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MillardSheets_BunkerHill_LACMA


Millard Sheets, Angel’s Flight, c. 1931. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Art Museum.

Sometimes a career strategy built around ubiquity is as successful as one built around the avant-garde and high achievement. So it was – and is – with Millard Sheets, an artist and architect who was born on this day in Pomona in 1907. Sheets is remembered today, mostly in southern California, mostly because he did so much work in so many parts of Los Angeles than because his work was great.

Sheets is probably best known for his architectural and decorative designs, such as mosaics, for about 50 southern California banks. A good example is a present-day Chase Bank at Laurel Canyon Drive and Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, for which Sheets designed a decorative tile mosaic that is still in place. Many similar decorations survive today. They are familiar more as reflective of a certain post-war white California optimism than as Sheetses.

The story is much the same at the new Marciano Art Foundation, which opened this spring as a venue for the display of Paul and Maurice Marciano’s private art collection and related temporary exhibitions. (The Marciano brothers are the founders of Guess Jeans.) The building they chose for their project, the 1961 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Blvd. In Los Angeles, is a Sheets design. (The Marcianos’ own architect, Kulapat Yantrasast, updated the space for the Marcianos’ purposes.) Sheets’s building is stiff and quirky without being innovative or clever.

As an artist, Sheets is best known for two related paintings: Angel’s Flight, a 1931 picture of an invented scene informed by downtown Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood that is now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and its cousin, Tenement Flats, a 1933-34 riff on the same geography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Angel’s Flight is successful mostly as a belated address of cubism, a once cutting-edge movement that was over 20 years old by the time Sheets addressed it here. The painting, which takes its name from an inclined plane railway that Sheets did not show, features Bunker Hill’s steep stairs and the working-class apartment buildings that surrounded them. In Sheets’s treatment, the buildings revolve around the stairs at unlikely angles that recall rather than advance experiments performed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the hilly French town of L’Estaque. As historian Sheri Bernstein has noted, by 1931 Bunker Hill was populated mostly by poor immigrants, yet Sheets shows only white people. Sheets surely knew that before Bunker Hill was a working-class immigrant neighborhood, it was a fashionable home for Los Angeles’s wealthy. He mashed up then and now, eliminating present-day truth in the process.

The SAAM painting is a step backward, both literally and metaphorically, from the LACMA canvas. Sheets is done addressing cubism. Here he looks up at apartment buildings from the bottom of Bunker Hill. Angel’s Flight is still absent. Drying laundry, hung on wires, organizes the composition as much as the buildings do. Again, with possibly one exception, the women and children in the picture are all white. Sheets had sanitized a hard life and made it pretty enough that Franklin Delano Roosevelt hung this picture in the White House. Here, as ever, Sheets’s work engaged the past and the present just enough to help his viewers see only what they wanted to.


Tyler Green is an award-winning art journalist and the producer and host of The Modern Art Notes Podcast, America’s most popular audio program on art. He is writing a book (UC Press) on Carleton Watkins, the greatest American photographer of the 19th-century and arguably the most influential American artist of his time. The Huntington is home to one of the most important collections of Watkins’s work.

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MindMatters_POSTERWhen we convened at the Huntington Library in 2009 for a conference on the history of technology in California and the West, we were glancing backwards from a shifting vantage point. Sure, we could look back at transformational infrastructures and the way in which they transmitted power – both literally on the state’s long distance power lines and massive dam projects, and figuratively via the Los Angeles traffic plan and the work of the RAND corporation. We could look back on humbling histories of technological hubris and failure – as with the Helmand Valley Dam Project in Afghanistan. We could see how innovations of the past turned desolate spots into hubs, as with the clocks in the ground somewhere outside Barstow, California, that control many of our GPS devices. We read old technologies as romanticizations of the past – just take a look at San Diego’s Panama Exhibition or the Golden Gate Bridge administrators’ long fight against a suicide barrier, but also discussed historical fantasies of technological futures – such as those of 1970s Californians, fragile and easily usurped when out of place.

As our group broached questions about the relationship between technologies and their place in the West with a good amount of eclecticism, we had one thing in common though: None of us had any certainty about the future trajectory of technological change. I hope Patrick McCray, our expert on the history of technological futures, would agree with me that past eras of rapid technological change coincided with a stronger sense – however false – of what the future would hold. If the continuing developments and disruptive innovations of the digital age have taught us anything, it is that we need to constantly ask new questions about what technologies do to societies, cultures, and identities, who builds them, and what we gain or lose in the process. All the more reason, then, to reference Minds and Matters today and develop new questions out of those we raised then.


Professor of History at Cal State Fullerton, Dr. Volker Janssen was ICW’s postdoctoral fellow from 2008-2009. In addition to participating in the conference, Janssen edited the book that followed the conference, Where Minds and Matter Meet: Technology in California and the West -which is available through the University of California Press.  He shared this brief update:

After some years, I hope to return to the field of technology history with a jointly hosted conference in Washington D.C. with the support of the German Historical Institute and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin next spring. There, I hope to revisit a fairly humble technological infrastructure that nonetheless put wheels on a number of transformational popular movements of the mid-century: the interstate bus.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.55.09 AMOn the occasion of 150 years since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth (June 8, 1867), ICW reached out to Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, for some thoughts.

ICW: Commemorations such as this allow us to ask questions about influence and legacy. In this case, how can we think about distinct pre- and post-Wright periods in American architecture? Can you give us a sense of that?

CH: Pre-Wright is marked by a slow search to establish an authentic American architecture, an effort that really picks up in the work of Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect he called his “Lieber Meister.” Wright takes Sullivan’s ideas about ornament, form and function, which were hugely influential but largely contained to the late 19th-century Midwest, and expands them in place and time, working all over the US and in Japan and across a staggeringly long career. To oversimplify a bit, Wright’s work is a sustained negotiation between a desire to express a domestic architecture and staying in conversation with — not wanting to appear outpaced by — experiments in European modernism. His career lasted so long and he was so prolific — especially at the beginning and the end of his working life — that any time you talk about before and after you also have to acknowledge how long the “during” was. His established his own firm in 1893; his last great building is the Guggenheim Museum, completed (posthumously) at the end of 1959.


ICW: A few buildings notwithstanding, we don’t generally associate Wright with Southern California or Los Angeles. Should we?

CH: We should. The work he did here in the early 1920s — mostly experimental concrete-block houses with pre-Columbian ornament — helped Los Angeles get a better sense of itself, its cultural and architectural identity. It pointed the way to a regional architecture that wasn’t Spanish (more on that below), that didn’t rely on European precedents. It was different from anything being done here at the time and also radically different from anything Wright did before or after.


ICW: Why have we missed the connections or the relationship, Wright and Southern California?

CH: Mostly because his time here was short. When he set up an office on Fountain Avenue in January 1923 he thought maybe he’d be here for good. LA was booming. But by the end of that year he’d given up on that dream. A number of potential projects — some of which were maybe pipe dreams from the start, like the massive Doheny Ranch — had fizzled out. He was not getting along with his son Lloyd, also an architect and the construction supervisor for some of the LA houses. Most of the concrete-block houses didn’t work out quite as he’d planned, in part because of their experimental structural system. He designed a house in Montecito early on his career and then returned to LA near the end of it for a couple of small projects. Those were flybys. But in the 1920s he was trying to really ground his architecture in Southern California, trying to reinvent himself as a West Coast architect.


ICW: Los Angeles in the 1920s must have seemed caught between provincial and would-be metropolitan, especially to someone with Wright’s eye. What did he think of the place?

CH: His opinions were inconsistent — since he was — but tilted negative. After he left he dismissed LA as a “desert of shallow effects.” But it also sparked something in him, elicited work as inventive and singular as he’d produce anywhere. And he sympathized with the provincial in any case — he was from a close-knit, rural Welsh Wisconsin family that was suspicious of cities. He never quite shook that attitude.


ICW: Who did he know here and with whom did he associate?

CH: His son Lloyd arrived earlier and was for a time the head of the design department at Paramount. Lloyd helped him make contacts. Aline Barnsdall first wanted to build her house in Northern California; once she bought land on Olive Hill he had a steady source of LA income. He was better at making connections in the right social circles when he was younger, as an up-and-coming architect in Chicago. By the time he got to LA he was middle-aged and reeling from the 1914 murder of his mistress Mamah Borthwick.


ICW: His LA time is coincident with his Tokyo work? Any connections between here and there that are especially interesting or germane?

CH: The timing is mostly during the Tokyo work, and just after. It’s the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that gives him a key commission at a lean period in the middle 1910s and brings him regularly to the West Coast for trips across the Pacific. His work here is influenced by Japan but the hotel is also shaped by his rising interest in the architecture of the Americas, defined broadly. Especially pre-Columbian.


ICW: Do you know if he made any connections to the way Los Angeles boosters had become so attracted to Chicago at the time? In other words, LA wanted to do, 1900-1950, what Chicago did, 1850-1900. Did Wright sense that?

CH: He must have, though he was too cynical, too much of a curmudgeon and too vain to join a campaign promoting anything but himself. He saw Los Angeles as the future but also as refuge, a place to hide out and reinvent himself. That contradiction can be seen in his LA work, which is historicist and experimental at the same time, looking backward and forward in a way that has confounded some critics and historians, who were used to dividing 1920s architecture rather neatly into avant-garde and revivalist camps.


ICW: How did he change Los Angeles?

CH: I’ve been working through this question — not just to write the Times piece marking the anniversary but in helping develop a forthcoming KCET Artbound documentary on Wright’s work in L.A. I think you could make a case that his houses here paved the way for the particular success of the major civic and cultural landmarks of the middle and late 1920s — the Central Library, City Hall, Wiltern, etc. Those projects were eclectic and revivalist without being slavishly Spanish Colonial Revival, a style Wright disdained. He planted the seeds for that, for an approach that broke equally from the Bauhaus, the Mission and his own early work.


As architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne also writes a weekly column about architecture in Los Angeles.  The 1920s photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (above) was taken by Julius Shulman and is courtesy of USC Libraries.

Loving Day is the annual celebration that occurs on June 12 to commemorate the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which functionally legalized interracial marriage on a national scale. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, Northwestern’s Keith Woodhouse offered this brief recollection from ICW’s 2013 conference “Mixed-Race Families in the West: What is Lost and What is Gained?”


I spent two great years as a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute on California and the West. Even after my fellowship was over I thought of myself as part of ICW, and lucky for me so did the Institute. Months after I left California I received an invitation to come back and participate in a one-day conference on the experience of multiracial people in the American West and especially California. I jumped at the chance.

Mixed Race Families In The West Conference 2013
The conference approached the multiracial West from several angles: historically, politically, sociologically, and personally. I sat on a panel with three other scholars, and we all talked about our personal experiences with multiracial identities and backgrounds. As the only member of the panel with an Anglo surname, I talked about the subtle and important ways in which racial identity can be hidden and revealed. Because of my name I would occasionally have to go out of my way to make clear that I was part Asian. Doing so could sometimes seem overly assertive or even irrelevant, but to me it was always a way of acknowledging a parent whose racial identity was obscured by my name tag.

I don’t study race and the West in any explicit sense but of course my own identity as part Asian and as a Californian always informs what I do, even if in ways that are not easily apparent. Sometimes race and identity are subterranean, which is why it was all the more fascinating and valuable to spend a day in such rich conversation about these subjects. I think often about the thoughtful and moving stories my co-panelists told, and about how similar stories are all around us, untold, every day.

AEROSPACE_POSTER2On August 3-4, 2007, fifty years after the Sputnik satellite launched the space race, ICW organized a conference on “Rocket Science and Region: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Aerospace Industry in Southern California,” bringing together scholars, writers, archivists, visual artists, corporate executives, and Air Force generals for two days of insightful and provocative discussions at the Huntington Library.

The conference posed a couple basic questions: how and why did southern California become a focal point for aerospace?  And what were the effects of this concentration, on the industry, the region, and the world? Speakers took various historical approaches—economic, political, social, environmental, cultural—to address these questions, in the process examining aerospace intersections with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the Antelope Valley; women, the Asian-American community, and local Chumash tribes; labor unions and the environment. The conference attracted great public interest, with an audience numbering well over a hundred people each day and coverage in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets. [Audio clips from the conference are available on iTunes.]

A resultant volume of essays, Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California, edited by Peter Westwick (Huntington Library Press/University of California Press), was named to L.A. Public Library’s list of Best Non-Fiction of 2012.  Above all, the conference provided an initial reconnaissance of the scholarly and archival territory subsequently explored by the Aerospace History Project, ICW’s effort to document the history of aerospace in Southern California.

ICW is currently relaunching the Aerospace History Project (what we are calling “Aerospace 2.0”).  The revived project will continue to build the archival collections and oral histories and foster new research, but we will now put more emphasis on teaching and outreach.  We will also extend our efforts to examine connections between aerospace and other aspects of science and technology in California, from electronics, telecommunications, and infrastructure to entertainment, clean tech, and recreation.  Finally, we also hope to involve other local universities in research and teaching collaborations, creating a community of scholars and students interested in questions about high technology, literally and otherwise, in Southern California.

Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.