My first Top Comments diary! I figured you'd expect something intelligent and erudite from me, and I know I haven't written about everything that interests me at Daily Kos quite yet. This incorporates two of these interests: an interest in art (which I hope you've noticed in my US to 1865 diaries) and an interest in the nature of fame and celebrity (I actually taught a course in this in 2008 under the banner of Cultural History of the United States). It also speaks to something we've learned from Chrislove's contributions to the group: that history is often a recovery effort. One recovery effort coming up.
So here's an American painter. Born in 1890, he went to Paris in 1907 as part of the vanguard of Americans who wanted first-hand contact with European modernism. While there, he created an "ism" -- like Cubism and Fauvism, his was called "Synchromism" and it worked on a color wheel. He came back to the United States, he painted, he exhibited, he taught, he was involved with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, and he died in 1973.
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We're talking here about Stanton Macdonald-Wright (for once, Wikipedia gets it mostly right). Macdonald-Wright, who was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, grew up in Santa Monica, went to study in Paris in 1907 and found himself in the orbit of the salon run by Gertrude and Leo Stein. In Paris, he and Morgan Russell, a fellow American painter, created a formal movement called “Synchromism,” which made them the first Americans to make a major contribution to European Modernism in Europe. Synchromism applied the methods of musical composition to painting by using a color wheel, which allowed the painters to construct “chords” of the chromatic circle by using tones separated by 120 degrees; it extended the idea of color as form to its ultimate functional position. The two mounted formal exhibitions of synchromist art in Munich and Paris in 1913.
Conception Synchromy, 1914, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981
The explanation for Macdonald-Wright's obscurity lies in where he ended up living when he returned to the United States. Although he returned to New York in 1916, and had his first one-man show at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in 1917 (and this is a fairly big deal, as Steiglitz, the photographer, played a significant role in bringing European modernism and American art to the connoisseurs of Manhattan),
Synchromy No.3, 1917, The Brooklyn Museum
he came back to California the following year, where he continued to develop his synchromist principles. In Los Angeles, he taught at the Chouinard Art Institute, directed the Art Students league, developed stage settings for the Santa Monica Theater Guild, and exhibited sporadically at various galleries.
Synchromy in Purple Minor, 1918, The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
Macdonald-Wright came back to a fairly conservative art scene. Arthur Millier, the art critic of the Los Angeles Times, who was responsive to new artists and new forms in his criticism (and who used new forms in his own art), found the output of the painters of Southern California bland and observed that the blandness “matched the mood of the more comfortably placed inhabitants.” Millier observed that Macdonald-Wright, who he identified with modernism, had begun to include figures in his artwork, although he continued to use Synchronist strategies, as you can see below:
Still Life with Arum Lilies and Fruit, 1923, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Despite this conservatism, which also affected the curatorial staff of the newly established (in 1913) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, played host to a joint exhibition by Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, the co-creator of synchromism, in 1927. Macdonald-Wright exhibited in New York at Stieglitz's gallery, now renamed "An American Place" and committed to the promotion of American Art, in 1930-31, and with Russell at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and at Earl Stendahl's gallery in Los Angeles (Stendahl, incidentally, showed Picasso's Guernica in August 1939, in case you are still thinking of Los Angeles as a backwater for art).
From 1935 to 1942, Macdonald-Wright served as the director of the two major New Deal art projects, first the Public Works of Art Project of 1935, then of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. In 1937 he went to Japan for the first tine, where he developed an intense appreciation of Japanese technique, and in 1942 he joined the faculty of the art department at UCLA. He split his time between Kyoto and Los Angeles until his death.
The first retrospective of his work was curated by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1967, so he knew his career had been appreciated. Still, he's lapsed into obscurity. He's not the only creative person to be under-appreciated by his own country, and I'm sure you each have an artist in mind who has been equally neglected. Please share them below the Tops!
And now for the Top Comments! A MAJOR thank you to brillig, who shepherds each of us new TCers through our first diaries and does it with great style, grace, and patience.