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.