Artist who explored the power of color

Macdonald-Wright influenced a generation of artists

Stanton Macdonald-Wright was a pioneer in the field of color painting, one whose impact can be felt over the entire 20th century of American art. Yet, say curators of the first in-depth retrospective of his work, he has never been given his proper due.

"In an era of political correctness in politics and civic life, we have forgotten another type of discrimination, namely geographic. In the case of Macdonald-Wright, nothing west of the Hudson was considered important," says Will South, a curator at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery, located at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

In an effort to explore the California-born artist's impact on the rise of modernism, Mr. South has assembled more than 60 major works from six decades of production by Macdonald-Wright. "Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism" is on display at the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art (LACMA) through Oct. 28.

"If we thought we knew the history of the rise of modernism in this country, we didn't," says the curator, who is also a co-organizer of the LACMA installation, "because we didn't know the story of modernism in the West."

The artist is best known for Synchromism, a theory linking color and music, which, along with another artist, Morgan Russell, he promulgated after a sojourn in Paris. While in the City of Light, he studied with many of the avant-garde then at work in art circles of the time - Matisse and Rodin among them. Macdonald-Wright was convinced that color could be orchestrated, just like music. His early works based on this theory were dubbed "synchromies."

These works were brilliantly colored explorations, in which he created form and depth by hues that advanced (warm colors) and reduced (cool colors). They are also the contribution for which he is best known.

"When he returned from Paris in 1918," says Ilene Susan Fort, LACMA curator of American Art, "Macdonald-Wright influenced an entire generation of artists."

American painter Thomas Hart Benton credited Macdonald-Wright with introducing him to the power of color as an artistic force. In turn, critics point out that Jackson Pollock, a pioneer in Abstract Expressionism, was influenced by Benton (his teacher). Some critics have suggested that the color field theory of painting (using pure color as a palette), was prefigured by Macdonald-Wright.

Returning to his native California after World War I, Macdonald-Wright widened his interests and began incorporating elements of Asian painting, specifically classical Chinese landscape and Japanese prints. "He turned away from his early formalism and began to infuse his works with Asian influences," says Fort, at which point many art historians have suggested the quality of his work began to slide. "This is part of the great myth that California is a deteriorating influence on all art."

As the artist explored the philosophical as well as aesthetic issues in Asian life, his interests shifted inward. He was less concerned with being an artistic maverick than he was with integrating his internal and external interests. He spent time in a Japanese monastery and mastered Zen meditation.

Macdonald-Wright believed passionately that the East and West are two halves of a single whole and that genuine unity can only be achieved by melding the Eastern concerns with philosophy and imagination with the Western preoccupation with logic and technology. During these years, his prints and paintings contain a mixture of Asian and Western influences, from the flatness and lack of perspective in a Japanese print, to depictions of iconic figures from Zen traditions.

In his final years, Macdonald-Wright returned to his early interest in pure color. Paintings from the 1960s show a preoccupation with soft colors and lines, far removed from the vibrant colors of his early years. While these paintings may not be as radical as his early works, South says the artist was important for the concerns of his entire lifetime.

"He wanted to embrace all the influences of his locale," says the curator, whose doctoral thesis formed the nucleus of the show. He says he was initially concerned with studying "a wealthy, white, middle-aged artist," during a period when the more politically correct choice would have been an artist of color or another minority.

Yet, says South, the more he studied the California artist, the more he discovered that Macdonald-Wright had catholic tastes and influenced many artists particularly through his teachings at Chouinard School of Art, later renamed California Institute of the Arts, and at the early UCLA. As a result, South said his study of Macdonald-Wright "turned out to be all about diversity."

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