Lundeberg Retrospective, an Overdue Treat

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Helen Lundeberg creates a double self-portrait, part of an exceptional Laguna Art Museum exhibit closing May 30.
Helen Lundeberg creates a double self-portrait, part of an exceptional Laguna Art Museum exhibit closing May 30.

Wearing a frilly white dress, a small girl sits next to a low table bearing a clock. Most striking are the tyke’s eyes, hinting at preternatural depth while gazing at the viewer. Behind her, the elongated shadow of a grown woman visually connects her to a painting of the grown woman she is destined to become. The grown-up pictured is painter Helen Lundeberg, who has transposed an earlier painting of herself titled “Artist, Flowers, and Hemisphere” into a composition which she titled “Double Portrait of the Artist in Time.”

Painted in 1935, the intriguingly composed work is included in the current Laguna Art Museum retrospective of paintings by Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999), which closes May 30.

Comprised of 60 paintings and three years in the making, the first part of the exhibition focuses on Lundeberg’s interpretations of European Surrealism, which she and her husband Lorser Feitelson re-classified for their own purposes as “New Classicism” and then “Post-Surrealism.” The second part shows Lundeberg’s transition into the abstract geometry of the 1960s and beyond.

Viewers will undoubtedly be intrigued by Lundeberg’s creative explorations, deftly assembled by Ilene Susan Fort, a senior curator and Gail and John Liebes, curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s rare to see a show where nearly all the works are as highly compelling, both visually and in terms of craft. Whichever ones ultimately hold sway thus depends on a viewer’s personal preference.

Essayist Michael Duncan quotes Lundeberg as saying: “By classicism I mean not traditionalism of any sort but a highly conscious concern with esthetic structure which is the antithesis of intuitive, romantic or realistic approaches to painting. My aim, realized or not, is to calculate and reconsider every element in a painting with regard to its function in the whole organization….”

In her own catalogue essay, Fort describes Lundeberg’s paintings as the result of the artist’s imagination rather than what she has seen, and cites “Studio-Night” and “Studio Afternoon.” Done in 1958 and ’59, the works reveal her mastery of light and shadow and use of perspective, which allows one to wander through the images much as one might through rooms seen at distant points in time. They also show her gradual shift into geometric abstraction, a process that intensifies in paintings like the 1961 “Scene of a Dream” or a 1964 “Untitled” composition that evidences a strong influence of Italian surrealist Giorgio De Chirico. Another example is “Portrait of Inez” where the figure recalls Renaissance portraits and the background Chirico’s compositions.

Didactics remind that Lundeberg, while not possessing an extensive formal education, was a formidably independent learner with an interest in history, math, sciences and astronomy, as “Red Planet” and her luminous planet series reveal. A 1944 self-portrait shows a blond woman with inquisitive blue eyes holding a planet like sphere in one hand and a paintbrush in the other with a painting of a planetary surface in the background.

That Lundeberg has not received the attention she clearly warranted is largely due to sexism in the art scene, but also to the fact that she reportedly did not crave attention and remained disinterested in the vagaries of the art market.

It’s may be an overstatement to say that this exhibit makes up for lost time, but it’s fair to say that it effectively illuminates the mind of a woman with deep comprehension of her own inner workings and appreciation of the physical world she inhabited.


Also closing this month:


“City Life, Los Angeles: 1930s to 1959s.”

Retta Scott’s “Speakeasy” is part of the museum’s basement level exhibit on prohibition era Los Angeles.
Retta Scott’s “Speakeasy” is part of the museum’s basement level exhibit on prohibition era Los Angeles.

Looking at paintings such as Retta Scott’s “Speakeasy,” Barse Miller’s “Jitterbugs,” or Elmer Plummer’s “Piano Man,” transports the viewer into what was the Los Angeles club scene around prohibition. Lively, with details more suggested than elaborated, these works make it clear why few get tired of California Scene Painting.

This exhibition comprised of paintings by members of the California Watercolor Society includes works by lesser known artists such as Fritz Willis whose “Late Night in Los Angeles” evokes the dark appeal of Edward Hopper and stalwarts like Emil Kosa, Jr., who appears to have taken his easel into the city as often as he did into more bucolic settings. Altogether it’s a charming tour through a bygone time and a growing city and its people.


Frederick Hammersley: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection.

A small show located on the museum’s mezzanine, it gives insight into Hammersley, the gifted draftsman. Although he was critically acclaimed after exhibiting his paintings along with contemporaries Karl Benjamin, John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson, his drawings, prints and sketches shown here support the arch definition of a “sure hand.” Spare but eloquent, the works shown don’t miss a beat.

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