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California Landscape into Abstraction: Orange County Museum of Art exhibits works from its collection
Elmer Wachtel, Landscape, 1922; oil on canvas. Collection OCMA; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Julian Wilcox.
NEWPORT BEACH, CA.- The Orange County Museum of Art presents an in-depth study into the changing modes of landscape representation in modern and contemporary art. Drawn entirely from OCMA’s collection, the paintings, photography, video, and sculpture—among other media—explore how artists on the West Coast have produced work in which landscape evolves into abstraction, and in some cases transforms back again. California Landscape into Abstraction: Works from the Orange County Museum of Art presents more than 120 artworks that, with a few exceptions, range in date from the 1920s through the present day, and includes works by Ansel Adams, Peter Alexander, John Altoon, Elmer Bischoff, Vija Celmins, Jay DeFeo, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, Tim Hawkinson, Drew Heitzler, Dorothea Lange, Helen Lundeberg, Lee Mullican, Agnes Pelton, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Millard Sheets, James Turrell, Edward Weston, and Paul Wonner, among others. The exhibition is on view December 15, 2013, through March 9, 2014.

"A persistent theme in California art over the past century is the charged relationship between abstraction and landscape," states OCMA Chief Curator Dan Cameron. "A schism of sorts opened in the 1930s and 1940s between naturalist landscape painters and those of a more modernist inclination, and that resulting breach proved to be a catalyst for a lot of adventurous ideas over several decades. Today it's still considered heresy to connect California Impressionism to later abstract, minimal, and conceptual art, but as a museum that collects from both ends of the spectrum, if seemed like there was more we could bring to the conversation."

California Landscape into Abstraction includes fine examples of 19th and early 20th century landscape painters such as Frank Cuprien, Elmer Wachtel, and James Milford Zornes. By the 1940s, the stylistic tension between the two schools seems to be fully in place with the Modernists—including Oskar Fischinger, Helen Lundeberg, Agnes Pelton, Frederick Wight, and Stanton McDonald Wright—approaching the landscape as a vehicle for expressionist, surrealist, or hard-edge influences.

At the heart of this exhibition are dozens of outstanding examples of mid-century California paintings in which the effort on the part of their makers to incorporate elements of landscape without recycling art historical stereotypes is a thread connecting several styles and genres. Artists such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Hans Burkhardt, and Oskar Fischinger—who relocated to the Los Angeles area after years abroad—were working concurrently with Angelenos Edward Biberman, Nicholas P. Brigante, Helen Lundeberg and Lorsen Feitelson. Outnumbered and lacking a cohesive style, this generation was initially unable to compete with the plein air artists, whose vision of a life devoted to rendering luminous waves and sunsets had yet to be surpassed.

The steady influx of modernists into Southern California may have signaled the beginning of the end of the hegemony of California Impressionism, but landscape as subject never went away. Although some of those modernists fell into relative obscurity during the 1950s and 1960s, another avant-garde rose in its wake, centered on the artists associated with the Ferus Gallery (1957–66), including John Altoon, Llyn Foulkes, Kenneth Price, and Ed Ruscha. Defining the landscape by way of Northern California bohemia were several painters based in San Francisco: Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Paul Wonner.

The exhibition also features many examples of OCMA’s strong holdings in photography by artists active in the 1970s and 1980s who helped redefine the issues of representation and landscape. By taking an often critical look at the growing industrialization of landscape, such artists as Lewis Baltz, Laurie Brown, John Divola, Lee Friedlander, Anthony Hernandez, Richard Misrach, John Pfahl, Stephen Shore, and Arthur Taussig helped push the boundaries of landscape by bringing civilization into the picture in an often unflattering way.

At the other end of the spectrum, certain artists showed an ongoing commitment to painting, especially in cases where the practitioners pursued an idiosyncratic or maverick approach to the history of the medium. In the early 1960s, Laguna Beach resident Roger Kuntz achieved critical attention for tightly cropped images of freeways and overpasses with occasional glimpses of nature in the margins; ten years later, muralist Terry Schoonhoven was employing trompe-l'oeil techniques at architectural scale representing slices of local nature dramatized within unexpected formats and location. California Landscape into Abstraction also showcases paintings by Carlos Almaraz, Larry Cohen, and John Lees.

Throughout the installation, California Landscape into Abstraction incorporates more recent developments in landscape interpretations, with digital and photographic work by Walead Beshty, Katy Grannan, Shirley Shor, Diana Thater, Mungo Thomson, and Amir Zaki. Painters working today who are interpreting the landscape genre in even looser reading include Brian Calvin, Brian Fahlstrom, Pearl C. Hsiung, and Mary Weatherford.

Instead of a chronological installation for the exhibition, Cameron has organized the works in a thematic design that dissolves some of the barriers between historical styles. Each gallery focuses on a particular theme—albeit with diverse approaches—presenting key selections for visitors to explore and better understand how the landscape interpretations evolved over the decades. The section devoted to Color and Light, for example, includes works by artists separated from each other by a span of many decades—but nonetheless exploring comparable issues. Other thematic groupings include Mapping, Marking, and Measuring; Language of the Land; First Impressions, The Modernist Variations; Occupied Vistas; A Backyard Eden; Paradise Endangered; Manmade Landscapes; and Fictional Histories.





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