If anyone resides at the top of Santa Monica’s aesthetic tree, it is Stanton Macdonald-Wright. He grew up here became one of America’s first modernist masters and most influential painters, and his works are key elements in two of the city’s most dazzling and significant landmarks – Santa Monica City Hall and Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School.
Now the mural he did nearly half-a-century ago for a now-demolished main library has just been installed in the new Main Library.
When Stanton Macdonald-Wright arrived in Santa Monica in 1900, he and it were very young. He was 10. The little beach town had just marked its 25th year and had only 3,000 residents.
Archibald Wright and Annie Wright moved to Santa Monica from Charlottesville, Virginia with their two sons, Willard, 13, and Stanton, 10, when Wright, having sold his Virginia properties, took a job as manager of the Arcadia Hotel, then said to be the finest hotel on the Southern California coast.
The first full retrospective of Macdonald-Wright’s work was mounted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2001. He was one of America’s early modernist masters, and the exhibition “Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism” charted the evolution of his art through six decades – from his important Synchromist works, through his Asian period – and moved on to the stunning synchromies he painted in the final years of his life.
Macdonald-Wright, with fellow American painter Morgan Russell, fathered the Synchromism movement. Convinced that color and sound were equivalent phenomena and that one could “orchestrate” the colors in a painting the way a composer arranged notes and chords in a musical composition, they developed a system of painting based on color scales. The system entailed constructing form and depth in a painting through advancing and reducing hues. Their ensuing “synchromies” were some of the first abstract non-objective paintings in American art.
Young Stanton believed that he was a prince, read voraciously, studied with tutors, caroused with other renegades, attended the Art Students’ League of Los Angeles, worked briefly and unmemorably in a doctor’s office and a department store and, at 17, married the first of his five wives.
His wife was older than he, and rich, and they soon left Santa Monica for Paris where he attended classes at the Sorbonne and studied painting at several traditional academies. But he soon abandoned formal study to explore the radical new approaches of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Orphism that were challenging traditional art. It was then that he met Morgan Russell and was introduced to Matisse, Rodin, Percyval Tudor-Hart, a Canadian painter and color theorist, and collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein.
Macdonald-Wright and Russell exhibited their new aesthetic first in Munich, then in Paris in 1913, and the following year in New York. Synchromism was the first American avant-garde movement that was recognized in the international arena.
At the onset of World War I, Macdonald-Wright returned to the United States and settled in New York City. His synchromist works were shown at the most progressive galleries in America, including Stieglitz’s Gallery 291.
He was also one of the organizers of the landmark 1916 Forum Exhibition that established the place of modernism in American art.
Disappointed with the New York art scene and detesting the city, Macdonald-Wright returned to Los Angeles in 1918 and immediately challenged the local art community, which was still under the spell of impressionism. Penniless, in the midst of a divorce and overcoming an opium addiction, he soon established himself as the foremost modernist in the region and encouraged the development of a distinctively West Coast response to modernism.
He taught at the Chouinard School of Art (now the California Institute of the Arts), directed the Art Students League of Los Angeles, lectured and published his ideas on art aesthetics and philosophy, and eventually taught at UCLA. He is also credited with organizing the first exhibition of modern art in Southern California, the 1920 Exhibition of American Modernists at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (the forerunner of LACMA).
Central to his work here was his increasing absorption in all things Asian. He was inspired by Asian art and Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, and his new works were characterized by more subtle and elegant compositions. His landscapes, based on California’s many hills and valleys, were rendered in the delicate style of Chinese scroll painting and his still lifes featured formal simplicity and identifiably Asian motifs.
He maintained that East and West were equal halves of an as yet unrealized whole, and that a harmonious union could only be achieved through the marriage of Western logic and technology to Eastern philosophy and imagination. He not only spoke endlessly of the inevitable unity of the two cultures, but attempted to fuse Eastern and Western elements in his own work.
L.A. art critic Merle Armitage described Macdonald-Wright as “a formidable man.” Distinguished director/writer John Huston, a most formidable man himself, once said, “S. Macdonald-Wright furnished the foundation of whatever education I have.”
Ironically, the Great Depression of the 1930s gave Macdonald-Wright a unique opportunity to create some large-scale works in Santa Monica. Under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, he painted the extraordinary mural cycle for the Santa Monica Public Library. It was the most extensive such project ever undertaken in Southern California. At a City Council meeting to approve the project, about $950 was collected to pay for the requisite materials. Macdonald-Wright devoted 18 months to the mural that traces the history of the region from prehistoric times to the birth of the movies, and was paid virtually nothing for it.
When the old Public library was torn down, the mural – which Macdonald-Wright had wisely painted on removable panels — was dispatched by the City to the Smithsonian Institution where stayed until its recent return.
Because of his significant place in the Los Angeles art world, Macdonald-Wright was appointed director of the Los Angeles District of the Southern California Region of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. In addition to promoting the project, Macdonald-Wright worked with the architects on various projects and designed numerous mosaics for local buildings – including the murals in the lobby of the Santa Monica City Hall, itself a WPA project, as well as painting the fire curtain mural and designing the mosaic in the lobby of Barnum Hall.
The City Hall murals are done in petracrome, a process Wright developed which combines cement with crushed bits of marble, tile and granite. One of the City Hall murals depicts the arrival of the Spanish explorers in Southern California and the Mexican settlement. The other features such 1930s elements as sailboats, airplanes and road races.
Built in 1937, Barnum Hall is one of the finest examples of the elegant Streamline Moderne architecture that flourished in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Like City Hall, it was a project of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration and Federal Arts Project.
In the final decades of his life, Stanton Macdonald-Wright returned to Synchromism, incorporating his life experience, his belief in Eastern philosophy, and a deep understanding of Japanese and Chinese art.
He lived in Santa Monica for much of his life, though he decamped to an apartment on Pontius Avenue in Westwood for a while, and later bought a house in Pacific Palisades. Until his death in 1973 he continued to paint, exhibit, and write prolifically and traveled frequently, usually to Asia.
Always an iconoclast, Macdonald-Wright set out on a singular road as a boy and never wavered. Self-educated, astonishingly self-confident, contrary, he not only created a diverse, singular and influential body of work, he changed the course of American art.
His older brother, Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) is worthy of note, too. After being kicked out of Harvard for drinking absinthe in class, he went abroad to study in Paris and Munich. At 22, he became the L.A. Times’ literary critic and was promptly labeled “the boy iconoclast of Southern California” for his assaults on L.A. (i.e., “Hypocrisy, like a vast fungus, has spread over the city’s surface”) In short order, he was named editor of New York’s Smart Set. He also wrote several books of art criticism. Then, after a bout of drug addiction and a nervous breakdown, Wright literally reinvented himself. Under the pseudonym, S.S. Van Dine, he wrote a series of mysteries about a sophisticated, even effete Manhattan sleuth, modeled on himself, Philo Vance, who was featured in 27 motion pictures.