Hard-Edge California Abstraction
Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg
Interview with Candace Moeller by Deanna Sirlin
In May of this year, I had the good fortune to see the works of Helen Lundeberg (1908 - 1999) at Frieze NYC presented by Cristin Tierney Gallery. I was immediately interested in the work. I knew about some things about Lundeberg but I do not think I had seen any of these works in person. Although Lundeberg's works at Frieze were mostly from the 1960's, I thought they could have been made in 2018. The forms and compositions, so liquid and floating with their palette of phthalo and cerulean blues sitting on aqueous forms in pink, pale yellows and rose seem to be exactly of this moment.
Lorser Feitelson's (1898 - 1978) exhibition Curvilinear, which was at Cristin Tierney Gallery (April 24 – May 25, 2018), consisted of a series of paintings produced from 1963 to 1969. His undulating forms are fluid but hold the viewer's eye with a visual tension on the canvas. Although well known in California, my east coast orientation had given me little knowledge of these two artists. They are now being recognized internationally for their work.
I instigated this dialog with Candace Moeller, Associate Director of Cristin Tierney Gallery who graciously answered my queries about these pioneering artists and Hard-Edge California Abstraction.
Installation view of Helen Lundeberg at Frieze New York, 2018. Photo by John Muggenborg
Deanna Sirlin: Recently Cristin Tierney Gallery exhibited Lorser Feitelson at the gallery and Helen Lundeberg at their Frieze booth in New York. What was the catalyst for presenting these two artists, who are primarily known as California Hard Edge painters, in New York at this moment?
Candace Moeller: Cristin has long been interested in histories that fall outside the traditional art narrative. So much of our field’s codified history centers on New York, London, Berlin, and Paris, but there is a legacy of artistic production in California that has also been immensely influential on today’s artists. This scene is ripe for further research and investigation, especially in a current climate marked by strong interest in the overlooked. By exhibiting these two California artists in New York, in connection to the global stage of Frieze, we saw the chance to bring two artists who deserve another look from the perimeter to the fore.
Installation view of Lorser Feitelson: Curvilinear, 2018. Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York. Photo by John Muggenborg
DS: Since both artists were rooted in Post-Surrealism or Subjective Classicism in the 1930's, what was the impetus that led them to Abstraction?
CM: These were artists who were totally locked in to what was happening in the art world. I think they were always looking to what other artists were working on and also looking forward; and they turned to abstraction at the same time as many of their peers did, as part of the mid-20th century’s zeitgeist. Feitelson in particular was ever the teacher in his LA circle, and the disseminator of a broad variety of art and influences taken from all over. This underscored both artists’ continual interest in formal experimentation.
Like the rest of the world, Feitelson and Lundeberg would certainly have been influenced by the events of WWII. Feitelson in particular associated an inclination toward abstraction with the war’s traumatic fall-out, stating in 1951 that his work “metaphorically expresses the deep disturbance of our time: ominously magnificent and horrifying events, hurtling menacingly from the unforeseeable.” I’ve also read that his interest in flattened space, with equal weight given to forms and background/negative space, may have been inspired in part by textiles and fabrics he had access to from his father’s import-export business, as well as Islamic and Celtic art.
Lorser Feitelson Untitled (February 4)1967 oil on canvas 60 x 60 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: What role did critic and curator Jules Langsner play in the ideology of the movement called California Hard Edge? Did he have a specific impact or influence on Feitelson or Lundeberg?
CM: Langsner coined the term “hard edge painting,” which was later prominently used in the 1959 exhibition he curated at the Los Angeles County Museum: “Four Abstract Classicists.” He was an art critic and a curator at a time when LA didn’t have many arts institutions, or even arts education and awareness among the general population. So he served an invaluable role connecting artists with each other, and promoting their work. He even helped organize lectures about modern art for the public. He was known to have many discussions about art with Feitelson and Lundeberg at parties and dinners, and worked closely with the artists of “Four Abstract Classicists” to plan the show.
Helen Lundeberg, Untitled (Flower Form) 1966 acrylic on canvas 60 x 60 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
Helen Lundeberg, Naiad 1968 acrylic on canvas. 30 x 54 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Lundeberg came to abstraction from her study of the landscape and her relationship to sky and water. Do you think this is partially from being a West Coast artist? Do these sources remain visible in her abstract work?
CM: Maybe. She lived in California almost her entire life, her family having moved to Pasadena from Chicago when she was a toddler. But I think her adoption of abstraction was also inspired by her interest in the science of visual perception and color. For example, some of her earliest experiments in abstraction were flattened interior spaces that substituted uniform panels of color for architectural elements. She did not consider herself an Abstract Classicist like her husband, in no small part because she kept a link to the landscape in her work. There is always some kind of illusion, some reference to the natural world present.
Helen Lundeberg, Sea 1970 acrylic on canvas 30 x 30 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Is this version of hard-edge abstraction a response to the gestural works of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists of the same period? Or did Feitelson and Lundeberg find their way to abstraction from the source of European Surrealists?
CM: A little of both. With hard-edge abstraction’s emphasis on classicism, it was seen as existing in opposition to Abstract Expressionism. Its aesthetics derived from structure, precision, and compositional clarity, with a nod to science—something that distinguished its practitioners from the east coast Ab-Ex painters. But Feitelson and Lundeberg were certainly also influenced by the European Surrealists’ break with realistic representation. Lundeberg in particular was drawn to the Surrealist notion of an inner vision; even as she drew from the world around her for inspiration, she stated that she painted from her imagination. As for Feitelson, his first hard-edge forms were based on real objects drawn from nature and the body. His “boulder” series, for example, was modeled after the rocky shores of Corsica that he saw several decades earlier on his travels to Europe. His “Magical Space Forms” paintings also have, in my opinion, shared vocabulary with the forms seen in Surrealist works by Dali, Tanguy, Ernst, and others (and even some of the Cubist forms of Picasso). Feitelson always came back to his education in Old Master drawing throughout the years, and this rooting in the figurative set him apart from his contemporaries in LA who were also working in abstraction.
Lorser Feitelson Space Forms 1953 oil on canvas 40 x 74 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Did these West Coast artists know of their hard edge counterparts in the East (Albers, Kelly, Newman) and the Washington Color School artists (Noland, Louis, Davis and Truitt)? How do Feitelson and Lundeberg relate to the canon of the East Coast artists who were their contemporaries?
CM: They were very cognizant of their east coast counterparts. There was, at the time, very little in the way of an institutional support system for artists on the west coast, so they certainly would have looked to the east coast for comparison and possibly as a model. Also, Feitelson had lived in New York for a time, and had been part of that world. He and Lundeberg would have seen the exhibitions of east coast artists that came to LA, like the 1964 show “Post Painterly Abstraction” at Los Angeles County Museum, curated by Clement Greenberg (it included Ellsworth Kelly, among other artists). It was harder for LA artists to attract that same kind of attention, though—there was a long-standing prejudiced attitude among the east coast scene that placed NY above LA in the art hierarchy (hard to imagine, I know!).
Lorser Feitelson Untitled 1966 acrylicon canvas 90 x60 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Philip Guston was Feitelson's student. Feitelson introduced Guston to Subjective Classicism, which led him to abstraction and then back to figuration. Did these artists have contact in their later years? How important was Feitelson to Guston as a teacher? Did their relationship continue in later years?
CM: Feitelson talked about Guston in later years, when he would describe the LA art scene and some of his former students. He talked about him in positive terms. But there hasn’t been, as far as I know, a focused line of inquiry into these questions. This is probably one of those areas that would be greatly illuminated by further research into this era of the LA art scene.
DS: Do Lundeberg's and Feitelson's respective works demonstrate different male and female sensibilities articulated through the composition and color of their abstractions?
CM: No. I think they represent different sets of concerns and interests, independent of each artist’s gender identity.
Helen Lundeberg with Lorser Feitelson, NBC set of television show "Feitelson on Art" circa 1960 © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Whereas Feitelson died in 1978, Lundeberg lived another 20 years. How did her work relate to changing trends in the art world during the 80s and 90s? I'm thinking especially of changes in her palette during that time.
CM: After Feitelson’s death, Lundeberg continued to paint landscapes and interiors. Her style remained close to that of her previous work, while including more figurative elements. I’ve read some speculation that her softer palette was a product of nostalgia; however, I think it is also likely that she was influenced by colors that other artists and designers were using at the time. She was increasingly reserved and disinclined to attend public events after Feitelson’s death, and the scholarship that exists about this period in her life is scant. It would be amazing if some pioneering grad student would decide to investigate this part of her oeuvre!
Helen Lundeberg, Sectioned Planet, 1969 Acrylic on canvas 36 × 36 inches © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation
DS: Does handling artists' estates change your role as a gallerist? Can you tell us about the role of legacy and the aspect of care taker of the estate?
CM: To be a dealer is to wear many hats. One of the most important of these is custodian of art and an artist’s legacy. With our living artists, it’s a partnership: we work with them to place their work in good collections, help them realize complex and important projects, support exhibitions of their work in significant institutions, garner press and public attention, and properly document their art for the future. We do much of the same with artists’ estates, but with the added complications of not being able to ask the artist their opinion, and also having a limited inventory—no new works will ever be made. It is a huge responsibility to ensure that what remains in an artist’s estate is well taken care of, and that their work is exhibited in accordance with the artist’s wishes. We are charged with representing their interests, and transparency is key to our work.
DS: Lundeberg's work looked so contemporary at Frieze. Who are some living artists that have been influenced by her work? Are there artists that currently have a connection to Feitelson?
CM: Although many people in LA and California know of Lundeberg and Feitelson, lots of artists are learning their names and their work for the first time now, partly in thanks to social media. Both artists (but especially Lundeberg) regularly pop up on other artists’ Instagram feeds. Which is amazing, because then I get to see someone (and their followers) process their discovery of the work in real time.
So many artists came through our booth at Frieze, and they were astounded by Lundeberg’s work—one, that they hadn’t heard of her before, and two, that these paintings that looked like they could have been done yesterday were actually from the ‘60s. We also get lots of artists who come to the gallery to see our exhibitions—bless them!—and they were full of compliments for the Feitelson show (Curvilinear). One comment about Feitelson’s work that has stayed with me was from an artist who exclaimed, “He had to put in so much work to make the paintings look so simple.”
I would also argue that, whether they are aware of Feitelson and Lundeberg or not, all artists have benefited from their precedent. We are where we are now because of what has been achieved by previous generations.
 Lorser Feitelson, statement in Contemporary American Painting, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951, p. 176.
Installation view of Helen Lundeberg at Frieze New York, 2018. Photo by John Muggenborg
April 24 - May 25, 2018
May 2 - 6, 2018
Cristin Tierney Gallery, NYC
1960S California Hard-Edge
Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson,
& Helen Lundeberg
July 5 - September 8, 2018
Flowers Gallery, London, UK
Candace Moeller is the Associate Director at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York. She has independently curated several group and solo shows in New York, including a film series at 520 West 28th that featured works by Peter Campus, Janet Biggs, Tracey Emin, Neil Goldberg, Leslie Thornton, Nina Katchadourian, and more. Her previous roles included Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, Arizona, and a catalogue writer at Christie’s on their Post-War and Contemporary team.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.