Sam Maloof: Surrounded by Friends

"The House That Sam Built," an exhibition now on view at the Boone Gallery of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino isn't really about a house, and it isn't entirely about the late woodworker of genius Sam Maloof. "Its a show about community," notes the Huntington's Curator of American Decorative Arts, Harold "Hal" Nelson.

Nelson, who has been shepherding the show towards fruition for nearly a decade, got the opportunity he needed under the aegis of the Getty Foundation's "Pacific Standard Time" initiative, a collaborative attempt to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. Art Scene. The part of the story Nelson has been wanting to tell concerns the vibrant network of influences and exchanges that developed in the postwar period in the Pomona Valley, 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The presence of educational institutions -- most notably Pomona College, Scripps College, and Claremont Graduate School -- drew a cadre of accomplished artists and artisans to the area, where they met, befriended, and often exchanged works with Sam Maloof, who had his studio just east of Pomona in what was then rural Alta Loma.

Maloof, a gregarious and generous man, is quoted on the back of the show's catalog as explaining "I want to be able to work a piece of wood into an object that contributes something beautiful and useful to everyday life. And I want to do this for an individual I can come to know as a friend." Successful beyond his modest early expectations -- in craft and in friendship -- Sam and his first wife Freda filled their home with ceramics, enamelware, tapestries and woodwork by those they knew. The Maloofs and their home provided a kind of center for what Nelson describes as a "tolerant community" in which the various exchanges of art and craft represented shows of mutual respect. Given the atomized nature of Los Angeles culture, Nelson notes wistfully that many of us now feel a "hunger for community" of the sort that flourished among the members of this group.

Although the show doesn't literally recreate the interior of Maloof's home, it pairs works by his friends with Maloof furnishings in a way that stimulates aesthetic conversations between the objects. For example, a 1968 Karl Benjamin geometric abstraction, "Number 4" radiates controlled intelligence as it hovers above the masterful and sensuous Brazilian rosewood "Double Music Stand and Musician's Chair" which Maloof made for the LA Philharmonic's first violist Jan Hlinka in 1972.

Curator Nelson comments that seeing fine and decorative arts displayed together in museum settings is common for items made before the 20th century. "Then," he comments "that idea falls apart," something that the exhibition hopes to rectify. One of the great joys of "The House That Sam Built" is seeing modern art and craft in concert, and the usual categories and hierarchies become delightfully blurred. Sam Maloof's 1958 coffee table is a lovely piece of craft, maybe even a sculpture, but the four ceramic pieces by Gertrud and Otto Natler that rest on it and in front of it quietly out-do it. The quality of the ceramics in the exhibition is breathtaking.

The show has many revelations, and one of Hal Nelson's hopes is that the exhibition will help him uncover lost works by some of the exhibition's 35 ceramicists, fiber artists, painters, and sculptors. Or as he cleverly puts it, sometimes these things appear "out of the woodwork." As the public becomes increasing aware that the Pomona Valley had its own modernist Arts and Crafts movement, artists and artisans whose works have been overlooked are bound to be rediscovered. Maloof was a wonder, the exhibition affirms, surrounded by remarkable friends.


A Maloof chair awaits exhibition visitors at the Huntington's "The House That Sam Built"

Photo by John Sullivan

©The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

If you are able to visit the exhibition, make sure to pause at the north end of the Boone Gallery where photos of Sam and Freda Maloof are exhibited along with some of the woodworking patterns used in Sam's shop. In the center of the room is a maple Maloof chair provided for members of the public to try out. When you sit in it, the man who made it will feel present. "I want that person to know that it was made just for him," Maloof once said, describing how he wanted his furniture to connect him with others, "and that there is satisfaction and enjoyment in the object for us both."

Sitting in the chair, you will indeed feel it was made just for you, and that you are among friends.

View more installation photos by clicking here.

The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-198

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

September 24, 2011 through January 30, 2012

Lucinda Luvaas: Loving the City from a Distance

Artist Lucinda Luvaas likes the energy of big cities, especially of New York City, where she grew up and was educated. "There are many ghosts in the streets," she muses, "all those experiences that informed who I am and what made me. The place for me is pregnant with feeling."

Paradoxically, the artist's studio -- a low wooden outbuilding adjacent to her 1940's clapboard Hemet farmhouse -- feels utterly remote from the urban chaos, cultural diversity and youthful vibe that energize Luvaas' mixed media relief paintings. Hemet, a sun-soaked and recession-wracked farm town turned retirement town turned bedroom community feels a million miles from Manhattan.

Of course, Luvaas and her novelist husband Bill can hop into the car and be at the Santa Monica Promenade in 2 hours, and a day in Santa Monica generally charges Lucinda's creative batteries just fine. In fact, many of the images in her recent series, "The Times of Our Lives," were inspired by images of the Promenade, initially recorded by Luvaas in the form of video and photos, and then lovingly morphed into her distinctive style. "I love to depict the throng of people there," says Luvaas, "and I guess in general it's a motif that repeats itself over and over again. I'm a people painter."


Artist Lucinda Luvaas at the entrance of her Hemet studio

Behind the flaking white doors of her studio, Luvaas finds the privacy she needs to create. Working to classical music, and also the hymns of praise that float over from the fundamentalist church next door most evenings, Luvaas fusses over her images, half painting, half sculpting, using sheets of wax to endow her finished reliefs with a raised, reverse stencil surface. The finished works are in some ways paradoxical. They have the graphic energy of "Pop" but seen up close they are quite painterly, even abstract. Luvaas' formalist tendencies are also apparent in the rich, syncopated rhythms of her compositions.

It has taken Luvaas years of experimentation to find her current way of working, and her technique is perfectly fused with its urban subject matter. Luvaas may live and work in the Inland Empire, but New York, where she was born and educated, still feels like her "parent."


Lucinda Luvaas, "Walking Uptown," 2011
Relief painting on wooden panel, 30" x 40," oil, acrylics, wax and gel

"I do much work that relates to Manhattan," Luvaas confides, "to the energy that is there trying to lift it up and use it to create that sense of fluidity, energy, creativity and the social aspect of this giant community: one of the very few real communities in this country of ours." A composer, painter, and filmmaker, Luvaas has no trouble keeping the urban energy going wherever she is.

"By using that subject matter I become it," Luvaas says. Her art, heartfelt, idiosyncratic and carefully constructed, is an homage to cities and their rich social possibilities.

After my visit to Luvaas' studio I sent her some questions about her images, and aesthetics.

John Seed Interviews Lucinda Luvaas: A Q and A

JS: Lucinda, when you are out looking for images in the world what gets your interest?

LL: I've always wanted to capture moments, sort of "Seize the Day," which comes from Saul Bellow's title for his novella. Life issues by so very fast, our gestures, movements, meanings, hopes and dreams, it flees quickly and we are left dazzled by it all. I want to grab these moments and gestures finding meaning and comfort in these short, little recordings. "The Times of Our Lives," is very much engaged with this motif. I look for scenes that mostly depict people moving although at times still in reflection, but movement plays a vital role in my work in terms of its actuality and design.


Lucinda Luvaas, "Trajectory," 2011
Relief painting on wooden panel, 30" x 40," oil, acrylics, wax and gel

"Trajectory," is a good example of this. I wanted to create a feeling of uplift, and its energy, so I used a repeated scene as a composite to try to create that rhythm. I am interested primarily in capturing people in environments where they are actively engaged in something whether it is simply walking, watching a crowd, dancing, you name it: all aspects of our daily lives and then creating a sort of imprint of history. In fact, I call my relief paintings "imprints," partly because they are relics of something left behind, something of value to our humanity and experience.

JS: Is it fair to say that you are walking a tightrope between representation and abstraction in your work?

LL: Yes I think it is very fair to say that and perceptive too. I can't tell you how much patterning, design, push pull and all the elements of abstract form play into my work. The stylistic concerns are so very important to me and cause great excitement and pleasure. I've never wanted to depict just what I see, but rather alter things to find a deeper sense or meaning as though I am creating a living being that pulsates and moves with emotions and feelings.

This I feel can really be achieved by combining abstraction and figuration. I'm very committed to figuration, but I'm devoted to it within the context of patterning: using abstract forms, to some extent reducing figuration to abstractions, although very much recognizable in their depictions of real things. I definitely am not and never have been a realist. I love the interplay between abstraction and figuration and very much plan to continue my challenge of integrating these two elements into my compositions.


Tubes of oil paint form a small mountain in Luvaas' Hemet studio

JS: Does it surprise you that your work has evolved to tell such complete, detailed stories?

LL:No, not really. I've always tended towards narrative and gesture, so this is just a continuation of the same thing, same tendency. As far as complete stories goes I'm not so sure because this technique really just suggests rather than completes. I like suggestion rather than completion. Just throw things out there and let the viewer take creative part in the composition.


Above: Luvaas holds a small wax image intended for one of her mixed-media reliefs

JS: Anything else that someone encountering your work should keep in mind?

LL:These are hard paintings to produce. They are mixed media which means they rely on using different tools and processes to end up with these results. It's a painstaking process, but rewarding. The relief is made with oils, wax, acrylics, and gel and they are on wood panels. I use drawings, video stills from my short video art pieces and digital stills as well for my research materials.

"The Times of Our Lives"
and other relief paintings by Lucinda Luvaas
The Gregory Way Gallery
245 South Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Saturday, September 17, 2011 7:00 pm -
Monday, October 31, 2011 6:00 pm

Nathan Oliveira's Final Visions

"Humanity is not something man simply has. He must fight for it anew in every generation, and he may lose his fight." - Paul Tillich

The last time that San Francisco's John Berggruen Gallery opened a Nathan Oliveira exhibition it seemed like the world was about to come to an end. "Singular," an exhibition of Oliveira paintings dedicated to the painter Balthus opened on September 12, 2001, a day after the calamitous terror attacks of September 11th plunged America, and the world, into shock, grief, and uncertainty.

On the day of the opening, people lingered in front of Oliveira's canvases of lithe, isolated figures, described in the catalog as "...moving gracefully about in their private worlds," and talked about their renewed fears for the future. At a time when Oliveira, then 72, should have been able to enjoy his commercial and critical success -- "Singular" was a sold out show -- the images of 9/11 and its aftermath threw him into a deep personal and creative funk.

For Oliveira, a lifelong pacifist who had made anti-war posters during the Viet Nam era, the senseless loss and destruction was a direct assault on his hopes for the world. A father of 3, and a college art professor for a total of 34 years, Oliveira was a nurturing man who took people under his wing, improving the world one person at a time. "He helped so many people," remembers his son Joe. "He was all about humanity, and he painted from his heart and from his soul."

When a traveling retrospective of his work opened at the Neuberger Museum of Art opened ten months later the recognition helped to renew his sense of mission. Before long he was back in the studio, trying to search out a new stream of images that could channel his emotions. Near the end of 2002 a trickle of works began to appear, including "Runner," a large oil painting that shows a fleeing figure inspired by the haunting news images of New Yorkers racing from the inferno of the twin towers. "All I can remember of that fateful day, " Oliveira told art historian Dore Ashton, "aside from the terror of the buildings collapsing, was that I saw a lot of people running."

The ashen palette of "Runner" and its theme of flight contrast starkly with the rust and violet reverie of "Cobalt Dancer" from the year before. 9/11 had shaken the world outside, and it changed Oliveira on the inside. "Oliveira's works are always drawn from himself," notes Dore Ashton, and his late works would be no exception.


A side by side of Oliveira paintings created before and after the 9/11 attacks.
Left: Nathan Oliveira, "Cobalt Dancer," 2001, oil, alkyd & wax on canvas, 84 x 70 inches
Right: Nathan Oliveira, "Runner," 2002, oil on canvas, 84 x 70 inches

The few canvases that Oliveira produced in 2003 and 2004 had themes that suggested a regaining of equilibrium. They include a skater, some paintings of intertwined couples walking, and also a series of "Rockers." The rockers, who balance on graceful curved skids, are about "...those that simply move back and forth and never really get anywhere no matter what they are attempting." Composed of red and earthen hues inspired by the deserts of the American Southwest, the rockers emerge from environments created with translucent washes of oil pigments modified with alkyd resins. Color, which Oliveira often spoke of as a kind of food, was his means of transmitting deep emotions, and also of recharging himself.


Nathan Oliveira, "Red Rocker #1," Oil and alkyd on canvas, 84 x 70 inches

Painting came to a halt in late 2004 when Oliveira required heart valve replacement surgery. Then, in 2005 Mona Oliveira was diagnosed with cancer. Nathan devoted himself to caring for her during her illness, and together they talked about their shared dream of establishing a meditation center on the Stanford Campus, to be filled with the soaring images of Nathan's Windhover paintings. That project, which is now in the late stages of planning, came from the couple's conviction that the world needs more places for quiet rest and contemplation.

When Mona died the following year, after 56 years of marriage, Nathan lost his anchor. "They were so great to be around," recalls painter Roy Borrone, a family friend. "He was a great storyteller, but when he exaggerated she corrected. Mona was so strong for him, and she when it came to his art she was the only critic he listened to."

After Mona's death, the couple's son Joe stepped in to help around the house and also in the studio. Nathan wasn't feeling like painting. "Then," says Joe, " I put some clay in front of him," Oliveira went on to create a series of small masks, later cast in bronze and patinated in earthen shades. "They speak of deeply felt grief and of that forbidden subject in our culture, death," wrote curator Signe Mayfield when they were shown in 2008 as part of retrospective of Oliveira's works in bronze.


Nathan Oliveira, Mask VI, 2007, bronze with custom patina, approx. 7 3/4 inches high

By 2008 pulmonary fibrosis required the artist to rely on an oxygen tank much of the time, and other health problems, including diabetes, and low blood sugar took their toll. After a fall, Oliveira broke his left elbow, requiring a titanium insert, and there were scary moments when he felt himself barely able to breathe. Despite the setbacks, Oliveira never lost his sense of humor. "He was such a magical guy," says Roy Borrone, "and so fun to be around."

In the last year and half of Oliveira's life, there were wonderful developments in the studio. "The old Nathan came back," says Joe Oliveira, "the guy who wanted to be in the studio every day. He couldn't wait to get back in there; something new and beautiful was happening." Starting with rich, abstract washes of color, Oliveira was again inspired to conjure up haunting, solitary figures. Working on several paintings at a time, the finished works began to add up: first 10, then 12, then 15 large paintings with dreamy translucent atmospheres. There were also small, softly brushed portraits with pensive expressions.

It was also a time of friendship. Oliveira greatly enjoyed visits from old friends, visiting artists, and former students. He took great pleasure in his lunches at the Stanford Faculty Club, and the sumptuous dinners at Marché in Menlo Park. Roy Borrone remembers that Nathan loved "...his lamb chops, his martinis and all the pretty women who walked by."


Applying a wash, late 2010


With his friend and fellow artist William Theophilus Brown, 2010

Of course it wasn't all smooth sailing: one 8 foot wide canvas had its figure re-painted 7 times before Nathan eliminated the figure entirely and covered it with a complicated "site" image that was left unfinished at his death. Oliveira also began to question his continuing reliance on the human figure, something that art critics had chided him about over the years. More than once he complained to Joe, "I'm tired of these damned figures." Despite the many others subjects he had developed over the years -- including images of animals, semi-abstract sites, and visionary images of flight -- the human figure was Oliveira's touchstone; a primary vehicle for the dialogue that his art required. "They are images that I can interact with," Oliveira said of his figures in an interview just 10 days before his death.

In his final months Oliveira was also very aware of his own mortality, and at one he had a talk with Joe to let him know that it wouldn't be too long before he left for the "big studio in the sky." Still, on his good days he was doing so well that Joe Oliveira was sure his father would make it to his wedding, planned for June of 2011. "Nate was invigorated," Joe says, "He was one of the lucky ones: he had his passion."

"Even with his oxygen mask and his knee trouble he was squatting down and working on canvasses set on 4" x 4" blocks on the floor," says Roy Borrone. "He would get excited about a painting, and then the next day he would turn the figure around. It was amazing how well he could draw, and he could re-paint things so quickly and easily."


Nathan Oliveira, with his Rottweiler Rocky in a final studio shot, October 2010

On Saturday, November 13th, 2010, Oliveira spoke to Joe's fiancée Melissa on the telephone and told her that he had finished a painting. It wasn't often that he told someone that, as he had a tendency to keep going back over most of what he did. That evening, after dinner and drinks with friends, Nathan Oliveira retired to his bedroom one last time. He was found there the next morning, guarded by his dog Rocky.

On the other end of the house, leaning against walls and resting on easels was a new family of human figures, both male and female, running, striding or simply looming. When he entered Oliveira's studio several weeks after the artist's death, dealer John Berggruen found himself "...completely taken aback by the scope and beauty of the work he (Nathan) had completed since my previous visit."

Those paintings, assembled in Nathan's Memorial show along with a selection of earlier bronzes and drawings, are Nathan Oliveira's final visions. They embody the qualities that he was seeking all his life: beauty, timelessness, and mystery. They seem to belong to another world, just beyond what can be put into words.

Nathan Oliveira: A Memorial Exhibition
Opening reception: Thursday, September 8th from 5:30-7:30pm
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
September 8 - October 22, 2011