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Alston and Woodruff site-specific murals are endangered

March 23, 2011 | 12:18 pm

Allston When Michelangelo climbed the scaffold and began to paint the Sistine Chapel in 1508, he brought his exceptional intrinsic perceptions and artistic skills to three powerful extrinsic forces. The artist had to deal with the physical architecture of the space, the conceptual role of the chapel within the Vatican and the specific demands of the decisive patron, Pope Julius II.

The artist's brilliant negotiation of these intrinsic and extrinsic forces is integral to the masterpiece we see today.

Can you imagine, if such a thing were possible, the effect on Michelangelo's paintings if they were removed from the chapel and installed in the galleries of a museum? The images would remain unchanged, virtually identical to what they are in their present location, and many more people would get to see them than can be accommodated in a chapel of relatively modest size. But the aesthetic loss would be enormous. Michelangelo's Sistine murals are site-specific, drawing power and meaning from the place for which they were made.

Something similar, if on a lesser scale, will be argued in a Los Angeles courtroom Monday. As Times columnist Tim Rutten notes in a Wednesday op-ed, two site-specific murals completed in 1949 for the lobby of a major building in L.A.'s West Adams neighborhood may be ripped from their moorings and shipped off to a museum's galleries in Washington, D.C. Rutten has the details behind the possible loss. But the reason can be succinctly stated: Valued at $750,000, the two paintings were made on canvas that can be readily taken down from the walls.

Portability, however, does nothing to lessen the site-specific nature of the murals, commissioned from Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, two of the most important African American artists of their day. As murals, their complex histories of black life in California mesh with a major Los Angeles cultural tradition, represented by a pair of slightly earlier examples.

José Clemente Orozco's "Prometheus," painted in 1930 in Pomona College's Frary Hall, was the first Mexican mural in this country. Two years later, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted two public murals in L.A.; "Tropical America," severely damaged and the only one remaining, is being readied for public view at its Olvera Street location.

Woodruff Diego Rivera, the third of the three great Mexican muralists, painted no walls in Los Angeles. But he was a major inspiration to both Alston and Woodruff, whose murals were commissioned for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. at the corner of Western Avenue and West Adams Boulevard.

Alston, a New Yorker and the first African American project supervisor of the Federal Art Project, met Rivera when the Mexican artist was painting his controversial mural at Rockefeller Center. (They communicated in French, their only common language.) Woodruff, who, like Alston and Rivera, studied in Paris, worked mostly in Georgia; he painted three mural cycles, all inspired by Rivera's precedent. His contested L.A. mural is among them.

The 1949 Alston and Woodruff murals chart the "Exploration and Colonization" and then the  "Settlement and Development" of California. A panoply of Indian, Spanish, Anglo and, especially, African American men and women are shown, in dramatic styles far different from the similarly themed, gently pastoral murals by illustrator Dean Cornwell in the rotunda of the Central Library, completed in 1932.

The postwar boom was on in Los Angeles, and the ambitious murals by Alston and Woodruff spoke of profound changes.

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., for years the only African American-owned corporation in California, was moving from Central Avenue, long the center of the city's black life, to a prominent location just west of downtown. The move signaled demographic changes in the city, and the murals' subject matter reflected an emerging civic integration by charting elements of its social history in the state. The sleek Late Moderne style of the new building -- designed by celebrated L.A. architect Paul R. Williams, the nation's leading black architect and a favorite of establishment Hollywood and the city's moneyed class -- embodied that same future-oriented optimism. GSM founder William Nickerson Jr. conceived of the project as an ensemble, which speaks with a singular voice.

The Alston and Woodruff murals are inseparable from the physical architecture of the lobby, the conceptual role of the building within the city and the specific demands of the patron. They are no less site-specific than Michelangelo's Sistine frescoes, embedded in plaster walls, just because they are painted on canvas -- like Cornwell's at the Central Library, meant to mitigate potential earthquake damage in seismically unstable L.A.

Let's hope the judge at Monday's court proceeding understands. The insurance company is no more, but the building is under new and apparently enlightened nonprofit ownership that wants to keep the artistic ensemble intact. There's no question the murals should stay.

ALSO:

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Art review: 'Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman' at the San Diego Museum of Art

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: Charles Alston, "Exploration and Colonization," 1949, oil on canvas; Hale Woodruff, "Settlement and Development," 1949, oil on canvas: Credit: Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.

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