Color, Myth and Music:
Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism
Curated by Will P. South and John W. Coffey
(with a catalog of the same title)
S L I D E S H O W
A Romantic in a Frenzied Office:
Macdonald-Wright and the Federal Art Projects, 1934-1943
The American artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright is best known for his early abstract paintings, first exhibited in Munich and Paris in 1913. He and Morgan Russell called their innovation "Synchromism," and as such it is featured in surveys of American art. Synchromism used colors in the manner of musical notes, if not always in consistent scales. When Macdonald-Wright returned to Southern California his brother, the art critic Willard Huntington Wright, remained in New York where he became famous as the mystery writer S.S. Van Dine. His character, Philo Vance, solved crimes in films as well as in books. In California, Macdonald-Wright is recognized as a leading teacher and apostle of modernism in the between-the-wars period. But what is generally missing from the literature is that his scholarly, romantic disposition, his extensive knowledge of ancient and Chinese art, and his disregard of the more literal arts of the period, made him a successful artist and administrator on the WPA/FAP. He was certainly out of step with the politics and realisms of the 1930s, but he believed that one artist's sensibility could communicate itself to a public, and he promoted experimentation that would adapt the monumental arts of the past to contemporary economic, architectural and technical realities.
Thus the Southern California WPA/FAP is noted for its "texturalized" mosaics, made from commercial tiles cut into patterns distinctive for each thing represented; its monumental, direct-carve sculpture from native stones; its Petrachrome murals, made like terrazzo floors but without metal divisions between the segments; and its casein tempera murals, painted in thin washes so as not to reduce the acoustic properties of walls in newer earthquake-conscious construction. The latter was adapted only to interior use, but the other media were used indoors and out, giving them greater public visibility.
Macdonald-Wright was associated with the Federal art projects from 1934 to 1943. When he painted an extensive mural cycle for the new Santa Monica Public Library (1934-35), the Public Works of Art Project helped raise money for the materials and paid the salaries of two assistants. The subject is the two-fold artistic and technological development of mankind, in which the two streams flow together in the creation of the three-color motion picture. (Macdonald-Wright had invented a color film process, made films, and devised a color organ to play his synchromies.) From his olympian viewpoint, he emphasized the interchanges between eastern and western cultures, and pictured great fields of energy as well as portraying individual inventors. The introductory and culminating panels, usually stored in the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, are part of the exhibit.
Macdonald-Wright's long career with the WPA/FAP commenced immediately upon the program's implementation in Los Angeles. He was an adviser, briefly an artist, and then an administrator, first for Los Angeles County, then for Southern California. His administration was not without controversy. The local chapter of the Artists' Union attacked him, primarily on the grounds that he was not content to administer but usurped the role of artists. He did donate a small still life in oil and several large landscape drawings in pencil (represented in the exhibit) to the project; he designed some five mosaics as well as the Petrachrome panels for the Santa Monica City Hall and two theater curtains. He collaborated on the grandest of all designs, that for the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium mosaic.
One can read into this material the predicament of much New Deal art: the artist overwhelmed by bureaucratic functions; the collaborative nature, for better and worse, of monumental art; the inability to present the art in a museum context and thus in the context of the artist's other work; the critics' cries of "compromise"; and the judgments that its achievements are isolated because they did not lead to post World War II innovations. Macdonald-Wright did not so much compromise as adapt in order to earn a living. He used other parts of his imagination and knowledge, of his theoretical and pedagogical positions, to move the Southern California project toward practical, popular, and creative solutions. There was nothing ideal about the Federal art projects, but the achievements, as exemplified by Macdonald-Wright, are both fascinating and real.
Photography: James M. Wechsler