Laguna Art Museum Celebrates the Legendary Beginnings of the California School of Fine Arts

Wandering around the basement gallery at Laguna Art Museum’s (LAM) masterful “The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55” exhibition, you’ll find perfection after perfection, amazed at the quality of the overlooked work and more than a little saddened that the school’s heyday was so short-lived.

Representing the perfectly timed amalgam of jazz, the Beats, the end of a World War and an influx of money from soldiers cashing in their G.I. Bills for an art education, the California School of Fine Arts gave jobs to artists as diverse as Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko and Ansel Adams, with the latter founding the school’s Photography Department. Adams filled the staff with such masters of the craft as Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and Edward Weston, with the fortunate students under their tutelage becoming personalities in the art world themselves, even if they weren’t quite the household names their instructors were.

A handful of work devoted to the teachers starts off the show, with Cunningham, Weston, White, Lange and Adams among those whose gelatin silver prints are on display. There are Adams’ perfect landscapes of Yosemite and Sequoia National Forest alongside Lange’s Depression-era documentary images, including a poverty-stricken figure in White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, a lone man turning away from the faceless, jacketed horde behind him, gripping a tin cup for soup close to his chest, his face pinched in despair. Nearby, the smooth suavity of Cunningham’s portrait of artist (and co-curator) John Upton—lost in thought, cigarette burning down between two fingers—contrasts sharply with a picture of her aged father, bearded, rustic and bearing a striking resemblance to Leo Tolstoy. In opposite corners, White’s idealized nude male study, Gino Cipolla, suggests an ode to Weston’s Pepper 30 from a decade earlier, the rippling flesh of the vegetable lit very much like the model’s muscular back and arms.

The largest part of the exhibition is the remarkable photographs by the students, divided between images of nature, social documentary and street photography. Most of the nature work screams of Adams’ oeuvre, with more than a touch of Weston’s sensuality and aesthetics of decay. Upton’s Point Lobos, Near Carmel, California, with its luscious monochrome rocks, their worn surfaces resembling sculptures buried in the wet sand, and his theatrically lit female nude, the light caressing her bare belly and the top of her breasts, while the nipples and pubic area are hidden in shadow, are both knockouts. Equally stunning is Philip Hyde’s archival print Sunken Car, Sausalito, California, with its reflected clouds in water and repetitions of squares throughout—empty windshield, hole in the roof, the sharp corners of the lake edge—all mirroring one another.

The selection of documentary photos of (mostly) 1940s and ’50s San Francisco is exquisite, not only because of its nostalgia over long-gone moments, fashion and faces, but also because of its narratives. A woman stands on a street corner in C. Cameron Macauley’s Untitled (Woman and Newspapers, San Francisco), looking as if she’s forgotten something or taken a wrong turn, but seen in tandem with the Korean War headlines screaming in the nearby newsrack (which she isn’t even looking at), it’s clear the photographer had something else in mind. His photo of several women talking in an art gallery, oblivious to the work around them, save one that’s grimacing, made me laugh. A two-story white clapboard looking as if it had been lifted from a rowhouse is dwarfed by the menacing, dark oil tank next to it in Pat Harris’ Untitled (White House, Oil Tank). Knowing what we know now, one can only imagine the occupant’s future health conditions.

The images of children are worthy of their own exhibition. The cocked head, baseball cap, suspenders, angelic face and gloriously dirty hands of a young boy in Gerald Ratto’s Chidren of the Fillmore, No. 19 feels contemporary, despite the dated wardrobe; Benjamen Chinn’s neatly composed five Chinese boys—light glinting off the gel in their slicked-back hair and one boy’s leather jacket—are gathered around two desks, reading; the grimy faces of William Heick’s Sharecropper’s Kids (Central California) hearkens back to Lange, while the gap-toothed black and white faces in George Wallace’s Laughing Boys are joyously in unison about something they see, but we can’t.

Under former curator Grace Kook-Anderson, the LAM basement space—with its limited seating, inconvenient load-bearing pillars smack in the middle, and awkward nooks and crannies—was transformed into a gallery that soared above its limitations, offering the new and unusual in a variety of artistic mediums. It took a foursome of curators to put together this excellent exhibit—Dr. Malcolm Warner, Upton, Ken Ball and Victoria Whyte Ball—but their great taste and eye for conversation between the images is present in every photograph and every inch of the show. There isn’t a bad picture or misstep throughout. It’s a return to form in quality of presentation, and I’m grateful for its comeback.

“The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open Mon.-Tues. & Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through May 29. $5-$7; children younger than 12, free.

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