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A Tour Through the New Hilbert Museum

By Liz Goldner

March 9, 2024
Hilbert Museum of California Art, Chapman University, Orange California

In a mere two years, the Hilbert Museum has expanded in size from 7,500 to 22,000 square feet. The eight-year-old museum, which recently reopened to the public, has also expanded its vision from concentrating on mid-20th century California Scene Paintings, to exhibiting California art in a variety of styles from the late 19th century to the present. Its nine current shows are displayed in two buildings, embracing a courtyard with native gardens. The exhibitions, comprising more than 300 artworks, explore the history and culture of California through narrative, modernist, even Disney-inspired art.
Lee Blair, “Mary by the Sea,” 1934, oil on canvas, 34 x 48”.
All images courtesy of the Hilbert Museum, Orange, California

Positioned on the museum’s west-facing façade, a 40-by-16-feet Murano glass mosaic, “Pleasures Along the Beach” (1969) by Millard Sheets, is a brightly colored, California scene depicting sunbathers with birds and sailboats in the background. It was salvaged from Santa Monica's Home Savings Bank facade, and re-installed at the museum by artist Brian Worley, who worked on it with Sheets 55 years ago.

The museum’s first gallery features Sheets’ work in a story-telling show. Magnificently curated by Jean Stern, Irvine Museum director emeritus, it includes 40 mid-20th century paintings of people, buildings, landscapes, tropical scenes and horses. Sheets’ long-admired watercolor, “San Dimas Train Station” (1933), illustrates a 19th century wooden train depot with a sloping roof. The poignant setting includes two solitary men, the latter illuminated by a narrow beam of light. “California Cotton Pickers” (1929) is a compassionate scene of men and women in traditional garb who have just departed from the south on a bus to pick cotton in a large California field. A watercolor, “Symphony Under the Stars (Hollywood Bowl)” (1956), is an overview of the well-known concert venue, originally created for a Bowl program cover.
Bradford Salmon, “Monday Night at the Crab Cooker,” 2016, oil on canvas, 30 x 40”

“California Art From the Permanent Collection” contains a lot more pictorialsm. One favorite is Phil Dike’s lush "Sunday Afternoon in the Plaza de Los Angeles" (1939). Illustrating hundreds of people filling the park benches or lounging on the grass, it reflects America’s mood just before World War II. Lee Blair’s “Mary by the Sea” (1934) depicts his wife Mary at her easel, the ocean in the background. Mary Blair was a major Disney animator. Her concept painting, “Alice with Cheshire Cat” (1951) from “Alice in Wonderland,” is on view in the nearby Hilbert exhibition, “Mary Blair’s Wonderland.” “Monday Night at the Crab Cooker” (2016) by Bradford Salamon depicts the artist, Museum co-founder Mark Hilbert, and long-time Museum curator and mentor Gordon McClelland enjoying a meal together at the popular Balboa Peninsula eatery. And Chicano artist Frank Romero’s painting, “The Closing of Whittier Blvd” (1990), documents the 1970's police-mandated closing of Whittier Boulevard to low riders.
Emigdio Vasquez, “Sunday Night at Harmony Park,” 1999, oil on canvas, 20 x 36”

Across the courtyard, “Emigdio Vasquez: Works from The Fred Ortiz Collection” contains the artist's figurative, social-realistic paintings, which diverge dramatically in style from the expressive work of Romero and other Chicano artists. Vasquez's “Sunday Night at Harmony Park” (1999) features a party of 1940’s-era zoot suited men and elegant women, dancing joyously at a local dance hall. “Mike’s Pool Hall” (1997), a long-gone slice of Chicano life, illustrates seven men with slicked back hair and pegged trousers, playing pool with intense concentration. And “Home Boys” (1996), a luminous depiction of group of male friends relaxing, was appropriated from a Vasquez family photo.
Stanton McDonald-Wright, “Seashell Symphony,” 1947, oil on canvas, 20 x 16”

A counterpoint to all of the narrative art is “A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art,” curated by McClelland. It contains more than 50 semi-abstract and abstract works, much of it with philosophical and spiritual influences. Perhaps the most significant artist here is Stanton MacDonald-Wright. His “Seashell Symphony” (1947) and “Imaginary Still Life” (1950) exemplify the Synchromism art movement that he had originated with Morgan Russel in Paris decades earlier. The style was about orchestrating vibrant colors in paintings as a composer arranges notes, while employing geometric forms as an armature. Also on display are biomorphic visions by Agnes Pelton, including, “Rose & Palm” (1931) and “Light Center” (1961). Her creative output was a manifestation of her passionate spiritualism. She conjured up these images from her vivid imagination.
Agnes Pelton, “Rosę & Palm,” 1931, oil on canvas, 36 x 22 x 1 3/4”

Several abstract wood engravings on woven Japanese paper by Paul Landacre, in “A Matter of Style,” reveal the artist’s printmaking expertise, particularly in creating fluid, delicate lines and interesting textures. Helen Lundeberg worked in a self-proclaimed “post-surrealist” style. Her paintings, including “Selma” (1957) and “Night Interior” (1953-67), demonstrate how she evolved from representational to abstract to hard-edge, always imbuing her work with mystery. Other noteworthy works in this exhibition include Rex Brandt’s semi-abstract “Surfriders” (1959), Conrad Buff’s ethereal “Blue Sky” (n.d.), Lorser Feitelson’s two semi-abstract still-lifes, “Magical Forms” (both,1945), and Roger Kuntz’s “Freeway Series” (1960s), which typified his forays between representation and abstraction.
Helen Lundeberg, “Selma,” 1957, oil on canvas, 30 x 24”

Also on display are Navajo rugs and vintage radios from Hilbert’s personal collection. Spending several hours at the dramatically restored and enhanced Museum’s 26 galleries amounts to an illuminating tour through 150 years of California art, featuring a variety of scenes and interpretations of our Golden State during a time of rapid growth.

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 

Liz Goldner’s Website.

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