Review: “Pasadena to Santa Barbara”

The following is a review from 2012 of Pasadena to Santa Barbara: A Selected History of Art in Southern California, 1951 – 1969 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It has been unaltered since written in 2012, and may contain views no longer held by the author.

Pasadena to Santa Barbara presents a selected history of Southern Californian art from 1951-1969.  The Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) set a precedent by exhibiting contemporary local artists alongside more influential and internationally-known Modern and contemporary artists. This exhibition brings together works shown in these institutions during the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in an array of swirling color and rigid geometry reminiscent of the landscape of mid-century Southern California.

Each artist in the exhibition is represented by two or three works. Many of the earlier pieces are like Californian versions of New York School Abstract Expressionism. The paintings are more West Coast laid-back, using bright colors and a unique avocado-green, utilizing negative space and bare, often unprimed, canvas, sprawling like unbuilt land beneath the expressive brushstrokes. A “sail painting” by Sam Francis features prominently in the front of the show, a blank canvas framed by a small, colorful, expressive border. It captures a principal aspect of Los Angeles; the piece is gilded, girded with color, but is hollow, containing a vast, empty expanse.

In the same room, separated by a partition, is displayed sculptural works and pieces of assemblage. Walking into this area, one feels a stark difference from the bright boldness of the other paintings. Untitled (1958), large multimedia work by Edward Kienholz, is especially disturbing, even compared to the rest of the area. The piece is a chunky, tar-like black macadam punctuated by a spot of sappy, dripping varnish, revealing the wood panel behind the paint, and a blood-red spot beside it. An indeterminable instrument, also black, is attached to the panel, heightening the viewer’s feeling of unease. In the same room is a collection of works by Marcel Duchamp, who no doubt inspired postmodern artists, but his work looks out of place in the exhibition. Walking into the room, one sees Bottle Rack (1963) and can’t help but ask, “Why is he here?”

I would have completely missed half of the exhibition had I not gone in search of the museum’s café. Through industrial metal doors, past a security guard, hung more minimalist, geometric paintings by the likes of Helen Lundeberg and Karl Benjamin. After the energy of the paintings in the first room, and with the sign reading “café downstairs” in sight, many of the the sharp and often harsh compositions in this wing seemed stiff and lackluster. Of all the artists in the show, however, Lundeberg utilizes the combination of color with negative space most effectively. The white expanse at the bottom of Seascape (1962) draws the viewer in toward the shore and her horizontal strokes of color, rather than pushing one out of the frame, as is common in works employing this element (such as Sam Francis’s work in the other room, for example). Her work encapsulates the softer, calmer side of the color, form and expanse of the California landscape expressed so clearly and expressively in Pasadena to Santa Barbara.