Agnes Pelton's Funny Valentine


Chapman University's Hilbert Museum of California Art is showing Agnes Pelton's Heart Music as a one-year loan from an anonymous lender. A luminous heart, perhaps a celestial vision over a desert hill, is surrounded by seven bells on a golden cord. No one seems to know anything more about the iconography, though the gallery label notes that Pelton suffered from heart palpitations.

Heart Music was previously at the Owings Gallery, Santa Fe. The Hilbert label says it was sketched in 1944 (as "Happy Heart") and completed in 1948-1949. That makes it a relatively late work. Pelton had 14 solo and 20 group shows in the period 1911–1936, but her feminine figuration became marginalized in the New York School era. The recent revival of Pelton's reputation has made her one of the most sought-after California modernists. Heart Music offers a rhyme with Miriam Schapiro's super-girly Heartland (1985), in MOCA's Pattern & Decoration show.
Henrietta Shore, Gladiola, probably 1930s
The Hilbert is also showing a Henrietta Shore Gladiola, identified as part of the Hilbert collection. Shore's blossom could be mistaken for autumn leaves. Like Heart Music, it seems mystical, shown against the sky without stem or earthly connection.

The Shore and Pelton seem to announce new ambition for the Hilbert. Orange County has or will have at least four museums surveying modern and contemporary art made in California. The Hilbert has been the stodgiest of the four, with its focus on California watercolors and American Scene paintings. Millard Sheets is the collection's guiding spirit. (A Home Saving mosaic facade, rescued from Santa Monica, is to be installed in the Hilbert's planned expansion.)
Millard Sheets, Symphony Under the Stars (Hollywood Bowl), 1956. It's on view through May 2 in the Hilbert's "Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings"
Newly on view in the Hilbert's permanent collection rooms are more recent paintings by Sandow Birk and Ernie Barnes; lithographs by David Hockney and Frank Romero—artists who, in their almost orthogonal ways, made "American Scene" paintings well after that movement's expiration date.

Falling somewhere between American Scene and abstraction is Edward Biberman's Wilshire Corner. A sunny Miracle Mile cityscape is defined by a suprematist black slash, as noir as Double Indemnity. It is shaped like a guillotine blade. The vintage L.A. street light, of a make not used in Urban Light, could be a gallows.
Edward Biberman, Wilshire Corner, c. 1950

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