn’t given many instructions except to paint the history of Santa Barbara on all four walls. He had two helpers and was paid $9,000. It took them four months.

He began with the Canalinos Indians watching Juan Cabrillo landing near Santa Barbara in 1542. Then in 1602 along came Vizcaino, a Spanish explorer and mapmaker. He arrived on December 4, which was Saint Barbara’s feast day, hence our name and claim of the territory for Spain.

The next part of the mural is when Mexico was independent of Spain, beginning in 1822 and lasting only until 1846, when Captain John Fremont descended through San Marcos Pass and claimed Santa Barbara for the United States.

The third wall portrays what makes Santa Barbara’s economic engine run. First came minerals: oil, silver and diatomaceous earth. Next came cattle: thousands, giving hides and tallow until the big drought in the 1800s. Lastly agriculture: strawberries, broccoli and grapes, grapes, grapes.

On the same wall there is a painting of California’s symbol, the grizzly bear. Peeking out from around a tree is a young boy with a pixie hat depicting Peter Pan. What did he have to do with Santa Barbara? At the time a film company was out on one of the islands filming the story of Peter Pan, silent and in black and white.

The back wall shows the Chumash Indians working on the Santa Barbara Mission — the fourth since 1786, when our mission was 10th in a line of 21 in California. The signature in the bottom left-hand corner is a forgery. After Groesbeck was paid and on his way to Europe, they discovered the mural was unsigned. Upon being asked to return and sign his work, he said: “No. Just have someone do it.” And so they did.

— Excerpted from the Montecito Journal

‘Commence again’

May 22, 2020 § 1 Comment

The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews

By HARVEY L. JONES

Arthur F. Mathews’ well-deserved reputation as a hard master was revealed in his frequently harsh criticism and caustic comments about the students’ work. Although they regarded him with fear and awe, the students in his drawing classes were noted for the high quality of their draftsmanship.

As it was in the Parisian art academies, Mathews met with his classes twice weekly for the purposes of instruction and review of the students’ accumulated work. He had little patience with the untalented and was known to ignore some of the students working at their easels, making neither comment nor criticism for days or weeks at a time, as a way of discouraging all but the most diligent and dedicated in the class. Those students who aspired to Mathews’ high standards were rewarded with his generous attention and encouragement.

Despite his dictatorial teaching methods, Mathews did not expect the students to imitate his own approaches or themes. Moreover, during his 16 years as director of the California School of Design in San Francisco, he always advised his best students to seek further study in Paris. Mathews was also very supportive of the efforts of women in the arts.

A large number of California’s best artists, both men and women, from the first half of the 20th century were his students. They include, among many others, his wife Lucia Kleinhas Mathews, Armin Hansen, Florence Lundborg, Francis McComas, Xavier Martinez, Anne Bremer, Gottardo Piazzoni, Ralph Stackpole, Giuseppe Cadenasso, Isabel Hunter, Granville Redmond, Joseph Raphael and Euphemia Charlton Fortune.

— Excerpted from The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews by Harvey L. Jones (Pomegranate 2006), published by the Oakland Museum.

James Guilford Swinnerton | Commence again, A.F.M. (circa 1892) from the Mathews Archives at the Oakland Museum

On the ramparts of high art

October 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

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IN THE EARLY 1880s in San Francisco, Samuel Marsden Brookes had been hard at work, waiting patiently for better times. His paintings, of which he by now had a large number, were stacked all around the studio, with good prices affixed to them. Once Brookes put a price on a canvas, not even Satan himself could make him reduce it.

One portrayed a life-size peacock, posed on a balustrade before a palatial country house. The painting had been languishing in Brookes’ studio for quite some time, waiting for a buyer. The longer the bird remained on his hands, the higher Brookes jacked up the price. He had started at $750, a figure already pronounced much too high by his dealer. Out of sheer spite Brookes immediately raised it to $1,000. Thereafter, the price of the peacock had steadily escalated. From $1,000 it went to $1,200, then $1,500, then $1,700. By the time Timothy Hopkins, adopted son of the late Mark Hopkins, came to see the painting, the price had soared to $2,000. A few days later, when Timothy returned with Mark Hopkins’ widow for a second look, Brookes promptly raised the price to $2,500, announcing that, while he did not have any money he did have the picture, “and here it stays until I get my price.” In the face of such rapid developments, Mrs. Hopkins surrendered on the spot, adding two still lifes, one with apples, one with fish, for a total of $3,000.

The idea of the solitary artist brandishing his mahlstick on the ramparts of High Art, willing to die, yet prevailing in the end, was inspiring. However, it was merely the exception confirming the rule.

— From Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Saving the murals

August 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

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IT’S BEING HAILED as a victory. The school board in San Francisco reversed course and voted merely to cover up — not paint over — a remarkable series of murals by noted artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School. But the plan is still to make the frescoes disappear.

That’s a shame. A quickly scheduled, little noted public viewing of the controversial murals on a weekday afternoon nonetheless brought out scores of people eager to see for themselves what the fuss was about. It turned into an art party, with a gathering of many leading figures from the Bay Area art world. Most seemed to agree it was a silly idea to destroy — or even hide — the murals so that the young minds of high school students would not be subjected to the trauma of passing by Arnautoff’s intentionally provocative art.

Said one: “If they’re worried about the kids being traumatized, don’t let them read the front page of The New York Times.”

MORE: “The case for keeping the murals

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Popping up again

May 3, 2019 § 2 Comments

Q & A | PAMELA FEINSILBER

For two decades he ran the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, an elegant, welcoming art gallery just off Fillmore Street. Since 2015, Thomas Reynolds has exhibited art online and privately by appointment. When a jewel of a space at 1906 Fillmore became available a couple of years ago, he organized a pop-up exhibition. And now, until the end of June, he’s showing art there again.

We met when you were my boss as editor and publisher of California Lawyer magazine. The next thing I knew, you had an art gallery. How did that happen?

I got interested in art and design as a young lawyer in Chicago, going to the Art Institute on Thursday nights. When I came to California Lawyer, we always aimed for strong covers — we even had a Gauguin on the cover once when we wrote about litigation over the bequest that created the Armand Hammer Museum in L.A. I think you edited that story. Through the magazine, I met some wonderful, just-emerging contemporary California painters. Francis Livingston and James Stagg both painted early covers of California Lawyer, and both were in my first gallery show, in 1994.

What made you decide to open a gallery?

I happened into the graduate exhibition of a young painter who lived near Fillmore, Veerakeat Tongpaiboon. His family owned Neecha, the Thai restaurant then at Sutter and Steiner, and many of his paintings were of this area. I lived here, too, and had already fallen in love with the neighborhood. On a lark, I rented the three-room Victorian space at 2291 Pine Street to show Veerakeat’s paintings, and those of a few other artists I admired. I had a six-week lease — it was to be one exhibition, not a new venture.

What happened?

I loved it — both being surrounded by art and becoming more involved in the neighborhood. And people loved Veerakeat’s paintings. His first three shows sold out and he was able to buy a home nearby, where he still lives and paints. I found a lot of satisfaction in helping launch the careers of some incredibly talented painters who’ve had great success.

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Feasting with the Staprans

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Ilona and Raimonds Staprans with his biographer, Paul Karlstrom, at left.

I FOUND MYSELF in the lucky seat between Ilona and Raimonds Staprans at an intimate and artsy dinner party down the peninsula the other night. They are two fascinating people. She’s a scientist at UCSF. He’s one of California’s preeminent painters, still going strong in his 90s, and an eminent playwright in their native Latvia, where they spend a part of every year.

Raimonds Staprans is getting some of the recognition he richly deserves, with an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art through May 20 called “Full Spectrum.” It was seen last fall at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, which organized the exhibition and published a beautiful catalog. Even if you’ve seen his paintings, you may be surprised by the breadth of his work over the past six decades. And the paint and light and color are luscious.

In a talk in San Jose, he described how his work flows out of his daydreams.

A Mathews mural is in limbo

October 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

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The center panel includes Apollo and the muses, plus Hygeia, goddess of health.

ARTHUR MATHEWS CREATED his three-panel mural Health and the Arts in 1912 for what is now the Health Sciences Library in San Francisco. It has hung there for more than a century. Now the library has gone digital, disposed of its books and put its classical home in Pacific Heights on the market, leaving the fate of the mural uncertain.

The mural was commissioned for the reading room of the library’s classical home, designed by architect Albert Pissis. Mathews at the time was perhaps California’s most important artist, and one who exerted considerable influence over the education of a generation of early California artists and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Other murals by Mathews include a series of 12 panels tracing the history of California in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

A spokesman for the library said “it is too early to tell” about the fate of the mural and that it “depends on a buyer’s intended use for the building.” The Beaux Arts building is being marketed as a “one-of-a-kind development opportunity.”

“Although the murals could be removed, it would be a costly conservation process that would make them even more difficult to sell,” said Harvey Jones, the longtime curator who built the Oakland Museum’s expansive collection of work by Arthur Mathews and his wife, the equally talented artist Lucia Mathews. “It seems unlikely that a new owner will be able to utilize the murals in a new configuration of the spaces. Their artistic appeal is dubious to contemporary business sensibilities.”

Jones, author of The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews, added: “I wish there were some reasonable possibilities for optimism here.”

MORE: “Medical library is on the block

Christo’s ‘Running Fence’ 40 years later

November 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

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In 1976, Running Fence was installed over 24.5 miles of Northern California farmland.

THE HAMLET OF Valley Ford hasn’t changed much in the last four decades. There’s more traffic, of course: It’s located on scenic Highway 1, and Bodega Bay is just 8 miles to the west. But Dinucci’s Italian Dinners is still there, serving the family-style meals that made its initial reputation more than a century ago.

Running Fence came through Valley Ford.

Running Fence crossed Highway 1 in Valley Ford.

Local ranchers still come to the Valley Ford Market for coffee and the latest talk on lamb prices and government regulation. And the land itself seems immutable: The rolling pastures broken by eucalyptus windbreaks — speckled with fat sheep and sleek cattle — present a prospect as timeless as the nearby Pacific Ocean.

But something happened here 40 years ago that changed everything. A discreet monument marking that event stands at the Valley Ford post office, a single, corroded metal pole 18 feet high, with a small commemorative plaque at its base. It was at this spot that Running Fence came through, completed on September 10, 1976.

MORE

STILL MORE:
Smithsonian Magazine: “Christo’s California Dreamin’
The Wall Street Journal: “A California Dream Come True
Christo’s Archives

VIDEO: In Valley Ford, the post office is also a museum of Christo’s work.

Ed Ruscha’s gas stations

September 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station (1966)

ED RUSCHA WAS 18 when he drove a 1950 Ford sedan from Oklahoma City, where he lived, to Los Angeles to attend art school. That 1956 trip was the first of many in which he roughly followed the fabled Route 66 through western Oklahoma, northern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the California desert.

The architecture and symbolism of the gasoline station — that archetypal element in any modern vision of the American West — has long fascinated Ruscha. He brought a camera on successive trips and decided to record in photographs the many stations he encountered.

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1962)

For his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha photographed gasoline stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. One of these, a Standard station in Amarillo, Texas, intrigued him more than the others and launched a major series of paintings, prints and drawings. “There was something new and clean about it. That gas station had a polished newness that I just had to draw and then paint,” he later recalled.

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963)

For his first painted rendition of a Standard gasoline station, Ruscha employed one-point perspective to emphasize its angular architecture. The compositional device provided “a zoom quality” that, with the addition of roving searchlights, visually projected the building out of the night sky and into the viewer’s space, situated below the pumps as if encountering the scene from a car on the roadside. Painted in this way, the station became Ruscha’s iconic symbol of the new, brash culture that was emerging from the western United States.

In early versions the station most often appears as a sleek, modernistic red-white-and-blue symbol of the new American West, robust in the age when gas was cheap and great highways connected the land. Ruscha’s more recent renditions suggest meanings of change and obsolescence, whether they depict the station as a dark abandoned building, in a fiery haze, or as a ghostly apparition.

The exhibition “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” continues at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through October 9, 2016.

He painted what he saw

June 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

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By JEAN STERN
Executive Director, The Irvine Museum

I first met Ken Auster in 1998. Up to that time, I had been a lifelong collector of historic California paintings and had not really considered works by contemporary plein air painters for my collection.

One day in 1999, Robin Fuld and I were discussing the contemporary plein air art community and she took me to the Laguna Art Museum to show me two paintings by Ken Auster that were on display in the back stairwell. I was immediately struck by these remarkable paintings. They were wonderful works, full of light, color and movement. It was clear that this artist knew what he was doing, knew how to do it, and most importantly knew why to do it. This was no ordinary painter, this was truly a master.

A few days later, I visited Ken and Paulette in their studio in Laguna Canyon. There, I saw paintings of traffic jams! In addition to beautiful landscapes and beach scenes, Ken was intent on painting what he saw in everyday life, and for those of us who live in California, we do indeed know traffic jams.

While many self-described “Impressionists” were painting elegant scenes of ladies with parasols in a carriage on the Champs-Elysees — scenes from the past century they had never experienced — Ken painted the same concept, but as it appeared today. He painted people in cars trying to get home at the end of the day. He found beauty in a setting that most of us consider a predicament to be endured.

That day, I talked at length with Ken and he impressed me as a knowledgeable and deeply committed artist. He could talk about anything regarding art and he had a deep working knowledge of art history. Before I left, I purchased a striking painting entitled “Electric Avenue.” It shows Market Street in San Francisco during rush hour, with numerous cars and an electric trolley. He signed it, “To my friend Jean, 1999.”

Ken and I became friends and I saw him many times at the Crystal Cove Art Festivals, the Plein Air Painters of America Annuals, the Maui Plein Air Painting Invitationals and the Laguna Plein Air Painting events. I have presented him with several painting awards over the years, including Best in Show at the 2013 Maui Invitational.

He was a wonderful person, a brilliant man and a great artist. May he rest in peace.

MORE: The Palette from the Irvine Museum

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