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Art review: 'Artistic Evolution' at the Natural History Museum

October 27, 2011 | 12:13 pm

Howard Warshaw, "Cat's Skull"
If there were a prize for Most Artful Title in Pacific Standard Time, the big Getty-funded series of more than 60 art museum exhibitions that has been unfolding around the region in recent weeks, a very small but fine show at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park would be a major contender. On the mezzanine of the rotunda between the museum's Hall of Dinosaurs and its Hall of Mammals, "Artistic Evolution" looks sideways at creationism -- not the kind undertaken by science-deniers armed with sacred texts but by artists equipped with paintbrushes and curiosity. 

The show's full title is "Artistic Evolution: Southern California Artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1945-1963." The dates bracket the end of World War II and the founding of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, when art got its own civic museum. As if to underscore the title's sly incongruity, it opens with a fine charcoal, ink and red-chalk drawing of an animal skull by Howard Warshaw (1920-1977), its bleached cranium laid out for examination on a russet-colored surface.

The skull points back toward the dinosaur bones on one side of the rotunda and forward to the taxidermy mammals on the other. (Warshaw's drawing shows a domestic cat.) The drawing's style, circa 1946, crosses realism with Cubism, its organic forms carving out voids that simultaneously swell into ambiguous solids. The deathly subject echoes with the wartime carnage just concluded, while hinting of the nuclear-shrouded future that had just arrived.

Warshaw's drawing was shown in a 1947 exhibition at the NHM, back when it was the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, the first dedicated museum building in the city and effectively the only institutional art-game in town. These 22 artists weren't at it 65 million years ago, unlike the nearby T. rex, but sometimes it can seem that way. The overwhelming emphasis in Pacific Standard Time so far has been on painting, sculpture, printmaking and installations made in the 1960s and 1970s, when L.A. first became a national player in the art scene, while the late 1940s and the 1950s have gotten short shrift. This little show's focus is a delightful exception.

Natural History MuseumGuest curator Charlotte Eyerman, formerly on staff at the Getty, emphasizes early work by artists who showed at the Natural History Museum before coming to later prominence, including John Baldessari, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha and more. A perhaps surprising number are women: Ynez Johnston, Helen Lundeberg, Betye Saar and June Wayne. Many had been selected for the "Annual Exhibition, Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity," a juried show open to anyone.

Modernity is a ruin in many of the earliest works -- Warshaw's skull; his painting of wrecked automobiles that look like something from the ancient battlefields of Troy; the Cubist-tinged medieval armor in Rico Lebrun's 1948 gouache, "Study for a Soldier;" Johnston's 1949 sunken ship encased in a womb-like oval; Wayne's 1950 lithograph of paleolithic scratchings on a cave's wall. American art in the aftermath of the war was filled with ruminations on mortality.

Artists faced a terrible dilemma, the world having been brought to the brink and humanity's unspeakable capacity for evil having been laid bare. It was time to wipe the modern slate clean and start over. What better place for that than Los Angeles, a new city without much recorded history but with a growing habit of looking forward?

Unfortunately this small show -- just 27 works, four on paper -- has no catalog, although the tightly written object-labels are informative. But the clean-slate context does frame examples from the museum's one great traveling exhibition of contemporary L.A. art. "Four Abstract Classicists" in 1959, featuring geometric color-abstraction by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and especially John McLaughlin, would be unthinkable without the artists' determination to equate classicism with clarity.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., (213) 763-3466, through Jan. 15. Open daily. www.nhm.org

RELATED:

Art review: "Glenn Ligon: America" at LACMA

Art review: "Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals" at LACMA

Art review: 'Under the Big Black Sun' at MOCA

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Howard Warshaw, "Cat's Skull," 1946, charcoal, ink and chalk. Credit: Natural History Museum.

NHM rotunda. Credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times

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