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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.

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.

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.

The month of April is synonymous with taxes. We spend hours, days, and even weeks sorting through the paper trail of our financial identity, condensing a year’s worth of work into a federally approved formula. Taxes are an inherent part of life; so, in an era in which the crossover between art and life is a given, what might the crossover between art and the United States Tax Code look like?

Two Things You Can Count on—Art and Taxes,” appeared in the June 1974 issue of LAICA Journal. The opening lines of the two-page spread, read:

Lowell Darling: “Dudley, can you tell me where you’re from?”

Dudley Finds: “Dollars, Texas.”

art-and-taxes

 

In the text, California-based artist Lowell Darling interviews his alter ego, Dudley Finds. The mock-interview is the concluding segment of Darling’s five-year tax project, initiated when the IRS classified Darling a hobbyist rather than an artist engaging in a trade for profit, thus disallowing his proposed income tax deductions for art material expenses. This 1969 denial kicked off Darling’s career as a non-profit public artist bent on proving his artist status to the IRS, all while displaying no documented monetary profit.

To realize the project, Darling corresponded with politicians and federal agencies regarding proposed artworks, stamping the letters he received in response with: “ARTIST’S PROOF.” He established the fictional Fat City School of Finds Art (FCSOFA), placing his alter ego, Dudley Finds, as the founder and dean of the imaginary institution and distributing over 50,000 free MFA degrees—the school counts among its famous graduates John Baldessari and Ray Johnson. Darling realized pro bono site-specific installations up and down the West Coast; he was interviewed by numerous media outlets (television, radio, newspaper); and in 1973, he was awarded a grant by the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Only in 1974, and with the assistance of then-UCLA law professor Monroe Edwin Price, was Darling reclassified by the IRS as an artist displaying a profit intent. Thus, he was allowed, finally, to deduct the cost of materials from his [lack of] income. This change in classification was not the result of revised tax laws or increased recognition for conceptual art. Darling posits that having a lawyer argue his case, and having his work reproduced on the cover of Art in America, were significant factors in this revised status. While this may very well be the case, ultimately, the deciding factor was the NEA grant, not because of its associated prestige or federal backing, but because it allowed Darling to display one all-important element on his tax forms: profit.

Thus, to conclude the tax project, which involved forays into correspondence, installation, and performance, Darling displaced the discussion, turning it away from himself (the subject of the IRS audit) and instead shifting it towards Dudley Finds, complicating the matter by discussing his financial identity under a name that both was and was not his.

 

This blog post is taken from ICW’s Doheny postdoctoral scholar Monica Steinberg’s ongoing research into the agency of imaginary artists in Los Angeles.

 

peaches_390

Carleton Watkins, Late George Cling Peaches, c. 1887-1888. Albumen print from wet-collodion negative. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

As much as any of his more famous landscapes of Yosemite or Mount Shasta, Carleton Watkins’ Late George Cling Peaches is a masterpiece. The picture, in the collections of the Huntington and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shows a box of peaches, a subject so paradoxically obscure and familiar, that nowhere in 19th-century art, neither in America nor in Europe, is there anything like it.

To put Late George Cling Peaches into its proper context, to understand why it holds our gaze, we need to go back 500 years. Since at least the thirteenth century, Western art has been significantly interested in how a two-dimensional medium, such as painting, might realistically present the third dimension. In the late 1200s, a Florentine painter named Giotto helped introduce life into art, or, as we might put it today, for painting people in a manner that was lifelike and that gave volume to the human figure. Around 1425, another Florentine, Filippo Brunelleschi, composed images of Florence’s buildings, its cityscape, using what would later be called ‘linear perspective,’ the painterly use of geometry to create a realistic simulacrum of depth, and a believable representation of reality. More simply, Giotto and Brunelleschi pioneered making paintings of things that looked less like an outline or a colored shadow, and instead look more like something real.

For most of the next 500 years, between the late dark ages and the dawn of modernity, artists tried to present depth more and more realistically. Typically art historians attribute the birth of modern art to the coming together of two seemingly unrelated artistic interests: Artists began to take contemporary life as a subject, and, once that turned out to be something fairly easily done — look, a cabaret! look, boaters on a river! —  they made clearer their break with centuries of the past by now working to eliminate depth and perspective for which half a millennium of their predecessors had fought so hard. Steps toward this new idea are evident in the late 19th-century paintings of Cezanne and then in the turn-of-the-century paintings of Gustav Klimt, but the elimination of depth and painterly perspective reached its apex a few years later, when Henri Matisse led the way toward a colorful style known as fauvism and when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque purged color from their work in a bid to birth cubism.

At least that’s how it happened in painting. For photography, perspective and the presentation of depth is a trickier question. While in the early days of the medium many photographers looked to painting for ideas and inspiration — Briton Roger Fenton, arguably photography’s first master, was trained as a painter, and it shows in his pictures — few took on the concerns of the painting avant-garde as their own. Instead, 19th-century photographers, be they portrait daguerreotypists, scientists or landscape photographers, concerned themselves with capturing images of what was before the camera and doing so as clearly and as attractively as possible. Sure, the artist composed the image to the best of his ability — some better than others — but depth or perspectival space wasn’t an issue for photographers the way it was with painters. It was just part of the camera-captured, chemically processed image.

In part, this was because the presentation of depth was effectively built in to photography’s early technologies. Early ways of making pictures, such as the wet collodion process which was dominant through the 1860s, often resulted in images wherein the objects or landscape that was further away from the camera printed ‘lighter.’ Voila: For photographers, the depth for or against which painters fought was created as the result of chemical inevitability. By the late 1870s, as cameras, lenses and chemistry improved, that effect was nearly eliminated and the distant background and the foreground often melded together in the finished image. While the foreground was now clearer and richer, the background was too, and typically it was every bit as clear and rich as the foreground. Many photographers hoped that the viewer would understand that the camera, and thus the photograph, would necessarily flatten the image, that the foreground would appear to be pasted onto the background, and that the viewer would use her imagination to conjure the space between what was nearest the camera lens and what was farthest away. While it’s not clear how many painters realized it at the time, improvements in photographic technology brought painters to where photographic technology already was. Or to put it another way, what painters were fighting to advance toward — the flattening of pictorial space — was effectively built in to photography from the early 1870s onward.

Which brings us back to Late George Cling Peaches. It is a photograph of peaches packed in four horizontal rows of six. A deep cleft runs two-thirds of the way around each fruit, nearly halving it. They are babies’ bottoms in a box. The photograph is so detailed, so precise, that you can see light wrapping its way around each individual peach, pausing between each slightly upraised pore before vanishing into the empty black space between each fruit. The edge of the photograph is the edge of the box in which the peaches were shipped, unless the edge of the box is the edge of the photograph. That flattening of pictorial space that technical advances in photography had built into the medium? With Late George Cling Peaches, Watkins defeated it, showed that a skilled artist could win out over the march of technology.

The picture is not just a masterpiece of formalism. Late George Cling Peaches was a picture the celebrated a late 19th-century miracle: man’s hubristic transformation of southern California desert, in this case Kern County, into fruit orchards.

A few years before Watkins took Late George Cling Peaches, Kern County was one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable desert landscapes in America. A few years before that, it was an inland sea, covered in floodwaters so deep that steamboats were able to paddle through it. On one hand, these cycles of extreme weather had been going on for centuries and probably for millenia. On the other, the floods brought rich soil to the valley floor. Where there was rich soil, there was the potential for agriculture. This wasn’t lost on San Francisco businessmen who, after a couple of decades of benefiting from the mining booms in California and Nevada, were flush with cash and looking for places to invest it. They realized that if they could somehow control the rivers coming out of the mountains on either side of California’s central valley, if they could normalize and regulate the flow of water that created the floods and thus eliminate the hydrological extremes that had made even low-density agricultural settlement and agriculture in most of Kern impossible, that they could make millions. In short, they believed they could manage nature and make the desert bloom.

As a San Franciscan with close relationships to the wealthy men who invested in railroads and land throughout California, Carleton Watkins was engaged with these desert reclamation projects from almost the beginning. Watkins was especially close to the San Francisco land barons who controlled Kern. In the late 1870s, those men sued each other over Kern water rights. One set of partners, James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis, hired Watkins to make pictures that they could use in court to support their claims against the other team, Henry Miller and Charles Lux.2 The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became a landmark water-rights decision. The most important outcome of the suit was that it effectively confirmed that Miller, Lux, Haggin and Tevis controlled the water supply for almost all of the agricultural land in Kern County, and by their control of water they controlled the future of lands much larger than that. Haggin and Tevis had plans for all that water: They plowed their capital into re-shaping their new land, moving rivers, building canals, and filling-in marshes and lakes.

This was no small project: Kern County is bigger than New Jersey. At first, as often as not, they got it wrong and powerful Sierra-snowmelt-driven floods destroyed their earthworks. They kept trying: The potential rewards were too great for them to give up. Eventually their engineers figured it out, and their irrigation projects played a key role in the conversion of California’s once-inhospitable Central Valley into the global agricultural powerhouse it is today.

By 1888, Tevis, Haggin and Billy Carr, their politically connected local land agent, had finally figured out how to make their 375,000-acre patch of Kern bloom. (That acreage is equivalent to about 500 square miles of land, an area equivalent to 11 San Franciscos.) They formed the Kern County Land Company, whose waterworks fed a series of large farms on which they grew crops such as alfalfa and grain, and raised cattle. That was all well and good, but Carr and Haggin realized that the fastest, largest profits could be made from land sales, from breaking up their massive acreage and selling plots to individual farmers. However, there was an obvious problem: There wasn’t anyone in Kern County to sell to. Before Haggin and Carr transformed it, the Southern Pacific Railroad hadn’t even bothered to build its San Joaquin Valley line all the way to Kern’s county seat in Bakersfield. The county was home to no more than couple thousand recently arrived Oklahomans, Texans, Louisianans and Mexicans. Many were seasonal laborers already employed by the Kern County Land Co. Kern was so hot and dry and miserable that no one really wanted to live there.

Haggin, Tevis and Carr understood that the settlement of Kern — and thus their profits — would have to come from the East and Midwest, the two parts of the country that had fueled Western migration for several decades. But how to convince potential farmers in Pennsylvania or Illinois to move west, to take a chance on a bold, never-before-attempted reclamation project in a recently former desert wasteland? Answer: Hire Carleton Watkins. There’s no surviving record of what Haggin and Tevis told Watkins to do, but the resulting pictures make it clear: Make Kern look like somewhere you’d want to live, raise your family and farm. Make it look like a safe investment, like a place you could raise both crops and your family.3 Sure there were plenty of other photographers they could have hired, including one in Kern who worked for half of what Watkins charged, Haggin and Tevis knew how good Watkins was. He was money well-spent.

Part of the reason Watkins was a great artist — and part of why his life’s story and work are so fascinating — is that he had a particular skill for composing chaos into inevitability. No body of work demonstrated this skill better than the hundreds of photographs he made of Kern County. Here Watkins’ pictures would transform Kern’s withering desert and hydrological extremes into the land of cornucopia that Haggin and Tevis needed it to be.

In today’s terms that would make Watkins little more than a maker of slick marketing images, a PR-motivated shyster. But in the 19th century, that was de rigeur. For decades, American painters had cranked out idyllic landscapes, pictures that were too perfect to be real. If the land was blessed by Providence — and Americans believed that their place on the continent surely was — artists had to make the land look Providential. Watkins knew that his pictures had to fit an ideal, but he was a Westerner, more interested in serving capital than in serving the Lord. In Watkins’ Kern, the landscape wasn’t prepared by the Lord in advance of manifest destiny, it was built by man. That made Watkins the perfect artist for his time, and also the ideal artist for his clients and customers, railroad titans, land barons and bankers, men whose livelihoods depended on presenting the West as tamed, as a place safe for investment and relocation. In Watkins, modernity always wins.

Late George Cling Peaches is either the first or more likely the last of as many as nine pictures Watkins took of Kern orchards between 1881 and 1888. While it’s impossible to know exactly how Watkins intended the pictures to be seen, the way he numbered his pictures suggest that Late George Cling Peaches is the culmination of a group of pictures meant to be considered as a narrative. The first picture was probably an 1881 view of the Kern River as it exits the steep foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada and enters the central valley. Watkins’ message: There is a lot of water here, and there will continue to be, because the mountains and their snowpack provide it. The next several pictures shows the Kern County Land Co orchards, from a distance, then close-ups of an individual tree, a branch heavy with fruit, then on a cluster of peaches. The final image is the boxed peaches, likely shipped to Watkins’ San Francisco studio for photographing, just as they’d be shipped to Chicago or New Orleans for consuming, were intended as evidence of how you, a prospective migrant to Kern, could make farming in Kern pay off.

In any context, Late George Cling Peaches is an astonishing picture. How did Watkins make each individual fruit look so soft? Just as remarkable as the intensity of Watkins’ image is that it’s impossible to tell whether the box is lying flat with Watkins’ huge mammoth-plate camera above it, pointing down into the box, or whether the box is on end, across from Watkins’ camera.4

One way or another, the peaches are stuck in place, on a grid. Here, in 1889, Watkins has built a picture around a grid and by so doing has flattened space in a way that the European avant garde, which had been slowly, steadily working toward this — and toward the grid — since late impressionism, wouldn’t achieve for another 20 years. Another major innovation of modern art was that it made everyday life, the commonplace, into a subject of high visual art. What could be more ordinary than a box of peaches? One measure of Watkins’ importance as an artist is that he was alone among American artists of his period in making the seemingly mundane a subject of intense compositional experimentation.

Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts has called Late George Cling Peaches “the first “modernist masterpiece.” The only other known copy of the picture is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for whom photography curator Sarah Meister acquired it in 2010. “If I died tomorrow and I never brought another work into the collection, knowing that Late George Cling Peaches is here, that’s certainly my proudest accomplishment,” Meister told me after installing the picture for the first time. “You can’t look at Marcel Duchamp the same way after seeing that Watkins picture. I think it radically changes how you see the nineteenth century, which then reverberates through the present.”

 

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 the one of the most important collections of Watkins’s work.

This post was originally published on the ICW website in September 2015.

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Listen to the recording of In Conversation with Tyler Green (Wednesday, May 27, 2015):

Carleton Watkins in California: How an Artist on the Edge of America Impacted American Science, History and Business

by Jessica Kim, Visiting Associate Director

El Paso Bridge

October 21, 2015

Scholars in the field of borderlands studies gathered at the Huntington Library earlier this month to explore how gender and borders have intersected from the eighteenth century to the present.  Panelists included Leisy Abrego (UCLA), Veronica Castillo-Muñoz (UCSB), Miroslava Chavez-Garica (UCSB), Celeste Menchaca (USC), and Andie Reid (Cal Poly SLO).  Drawing from their specific research projects while also commenting on the broader field of borderlands history, the panelists addressed innovative approaches to the question of how international borders reshape gender, family dynamics, and sexuality.  In particular, panelists noted the ways in which this important field is developing, from examining gender and medical borders, to technology and gender in the borderlands, to the ways in which families consciously create trans-border communities.

The ICW was particularly excited to host these scholars as it expands programming to include the dynamic field of borderlands history.  Please join us as we continue to explore the landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in the spring of 2016.