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Rewriting Macdonald-Wright

A brilliant exhibition revives the reputation of an American Modernist


"It is strange how deeply colors seem to penetrate one, like scent," said Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of George Eliot's great 19th-century novel Middlemarch. Most of us are susceptible to the powers of color, and for some people, color is not just the wine of life, but the bread, the oil, the salt. Color is the motivating force for certain artists, and one of these figures in American art was Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a Modernist whose works were generally forgotten after his death in 1973. His reputation will be deservedly revived by the retrospective organized and just opened by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Like Eliot, Macdonald-Wright was a brilliant polymath, a first-rate artist of astonishing erudition. He was the ideal of the modern man, bursting with optimism and inventiveness, and perfectly located in time, coming of age in the buoyant first decade of the 20th century. Yet, also like Eliot, Macdonald-Wright was far ahead of his time in his interests and understanding, and he assertively promoted ideas that seem perfectly contemporary today.

Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism is a very intelligent exhibition, but first--and perhaps most importantly--it is beautiful and moving on a nonverbal level. As the exhibition points out, Macdonald-Wright was full of ideas and theories, which he expressed in reams of writings. But although those ideas form the basis for his paintings, never do they interfere with our direct sensory and emotional experience of the work. Macdonald-Wright was no conceptualist; his paintings don't require explanation or a reasoned response. You don't have to "read" them.

From his earliest work, through his most theoretical stage, to the WPA-era murals, and on to the mature abstract vision of the last two decades of his life, Stanton Macdonald-Wright was a superb colorist, and in every painting there is at least one passage as aesthetically thrilling as a light-struck emerald. No reproduction can do justice to the trenchant hues or to the subtleties of their orchestrated relationships; while the work does have some graphic qualities, and some very fine draftsmanship, it is not fully replicable by any printing process. Even in the exhibition's well-illustrated and scholarly catalog, much is lost in the plates. You must see the paintings themselves to feel the colors ring like chimes behind your eyes.

That we have this opportunity to view these paintings is due to a happy confluence of circumstances. Fannie and Alan Leslie, collectors from Palm Springs who specialize in Southern Californian modern art, visited the NCMA several years ago when they were considering moving here. They were so taken with the museum that they invited the museum's director, Larry Wheeler, and its chief curator, John Coffey, to visit their home and see their collection. That collection turned out to include many paintings by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and the idea for a retrospective of his work soon arose. A few years earlier, the Leslies had become acquainted with a scholar and curator named Will South when he was writing his doctoral dissertation on Macdonald-Wright. They referred the NCMA to South, who was then working in Utah. South, who is the leading authority on Macdonald-Wright, collaborated with Coffey for four years to bring this exhibition and its catalog into existence. That the collaboration went so well is in part due to South moving east during the course of it--he is now curator of collections at UNC-G's Weatherspoon Gallery.

Of course, not all of the 63 works in the exhibition are from the Leslies' collection. In putting together this careful look at Macdonald-Wright's entire oeuvre, the NCMA has borrowed from museums around the country. (Ironically, the only loan they were refused, a portrait of Macdonald-Wright's brother, is on view in Raleigh anyway--in the portrait show at the Museum of History.) So how is it most people have never heard of Stanton Macdonald-Wright--and what in the world is Synchromism?

American art history has generally been New York-centered, with little attention paid to "regional" artists working in other parts of the country. Before Will South stumbled on Yin Synchromy, No. 3 and fell in love, Macdonald-Wright received attention mainly for his early Paris and New York work. After he returned to California, the East Coast art establishment forgot him. The tide of theory swept on, leaving Macdonald-Wright behind with his color scales; the tone of art changed, leaving little room for his joyous, irony-free painting. As Will South noted dryly while previewing the exhibition last week, "in art history, we are still catching up to the phenomenon of being inclusive."

Yet Macdonald-Wright's life story and his painting are both fascinating. Born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1890, he moved with his family to Santa Monica, Calif., when he was 10 years old. There the family lived at the beach in a fancy resort hotel which his father managed. The boy had private painting lessons, but the art around for him to look at was hardly challenging--a kind of sunny local impressionism. It is hard to imagine now, but Southern California early in the 20th century was a culturally conservative place. The young Stanton didn't fit in too well. He was incorrigible, always getting tossed out of school, running away at 14, taking up smoking and girls. The only thing he really cared about was painting.

So, in 1909, he--what else?--marries a wealthy woman and moves to Paris, the center of the art world. Macdonald-Wright quickly became enamored of Matisse and Gauguin for the color, and Cezanne for the lesson that painting could be as self-referential as it is descriptive. Before long, he met fellow American Morgan Russell, and the two men discovered that they were both interested in making color act more like music.

They were hardly the first to have this interest, or the last, but they may have been the most dedicated to the cause. After studying how music works, they concluded that the spaces between the notes were all-important. They created color scales (some of which are included in the exhibition) in order to orchestrate color and make with it a purely abstract art. They wanted an art to parallel the symphony, so they created Synchromism.

The problem with this is that a painting is static--you see and apprehend it all at once, not over time, as you do music. So it is necessary to give a sense, in the painting, of unfolding and patterned movement. Although Macdonald-Wright and Russell were among the first Americans to work abstractly, they looked back to Classical art, to the contraposto pose embodying tension and relaxation, for the basis of their rhythmic patterning. Once the pair had worked all this out, they wrote manifestoes declaring Synchromism to be the most advanced use of color, and the most advanced painting. Not all the French agreed (although others, notably Robert and Sonia Delaunay, were working with related ideas), but Synchromism received a lot of attention.

World War I interrupted this idyll, and Macdonald-Wright returned to America. He mounted a big show in New York in 1914, thinking that New York would be ready for him after the 1913 Armory Show that launched Modernism in this country, but only Alfred Steiglitz seemed to appreciate this esoteric new work. Before long, Macdonald-Wright returned to California--and this is where he drops from history.

But it is also where his story, and his work, become really interesting. He began teaching at the Art Students League of Los Angeles, and organized the first show of modern art on the West Coast, soon becoming the leader of a new school of artistic thinking there. He also became interested in Asian art and all areas of Asian culture, and aspects of Chinese style began to appear in his painting. There are some wild examples in the exhibition--Synchromist colors in a scroll-like landscape are quite startling. Where earlier he had been interested in the dynamic balance of the contraposto, now he pursues another kind of push-pull in his compositions.

Macdonald-Wright was quite successful during this period. He was selling paintings, teaching, even writing theater--then came the Depression. He survived better than many, becoming the head of the Federal Art Project for Southern California, but the mural work forced a change of style. His colors are no less exciting in the murals, but there's no getting around the fact that this was work for hire, rather than the outpouring of a grand spirit. Between the FAP and his teaching, it seems that the well nearly ran dry for Macdonald-Wright. The exhibition includes several pieces that look like copies of Braques--and like the work of a man struggling to find his way again.

Find it he does, though, and his output from the mid-1950s until his death in 1973 is his greatest work. He returns to Synchromism, and adds to the passionate theories of youth the knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime of study and experience. All too often retrospectives end on a sad note, with late works being merely hash made from early ones. But Stanton Macdonald-Wright leaves better than he arrived. His glorious late paintings, like Subjective Time, have a calm certainty through which luminous color kaleideoscopes. As it twists and sparkles on the canvas, you may think you hear the music of the spheres. EndBlock

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