An exhibition at Arena 1 at Santa Monica Art Studios, some months ago, was a first step in the creation of an archive that would chronicle the lives and works of the extraordinary artists in all media who have worked and lived in Santa Monica.
That exhibition, “Santa Monica Originals,” was organized and curated by Bruria Finkel, an artist herself and one of the City’s first Arts Commissioners, in the belief that the city must, however tardily, acknowledge in a concrete way the stunning aesthetic accomplishments of generations of Santa Monica painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, composers, dancers, actors and film-makers.
We agree. To this point, the extraordinary art that has been made here is matched only by the official ignorance of the artists and their works.
On its website, the Santa Monica Arts Commission proclaims, “More than any other city of its size in America, Santa Monica has had a profound effect on the development of contemporary art in this country. More visual and performing artists, arts presenters, designers, architects, and film and music producers per capita can be found here than any other city in the state.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, the Commission has and does underwrite some worthy projects and programs, but its focus has been almost exclusively on the present and future and, to this point, it has been inclined to be more politically correct than aesthetically alert.
Santa Monica’s aesthetic history is long and rich, and the roster of artists is dazzling.
Stanton McDonald-Wright, one of the leading American painters of the 20th century, grew up in Santa Monica, and painted murals decades ago for the Public Library that are now, inexplicably, owned by the Smithsonian Institute, but will, thanks to the efforts of a few people, notably Roger Genser, be hung in the new Main Library. Other works by him are in City Hall and Barnum Hall.
Sam Francis, John Baldessari and Richard Diebenkorn are only three of the great modern painters who came after MacDonald-Wright. The first exhibition of west coast Abstract Expressionists, Action I, was organized by the late and legendary museum director/curator Walter Hopps and held in the Carousel on Santa Monica Pier in 1954.
From the time Charlie Chaplin shot his first one-reeler on the Santa Monica beach, and leading actress Marion Davies, four of the five Hollywood studio heads and MGM’s legendary “boy genius” Irving Thalberg had houses on the beach, film actors and actresses, directors and writers have lived and worked in Santa Monica.
MacDonald-Wright’s brother, Willard Huntington Wright (aka S.S. Van Dine) wrote popular mysteries. scholarly literary works and art criticism. One of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, Bertoldt Brecht, was at home on 26th Street for a while. Raymond Chandler, great American novelist and screenwriter, lived for a time on San Vicente and many of his works were set in Santa Monica (ask Bay City). Renowned novelist Christopher Isherwood was born in England, but lived and wrote here for decades, and died here.
Esther McCoy, a brilliant writer on, among other things, architecture, lived in a tiny house on Beverley designed for her by Rudolf Schindler.
Frank Gehry, generally thought to be the most influential architect of the last half century, has lived and worked here for decades, though he will soon decamp for Venice (perhaps because official Santa Monica has never given him anything like his due). Indeed, Santa Monica and its immediate environs have been the epicenter of the architectural world for years, and Santa Monica has two resident Pritzker Prize winners – Gehry some years ago, Thom Mayne this year.
The strong aesthetic line continues today. In addition to Gehry and Mayne, current arts stars include novelist Mona Simpson, director Oliver Stone, screenwriter and novelist Henry Bromell and artist Michael McMillen.
These people and their distinguished contemporaries are as vital a part of Santa Monica as the ocean, the beach and the historically significant buildings, and it’s time that they, their works and lives were chronicled and arranged in a coherent and accessible form.
Now that Gehry is on the move, we propose that the City buy his landmark house in Santa Monica, preserve it and house a new Santa Monica Arts archive in it.
The house itself is a kind of Santa Monica time and space aesthetic line. In 1978, Gehry bought what he called “a dumb little house with charm” two blocks south of Montana and transformed it. Going against the prevailing trend, he did not make the small pink asbestos shingled house sleeker or bigger, he made it, in his words, “more important.”
He said, “I wasn’t trying to make a big or precious statement about architecture or trying to do an important work, I was trying to build a lot of ideas.”
To that end, he wrapped a shell around three sides of the house, turning it into an object in the larger new house. While he left the exterior of the old house intact, he “edited” its interior.
Gehry said, “I wanted to blur the edge between the old finish and the new finishes, between real and surreal.”
The exterior shell and additions are made of a variety of materials – glazed glass, wire glass, chain link screens and corrugated metal panels – set asymmetrically, and at unexpected angles.
The overall effect is a work in progress, or in motion.
In the intervening years, some changes and additions have been made, including retaining walls, gates, more planting, a fountain and a lap pool, and the trees and plants around its perimeter have grown taller and denser.
Even in Gehry’s canon, this house remains unique. There is nothing quite like it anywhere, but, for all that, it is pensive – a kind of meditation on materials, forms and light, an extraordinary doodle, and thus a fitting repository for a multi-media artists’ archive.
In this house, one can see intimations of elements Gehry used in later buildings, but it stands on its own as a masterwork, because it is so unabashedly original – in conception and execution.
The line between this house and Gehry’s Disney Hall that rises like an enormous flower on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles is anything but straight, but it is very clear.
This early masterpiece by architecture’s current master must be preserved, and it is the perfect setting for the Santa Monica Arts Archive – which itself must begin and remain in perpetual motion.
There is bound to be great interest in Gehry’s house, but the City is uniquely suited to own it and preserve it for all time. There are precedents – Villa Aurora and the Eames house in the Palisades, the Schindler house in West Hollywood and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barnsdall house in Hollywood. The Gehry house is a profoundly worthy addition to that distinguished roster, and the Arts Archive is a long overdue and vital addition to Santa Monica’s aesthetic and cultural landscape.Ed. note: The quotations from Gehry appeared in “Frank Gehry Buildings and Projects,” compiled and edited by Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford (Rizzoli, 1985).