A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953


The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles

Essay by Julia Armstrong-Totten


In 1910 the Los Angeles Times art critic Antony Anderson wrote that "The Art Students League of Los Angeles, from the very day of its inception, has always stood for unacademic modernity in art instructions."[1] In 1929 his successor, Arthur Millier, described the school as a "potent underground force in California painting."[2] Both critics were undoubtedly biased towards the League: the former was the school's cofounder and the latter attended on two different occasions as a student. Nonetheless, their comments demonstrate that they thought it was someplace special. In fact, the League left behind a fascinating legacy, particularly in Southern California, that scholars have only briefly acknowledged.[3] This is partly because most of the official records have disappeared, so it has become a difficult topic to study.[4] However, the League has no doubt been ignored for decades because of the ongoing attitude that nothing artistically interesting or significant existed in pre-war Los Angeles,[5] an opinion that surfaced numerous times when I was researching this project. One instance involving a League member occurred when, in early 1971, the Los Angeles Times writer Art Seidenbaum casually alluded to the time "when Los Angeles was a cultural desert" in a column which so incensed Arthur Millier, who was retired from the newspaper by this time, that he wrote and re-wrote four incomplete rebuttals in his private journal from that year.[6] Millier's palpable anger and frustration at Seidenbaum's ignorance reached a crescendo when he stated:

The nearest I can come to grasping what is meant by this "cultural desert" canard is that at some time B.S. (Before Smog), one did not trip over PhDs or even MAs when one poked his head out of his uncultured bungalow...I hold that the reverse of the silly phrase is true; i.e. the whole area was jumping with culture until about 1940. Then, pushed by war and war industry, it began the long downhill slide to its present state.[7]

Leslie Baird, another League member, mourned the changes in Los Angeles as well, when he wrote, "It's too bad that the old Art Students League scattered so early. But those were the days before the great expansion of Los Angeles. That has ruined the town for so many people, including myself.[8] Clearly these two thought more highly of the so-called "cultural desert" life in Los Angeles than the later more "civilized" life filled with traffic, pollution, and overpopulation, as described by Millier in one of his essays.

A few years later, similar misconceptions about the early Los Angeles art scene would appear -- and unfortunately reach a much wider audience -- in Sunshine Muse, Peter Plagens' 1974 groundbreaking study on then-contemporary West Coast art. Plagens, himself an artist as well as an art critic, began his chapter on Los Angeles by making the sweeping statement "Pre-war Southern California produced little important art,"[9] an outlook that undoubtedly helped to perpetuate the "cultural desert" myth. While issues of provincialism in the work produced locally have been addressed elsewhere,[10] perhaps a more enlightened approach by Plagens and those who have adopted a similar opinion might be to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of what was created in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, as it represented a certain place and time in history.

Plagens further claimed the main problem facing the earlier artists was that the widespread city's lack of a centralized art center hindered the possibility of a significant movement developing at the time. He rightly observed that without a center, "Artists' out-of-studio debates, dealing, informal teaching, clique-forming do not take place."[11] However, the need for such a place in the city was addressed as early as 1906, when eleven local artists formed the Painters' Club. This group, which included the two founders of the Art Students League, Hanson Puthuff and Antony Anderson, recognized that "such an organization...had long been needed in our midst. Many artists of the town are utter strangers to one another, though they may have sent pictures to the same exhibitions and lived across the street from one another for years."[12] Plagens failed to even discuss this club, which in 1909 would become the formidable California Art Club, arguably the most powerful art organization in pre-war Los Angeles. But it was the Art Students League that ultimately became the type of center that Plagens hints at,[13] at least according to artist Herman Cherry, who attended the League between 1926 and 1932 before establishing himself on the East Coast. In fact, as early as 1956, in a magazine article he wrote after revisiting Los Angeles, Cherry contradicted many of the points Plagens later raised about the pre-war art scene. Cherry pointed out that "Somewhat like the New York 'artists' club,' [the League] attracted people from the allied arts, writers, singers, actors, composers and others who had something interesting to contribute."[14]

Fortunately, Plagens' opinion that nothing significant was produced by the earlier local artists would eventually be challenged, notably in 1990 by Paul Karlstrom in the exhibition catalog Turning the Tide, which enthusiastically presented the work of several early modern artists active between 1920 and 1956. Karlstrom cautions against such a narrow point of view and instead demonstrates that at the time under debate, Los Angeles was a vibrant place, with a progressively developing artistic community, despite being so spread out.[15] Disappointingly, neither author (nor numerous others, for that matter) ever acknowledged the existence of the Art Students League or recognized that it functioned for many years as the type of artistic center supposedly lacking in the city.

Returning for a moment to the issue of isolation, one might consider it a problem still facing Los Angeles artists today. Both Karlstrom and more recently cultural historian Bram Dijkstra have suggested that many of those active earlier in Los Angeles actually preferred to work alone, because it gave them a sense of personal freedom in their work not available in a more artistically structured location like New York, and so for them the logistical challenges were part of the attraction of the area.[16] League member Nicholas Brigante verifies this idea in a letter written to Carl Sprinchorn in 1947. After venturing out to view an exhibition of Marsden Hartley's paintings, Brigante wrote:

We scarcely budge from our perch up here, and I've always been rather disdainful of going to exhibits and meeting people -- and I guess I'll suffer in the long run as a consequence of placing myself on my little ivory pedestal -- and then again it's hard for me to meet people and it [sic] so easy to remain be-fogged and isolated and keep out of the swim.[17]

In spite of the testimony of Brigante and others who preferred to be so independent, there was a flourishing artistic milieu in pre-war Los Angeles. Since some of the League artists mention that it was quite easy to get downtown and elsewhere in the area by the red car, we can assume that distance was not always the issue for them. Therefore, personal motivation and not a lack of cultural offerings must be considered a primary factor; evidence of what the area had to offer at the time may today be found in a variety of sources.[18] The diaries of Mabel Alvarez, for instance, give a firsthand account of the life of a Los Angeles artist and confirm that there was a thriving local art community.[19] Her entries demonstrate that she was a very active individual who frequently attended lectures on art, gallery and museum openings, and dinner parties with her fellow artists throughout the period in question. The Art Students League was a destination often mentioned in the diaries, as Alvarez attended for well over a decade, though it should be emphasized that the League was not the solo outlet for its members. Many of them, including Mabel Alvarez, were involved with numerous organizations -- in her case, ranging from the conservative California Art Club to the more progressive Modern Art Workers.[20] But one of the most intriguing places where artists met, studied, worked, debated, and partied for forty-seven years was the Los Angeles Art Students League. Because many of the area's early modern artists participated in the League as either student, member, or teacher, the school became a mecca, through its exhibitions, social events, and lectures, for those interested in progressive thinking. Even more importantly, it was the center of a previously unrecognized artistic movement that thrived for over twenty years, something unusual in American art of the period. Both stylistic and intellectual influences stemming from the school turn up in artworks produced in the 1930s for the Federal Arts Project as well as the budding movie industry in Southern California.

In 1923 British artist Desmond Rushton (b. 1895) made the following observation when he visited the League at its location at 115-_ North Main Street: "What a unique place for art students...The co-operation and the spirit of friendly comaraderie [sic] was refreshing...This was a revelation of what an art school should be."[21] The congenial atmosphere that Rushton responded to in such glowing terms was probably one of the greatest influences on those who attended, although today it is perhaps the most difficult aspect to understand and explain. However, surviving League artists and those who have passed on have made it clear that the friendships formed at the school and the experiences shared there were special and created bonds between many of them that lasted a lifetime. For example, about a decade after Nicholas Brigante stopped regularly attending the League, he affectionately recalled some colleagues at the school in his autobiography by "acknowledging a debt of gratitude and love to the...men who have assisted and influenced me most in my art career."[22] More recently, ninety-one-year-old Kirby Temple, who as a young man started attending the life drawing classes at the League in 1927, reminisced, "such good and lasting friendships...!I love to remember those true human beings. No group in the 'World' can compare. Such an influence on my teenage years! I was in the presence of thinkers!"[23]


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