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Journey Into the Sun: California Artists and Surrealism
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Conclusions and Consequences of Surrealism

Surrealist expression in California emerged during the 1930s and 1940s from audacious experimentation and innovation at the boundaries of art forms and genres. Surrealism proved an experimental art that could be exported anywhere, taken up by others and mixed with local cultural possibilities. California artists tinkered with the international model and gave surrealism new meaning.

Surrealism is an art of internal experience and its transformation into a profound form of self-portraiture. Surrealist-inspired California art revealed the artist's encounter with the inner and outer world during a period in U.S. history when traditional certainties, boundaries, and identities were thrown into question.

Although the history of surrealism in California is inextricably tied to the depression and the events of World War II, common experiences of these crises are not always directly visible in the work of California artists. Diverse and individual expressions arose in California art during the 1930s and 1940s; their inner similarities are as striking as their formal differences. Connecting much of the work are metaphors for "interconnectedness," "potential for change," "vastness," "restriction," "elasticity in relationship to space," "dialectic between presence and absence," "the ambiguous relationship between the real and the fictive," and "the fictional nature of the culture." Some of these metaphors are those of modernist art as a whole. Others are more specifically related to California modernism and seemingly point toward a postmodern aesthetic.[55]

It was not surprising that surrealism took early hold in Los Angeles, where Hollywood movie lots often spill out into city streets. Los Angeles was surrealist by nature. Artists then, as now, could hardly evade the effects of this popular culture—a creative


force continuously reinventing itself—on their art.[56] The link between surrealist art and the popular culture of the film industry in the region was articulated as early as 1934 by the San Francisco critic and artist Glenn Wessels, who reviewed a Max Ernst exhibition at the Paul Elder Gallery: "Ernst speaks from that half-world, the subconscious, the world of dreams, the Mickey Mouse world . . . where 'almost anything is more than liable to happen.'"[57]

California surrealist expression developed outside the mainstream of modern art, in the freedom of the western frontier. The frontier lies physically and metaphorically far from artistic rules and institutional strictures, tradition, and imposed ideas. It encourages inwardness, individuality, reflection. Much of California art exhibits an obsession with the natural landscape, its light and space. Post-Surrealism, for example, evoked a sense of freedom, contemplation, and peacefulness that can be attributed to the geographic and climatic conditions of the Pacific coast. Nonetheless, it was not merely a local Los Angeles expression; its concepts were universal. Even so, the work cannot be accommodated in the framework of "international surrealist art," because its focus and priorities were radically different. It exemplifies the inevitable meeting and clashing of cultures, ideologies, and artistic styles that contribute to the stylistic eclecticism or pluralism characterizing much of California modernist art.[58]

A closer study of Man Ray's Los Angeles period and his influence on regional artists is still called for. His work was an anticipation of pop art "in the meticulous rendering of ordinary things unexpectedly isolated for our contemplation—" though invested with an enigma lacking in pop art.[59] Man Ray's California output contributed to the emergence of pop art, because it may have directly influenced the proto-pop expression of artists like Jess, who was living in Southern California and actively visiting galleries at the time.

Clearly in melding European surrealism and the popular culture of Los Angeles Man Ray helped define a regional propensity for creating art that achieved a crossover between popular culture and high art. He also brought to light the Southern California inclination to mix fantasy and the real. To harbor such opposites while simultaneously dissolving the barriers that distinguish them is a feature intrinsic to surrealism, as well as to postmodernist theory. Equally, his Rayographs and other photographic work initiated a special role for photography in regional art, beginning in the 1960s with the artists Wallace Berman and George Herms and including diverse others such as Robert Heinecken and John Baldessari. Man Ray contributed to the strain of Los Angeles art that understood the potential of the photograph-as-object and endorsed photography as a serious element of the art lexicon long before the New York postmodernist work of the artists Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, or others in the 1980s.[60]

Changes were also visible in the art of Lorser Feitelson beginning in the early 1940s, changes that must have been due to the wartime climate and the influx of refugees from Europe, especially Charles Howard and Man Ray. Feitelson developed his Post-Surrealism until about 1942, when his art went through a transformation and began to


reflect "the realization that certain kinds of events unexpectedly take one beyond the usual way of experiencing things."[61] In this new work, Feitelson developed surrealist abstractions in which he sought to "invent 'magical forms' at once tangible and without parallel in memory, concrete and freighted with interior sensation."[62] Thereafter he developed a spatially ambiguous art in which form and ground were indivisible, and in which shape was preeminent and wholly enigmatic, merely evocative of natural forms.

By 1950 Feitelson had become an exponent of the abstraction termed hard-edge, or abstract classicism, along with the artists John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin, and Frederick Hammersley. While in Northern California surrealism developed toward abstract expressionism, in Southern California it developed toward geometric abstraction. Like Post-Surrealism, abstract classicism evoked a contemplative peace based in local environmental conditions and the artists' conscious absorption of Eastern philosophies. At the same time, it conveyed a sense of movement, tension, or "slippage" that expresses the mobility and artificiality of Southern California culture, thus embodying at once the two directions visible in contemporary Los Angeles art. Abstract classicism anticipated the Los Angeles finish fetish of the 1960s and the light-and-space art of the 1970s and prefigured the important artistic impulse minimalism.[63]

In the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940s, artists were exposed to surrealism primarily through the work of Charles Howard, Dorr Bothwell, Jean Varda, Clay Spohn, Stanley William Hayter, Mark Rothko, and the artists of the Dynaton group. It is doubtful whether those artists who championed abstract expressionism, especially at the California School of Fine Arts, would have been so open to the new gestural, abstract idiom without previous exposure to surrealist principles. At any rate, their interest in surrealism waned around 1948, in part because of their exposure to the anti-surrealist sentiments of Clyfford Still.[64]

Still's distaste for surrealist automatism was endemic during the late 1940s. The San Francisco school of abstract expressionism rejected myth-conferring titles and symbols, and its work rarely showed such surrealist commonplaces as swirling arabesques and curvilinear shapes. Moreover, because automatism was not fundamental to the painting process, the work produced was somewhat less linear and gestural than abstract expressionism in New York, more "rugged and earthy."[65]

While surrealist automatism was being discouraged at the California School of Fine Arts, it was invigorating an underground scene in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles that would coalesce into the Beat generation expression of artists like Wallace Berman, George Herms, Gordon Wagner, Jay DeFeo, and Bruce Conner. The Dynaton, a conceptual rather than a perceptual art, provided a bridge between the interest in surface of the San Francisco school of abstract expressionism and the content-driven art of the Beats.

The Dynaton's use of themes and motifs inspired by non-Western art forms and primitive art, its interest in the new science and extraterrestrial life, its allusions to Zen as well as its unorthodox approaches and anti-establishment attitudes paralleled the


interests of the post-Still generation: Asian philosophy, esotericism, Mexican culture, the nonrational, jazz culture, Alan Watts, and Jungian psychology. The Dynaton helped set the tone for much of the art of Northern California in the 1950s, contributing to the emergence of Beat and funk art. Onslow-Ford, Paalen, and especilly Mullican were connected with the underground activity that had begun in San Francisco in the early 1940s.

One of the earliest and most important manifestations of this counterculture was in experimental film. James Broughton and Sidney Peterson, who produced a surrealist fantasy, The Potted Psalm , and Frank Stauffacher, who initiated the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Art, were close friends of the Dynaton artists.[66] Surrealist automatist calligraphy is also visible in the 1950s work of several of the artists who exhibited at the Six Gallery, the focal point for Beat-era artists and poets from 1954 to 1957.[67] Five of the six artists who started the gallery had drifted up from Los Angeles, following the promise of an active and close-knit art community.[68]

The impulse to merge genres and to eliminate traditional boundaries between art forms grew equally out of the dada and surrealism of the artists Knud Merrild, Max Ernst, and Man Ray, who exhibited in Southern California widely during the late 1940s. What emerges from this picture is an untidy but vigorous history of cross-pollinations and complex interconnections. European surrealism has had a powerful influence on the art of California, from the abstract expressionism of the 1940s and the assemblage of the 1950s and 1960s to contemporary expressions.

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