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LA Gallery History The Museum That Never Was, Stripped Bare, Even by George Baker

The Arensberg Residence, Hollywood, interior, 1926, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection Archives, Pasadena, California

The Museum That Never Was, Stripped Bare, Even
by George Baker

Los Angeles has been eating itself lately, devouring its physical history, rebuilding itself beyond all recognition. Locked up in my home quarantine, I hear that LACMA’s main buildings are now mostly gone. But there are still places you can visit where the history of the city—and yes, its art history—remains, and it does so physically. You can touch these places. Feel them. They are still palpable.

These were my thoughts in 2017, when I became aware that a driveway and gated house in my neighborhood that I passed almost every week had been the home of the collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, friends and patrons to Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, key players in the introduction of modern art to the United States—and of course to Los Angeles, after their move here in 1921. For me, the realization took their home being placed on the market, for the first time—the listing told us—in some sixty years. The Los Angeles gallerist Earl Stendahl acquired the home from the Arensbergs—as they previously acquired much art from him—using it through the 1960s as an extension of his gallery space, and his family held onto it until these past years.

If you live in Hollywood, the house is right there, just off the top of LaBrea, on Hillside Avenue, at the bottom entrance to the Outpost Estates, my usual shortcut up and over the Hollywood Hills and into the Valley when I need to go. “Five bedrooms, five baths, high ceilings, three fireplaces, French doors and windows, balconies, built-ins, and lush landscaping,” the real estate listing gushed. But now I would walk there, just to be close to a history that has meant so much to me. I would drive by, slowly, like I was casing the place, and think instead about the visits from Duchamp and Man Ray to this West Coast salon; and remember the art that had lived there, like Brancusi’s Bird in Space (so many Brancusis they needed Richard Neutra to build a new room); or contemplate Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko visiting, soaking up the collection; and fantasize about the double-wedding of Max Ernst with Dorothea Tanning and Man Ray with Juliet Browner that the Arensbergs hosted here; or think about the young Walter Hopps as a high school student sitting in the home with all the art, hung so thick it lined the front and back of closet doors, meditating on a Duchamp or a Magritte, plotting a future. In 2017, the house was quickly purchased and immediately put under renovation. They are still working on it today. It’s hard to tell from the street how much is left, what is being destroyed, and what preserved. It had become a real California hodge-podge, a 1920s Mediterranean-style building added to in various modernist dialects, with at least five additions from architects including Neutra, Gregory Ain, and John Lautner.

My stalking of the Arensberg house extended an activity I do a lot in Los Angeles, the city that so many like to imagine as being “without history.” Some years earlier, working on an essay for the Jewish Museum’s Man Ray retrospective, I found myself spending many evenings at the Academy Film Archive or Pickford Center on Vine Street, consulting with film scholars on a Getty/Pacific Standard Time project involving experimental cinema in Los Angeles. Every meeting ended for me with a stroll, just a few yards really, down Vine Street from the Academy. I was drawn to the Villa Elaine, the apartment complex on Vine where Man Ray had lived during his WWII exile from Paris, where he met and married Juliet. Yes, many others had lived there too in the day, like young Frank Sinatra. But I was there for Man Ray, thinking about his high-ceilinged LA studio in the ground floor apartment he rented in the 1940s. Young Hopps had visited here too, somewhat to Man Ray’s chagrin (what use did the grumpiest Surrealist have for an American high school student wanting to see his work?). To write about Man Ray all day, and then to walk by the Villa Elaine in the dark, peering down the long tunnel-like entrance corridor into the tropical courtyard garden, imagining former lives in all those shadows—this is the kind of experience that makes concrete the historical work that we do.

But it is not always possible, and this is not always the fault of the relentless real estate dynamics of the city. For me, the greatest story about an institution and a building linked to the Arensbergs in Los Angeles concerns a structure that never came to be, an institution that simply did not happen. A museum that wasn’t. You will never visit it. It left no traces. I have spent a perhaps unhealthy amount of time imagining what Los Angeles and art in this city would have been like if it had. What my home university would be like if this museum had come to fruition.

Early in my time in Los Angeles, I was wandering the halls at UCLA when my now-long-departed colleague, Albert Boime, social historian of modern art, took me aside to commiserate. I didn’t know why, at first, but from his first comments to me I realized that commiseration was definitely on order. “With you being a Dada scholar, it’s really too bad,” I remember Al saying, my eyes widening as he told me the story of how UCLA almost became the resting place of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass.

At first, I thought Al was simply wrong, and I was hearing the art historical version of old wives’ tales and urban myths. Sometimes, the history that happens has a way of blocking the history that could have been like an eclipse, and it had never occurred to me that the Arensberg Collection and its encyclopedic Duchamp holdings, of course, might have stayed in California. Of this history, I literally had no idea: The Louise and Walter C. Arensberg Collection was in fact originally deeded to UCLA in 1944. The Arensberg Collection was meant to live at UCLA. This was after the Arensbergs’s failed attempt initially to donate art from their collection to LACMA, only to be turned down by the young museum around 1939. Local figures involved in the arts during this period, like Vincent Price, advocated finding a way to keep the Arensberg Collection in Southern California. UCLA was the eventual solution. Now, of course, the Large Glass was not anymore part of the Arensberg Collection, though it had been born through their patronage and support—it was with Katherine Dreier and her Société Anonyme, far away in suburban Connecticut. But it would have eventually come. And the Arensbergs helped arrange for more, that their art would be donated to UCLA along with the collection of Galka Scheyer, their sometimes friend and sometimes dealer, after her death from cancer in 1945.

There was but one major catch. The stipulation was that UCLA had to build a suitable museum to house the two donations, and, for the Scheyer Collection, publish a scholarly catalog. The fledgling institution failed in both regards, the time not yet ripe in Los Angeles for this rival MoMA of the mind. By 1950 or so, Arensberg’s parallel endeavor supporting the “Modern Institute of Art” in Los Angeles had also folded. It is worth reminding ourselves that in 1951, the LA City Council in fact banned the display of modern art as “communist propaganda.” And so, by the middle 1950s, we know that the Arensberg Duchamps and their Brancusis and all the rest had floated away instead to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That is of course where the Large Glass would come to rest.

Galka Scheyer at the Schindler's Kings Road House. Image courtesy of Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection Archives, Pasadena, California.

A different fate awaited the donation from Galka Scheyer, the German émigré to California described by one critic as our city’s “resident curator-dealer-self-appointed-seer-of-abstract-art to the stars” (Amy Baker Sandback), or by another, as “a kind of Weimar Auntie Mame” (Darcy Tell). If you love the film Auntie Mame (1958) properly and as you should, the moniker hardly rankles; it remains evocative and sets the volume on the proper level (the Arensbergs eventually socially distanced themselves from Scheyer in part due to the fact that they thought she was always “shrieking” or “yelling”); we should all aspire to be the Auntie Mame of our place of origin, or of the field in which we work—the world deserves no less. By the time of her death at the end of World War II, Scheyer’s collection of (mostly) German modernism was major—as a dealer she had the habit of often being unable to let go of specific works that a client wanted. And after the UCLA debacle, as opposed to what happened with the Arensberg Collection, Scheyer’s bequest of almost 500 artworks stayed in California, landing at the Pasadena Art Institute by 1953, which later became the Pasadena Art Museum (host of Duchamp’s first retrospective in 1964, under Walter Hopps), and still later, the Norton Simon.

Visitors to the Norton Simon in recent years might not know much about the Scheyer bequest, as most of the art from the collection lives in storage. In this, the Scheyer collection’s fate echoes another UCLA and Weimar émigré story, one where UCLA got things right, at least for a time. For when the famed UCLA urologist—and one of the first doctors in the country to perform sex reassignment surgeries—Dr. Elmer Belt donated his major library of Leonardo da Vinci materials to the university, the institution this time (it was the 1960s) stepped up. Belt’s library had been running for a long time before arriving at UCLA; young Walter Hopps was again one of its famed early visitors. And Belt hired a librarian to oversee the collection that turned out to be Kate Steinitz, a former avant-garde figure from Weimar and a frequent collaborator of Kurt Schwitters. Unfortunately, even with this storied history, UCLA eventually turned away from its Leonardo library, sometime after Belt’s and Steinitz’s passing, and the eventual sale of the Armand Hammer Collection’s Leonardo codex to Bill Gates—a sale that financed the legal defense of the Hammer Collection’s donation to the university against internal Hammer family claims. The Hammer Museum still retains the vaulted gallery where the Codex lived. But there is little trace now of the Belt Library, which had lived in the art school’s building, before it was renovated and transformed into the Broad Art Center. While the art history department at UCLA still gives out a yearly scholarship in memory of Elmer Belt to support Renaissance studies, the Belt Vinciana Library’s books and manuscripts and décor and furnishings all went into storage, or were re-homed in the Library’s Special Collections, where they still live to this day. There is a movement afoot to re-establish the Belt Library in a physical way on the campus, with much celebration of the incredible history of Belt and Kate Steinitz, but that is a story for another day—and not really mine to tell.

In 2017, the year the Arensberg house came onto the market for sale, Scheyer’s collection and parts of her archive came out of hiding in museum storage, with the Norton Simon dedicating a major exhibition to the now historical donation. This was not by any means the first time the museum created a didactic exhibition from the collection, but Scheyer’s story remains under-known. Born Emilie Esther Scheyer in Braunschweig, Germany in 1889, she abandoned her own ambition to be a painter after a revelatory encounter with the Expressionist work of Russian artist Alexei Jawlensky in Switzerland during World War I. Seeking out the artist, Scheyer devoted herself to his cause, as she would later to his lifelong friend Vasily Kandinsky, and two other artist teachers working alongside Kandinsky at the Bauhaus after the war: Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee. She proposed an association—not exactly a movement, more a kind of “brand”—christening the group the “Blue Four,” and she in turn was baptized by Jawlensky after an image in a dream as “Galka,” the Russian word for a kind of black bird, a jackdaw or small crow.

Image courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection Archives, Pasadena, California

Acting as both ardent collector and agent, Scheyer set out in 1924 to promote the work of the Blue Four in the United States, settling in San Francisco by 1925. But “settling” is the wrong word: the move to bring German modernist painting to California was audacious, and Scheyer shuttled endlessly up and down the West Coast, as far north as Portland and Spokane, as far south as Mexico City, where she lived for a time with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She organized exhibitions, lectured tirelessly, taught art and modernism to children, sold works by her “Blue Kings” to businessmen and Hollywood types, to John Cage, to Beatrice Wood, to the Arensbergs. But her interests extended beyond these four painters. She brought an exhibition of Constructivist drawings and posters to the UCLA campus as early as 1927. Think about this for a second: Years before Stalin forced the burial of the Soviet avant-garde, before the congealing of Constructivism into official doctrines of Socialist Realism, Scheyer mounted a Constructivist exhibition in Los Angeles, and at UCLA. No wonder the City Council outlawed modernism as “communist” some twenty-five years later.

Scheyer associated with other modernist émigrés, coming to know the Austrian-born architect R.M. Schindler, for example, living on and off along with the Neutras in the close quarters of Schindler’s crucial Kings Road house (and briefly falling in love). Of course, I like to drive by here too, and—because you can—walk frequently through the rooms, imagining which one was Scheyer’s, wondering on which wall she might have hung her wares—and so should you. She tangled with the California bohemians like Edward Weston, with whom upon first meeting she traded clothes at a raucous party (she “begged my leather breeches,” Weston wrote in his Daybook in 1927, “so I got in exchange her outfit even down to [her] panties, and a marvelous make-up job to boot”). By 1933, and in a long, contentious process, Neutra would design her a home in the Hollywood Hills dubbed the “Blue Heights,” where her collection and activities could finally be centered.

Image courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection Archives, Pasadena, California

Image courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection Archives, Pasadena, California

The 2017 exhibition at the Norton Simon contained an extraordinary scarlet Klee from 1918, The Tree of Houses, painted in part on gauze, like a blood-soaked bandage. We cannot help but remember now that this was not just the year of the end of the World War, but also of the outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic, and Klee’s materials seem chosen specifically with these historical events in mind. Resonating too with the look of a miniature tapestry more than a painting, Klee’s image underlined the feeling one gets in the Scheyer collection of being surrounded by modernism as it was lived in the space of a home, filled with the intensities of affect and personal significance. Many of the works were originally gifts from the artists to Scheyer, and they are inscribed like endless love letters, to our “Little Friend,” to “dear Galka-Emmy,” “Madame Moderne Kunst.” This was an itinerary the jewel-box of an exhibition in 2017 supported: One could simply wander through a collection of idiosyncrasies, of Scheyer’s modernism as eccentricity, so many individual moments of wonder: another Klee, Idol for House Cats, 1924, with a real piece of lace attached like a Spanish mantilla to the painted Constructivist face of the artist’s beloved cat Fritzi; no less than three diminutive Merz collages by Kurt Schwitters, all 1921, the rubbish scintillating with chocolate wrappers and the decaying image of two red hearts; a bizarre Cubist Picasso that once belonged to André Breton; a Lissitzky Proun (there were many) with its primary geometries cut out of a sheet superimposed upon a painted ground, like a stencil for the eyes; the many works made by children, by Klee’s son Felix, or Weston’s son Brett, who as a teenager made his first sale of a photograph to Scheyer, a 3 × 3 inch print of a lily, for $2.50.

There was, perhaps not surprisingly, a consistent thread in the exhibition’s wild inconsistencies, itself peculiar, a through line in the color blue. Of course, Scheyer’s name for the “Blue Four” clearly harked back to Kandinsky and Jawlensky’s pre-war Expressionist Blue Rider Group. But blue erupts everywhere in the works that Scheyer owned, from Klee’s watery Aquarium Green-Red, 1921, which is anything but green and red, to Kandinsky’s popular lithograph Blue, 1922, or Feininger’s watercolors like Blue Skyscrapers, 1937 or Blue Shore, c. 1938. This is more than Expressionist “free” color: The blue instead evokes the excessive and obsessional. We know that Scheyer named one of her dogs, a poodle, “Blue Blue.” In Mexico, acquiring a work by Rivera, she made sure it too was blue, a painting entitled Blue Boy with the Banana, 1931. The painting is as wild as it sounds.

While not explicit in the curation of the recent Norton Simon show, a modernist aesthetic with gendered, perhaps even feminist implication emerges here. Like the example of fellow-German Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme, we face a form of modernism mediated through the organizing actions of a woman. Domesticity itself was to be re-imagined. But that is hardly all. Blue is (now) usually gendered male, but in the Scheyer collection, it erupts in myriad liquid metaphors and techniques: the focus on modest watercolors, the unbounded color puddles characteristic of Jawlensky’s manner of painting. There were nautical echoes everywhere in the show—the boat of Kandinsky’s Small Worlds II, 1922; the quivering, paradoxically borderless line of Feininger’s many images of ragged drifting ships; the signal work by Klee, Possibilities at Sea, 1932, constructed from hot wax and sand. Such works allegorize a modernism in exile, surely, an experience of displacement and nomadism that of course was Scheyer’s own, the German modernist on a mission that could only be realized in California. But Scheyer also called the Klee painting “as unfathomable as the ocean’s pulse,” with its diagrammatic sailboat on a “sea” of two blue lines, a worm-like wave form, contradictory arrows and cosmic spheres—a Constructivist rival to the best Surrealist Miró, with modernist form (even Constructivist form) now repositioned as all fluidity and flow.

Angelo Ravagli, Galka Scheyer, 1936. Image courtesy of Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection.

I am remembering this recent exhibition, for the lesson of the show might be that this gendered aesthetic can be followed into the actual modernisms that Scheyer’s advocacy influenced in California—which would lie not in Expressionist-type painting like the majority of the work of the Blue Four, but in the expansive and spreading Constructivist modernisms of architecture, photography, music, film. Scheyer’s collection contains much from the Group f/64: Imogen Cunningham’s throbbing hothouse flowers, Weston’s photographs of seashells and teeming seaweed, his rippling ocean dunes (taken at a site, near Pismo Beach, to which Scheyer introduced him—another story about which I want to know more, another place I visit often, and with them specifically in mind). In the Norton Simon show, there was at least one wobbling drawing by architect R.M. Schindler, Trickling Hands, 1927, poetically inscribed to Scheyer: “Throttling fist - Faltering death - Trickling hands - Fluid life.” There was one of the most beautiful photographs you will ever see, of Scheyer posing in her Neutra house with a dog, reflected in the glass frame of a nearby watercolor, the entire architecture glistening with California light. In the background, the director Maya Deren appears through the slit of an exterior window, like a younger ghost of Scheyer herself, a visual rhyme created by the two women’s extraordinary hair. Taken by Deren’s husband, the filmmaker Alexander Hammid, the photograph is hard-edged and yet boundless, an image of pure reverberation. And so, one wants to say, was Scheyer’s modernism.

All of this would have been put into dialog with Duchamp’s modernism, with the Arensberg Collection’s modernism, and on the campus of UCLA, if history had run its course just a little bit differently. UCLA would likely never have hired a New York-based critic like me to teach there, I fantasize. For the modernism we remember here, and the UCLA Museum that Could Have Been, amounts to something so different from the New York modernism that came to define modern art’s history itself—a modernism of policed borders, of medium separation and specificity, an art turned in on itself. Art critic Clement Greenberg’s modernism, in other words.

But I am here, and in quarantine, mostly in isolation, and these historical connections and memories seem all the more precious to me lately. And so I put on my mask and I go for a short drive. It takes me maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. I drive to the current ghost town of the Sunset Plaza, the restaurants closed, the boutique windows emptied out, several FOR LEASE signs already in evidence. And I head up into the hills, searching for Blue Heights Drive. The road, named after Scheyer’s home, is still there. And so is the home. I have never attempted to find it. No Thomas Guide would likely have ever helped you, and I wouldn’t recommend it without Waze. Even so, the drive is a bit brutal. Mostly the roads seem one-way, and likely you will have to put the car in reverse and head backward when a Land Rover or Rolls Royce barrels down the hill at you. And still the roads you take keep narrowing and narrowing until you are convinced you’ve come up against a dead end. But that is just a cliff up ahead, no worries, and the road continues alongside it. You head up, and you head up, and mostly what you see before you is the sky. And Los Angeles, stretching out as far as the horizon, the city Galka Scheyer’s home surveyed. The driveway to the house is gated. You really can’t see anything from the road. I didn’t even get out of my car. You simply arrive at the address. For me it was enough. The road now does seem to dead end, to become a rhizome of private drives. But it does so right up against the blue. Right up against the sky, with no more limits.

Part of this text is based on my review, “Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California,” first published in 4columns.org, September 2017. I want to thank Margaret Sundell for allowing that earlier text to be re-purposed here.

George Baker is an art critic and historian who teaches at UCLA, and an editor of the magazine OCTOBER. He is completing a book, Lateness and Longing: On the Afterlife of Photography, to be published soon by the University of Chicago Press.