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Stanton Macdonald-Wright

(1890 - 1973)
Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) was one of
America’s leading modernist painters and an early pioneer of
abstract art. Born in Virginia and raised in southern
California, he enrolled at the Art Students League in Los
Angeles as a precocious thirteen-year-old. In 1907, while
still a teenager, he married and then settled in Paris, studying
at the Sorbonne and several art academies, including the Académie Colorossi and the
École des Beaux Arts, and then privately with Percyval Hart-Tudor, who taught color
theory in relation to music. Inspired chiefly by the works of Cézanne, Matisse, and the
Cubists, Macdonald-Wright exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1910 and at the Salon
des Indépendents in 1912.
Together with fellow American expatriate Morgan Russell, Macdonald-Wright cofounded
the avant-garde painting movement Synchromism, whose first exhibition was
held in Munich in the summer of 1913 and the second in Paris during the fall of the same
year. These were soon followed by shows in London, Milan, and Warsaw. And in early
1914 Synchromist paintings were exhibited for the first time in New York. Similar to its
rival Parisian movement Orphism, Synchromism combined color with Cubism, producing
luminous and rhythmic compositions of swirling and serpentine forms infused with a rich
chromatic palette. As Macdonald-Wright later described it, “Synchromism simply means
‘with color’ as symphony means ‘with sound’, and our idea was to produce an art whose
genesis lay, not in objectivity, but in form produced in color”.
At the outbreak of World War I, Macdonald-Wright moved to London with his
older sibling, Willard Huntington Wright, who was an editor and author. Sharing quarters
there for the next two years, the brothers collaborated on three art books, including
Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning (1915), that were subsequently published in
New York. After repatriating himself to the United States in 1915, Macdonald-Wright
took up residence in New York, where he participated in the Forum Exhibition of Modern
American Painters in 1916 and was given his first one-man show at Alfred Stieglitz’s
“291” gallery the following year. His Synchromist paintings had a direct and marked
influence on the work of Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Dasburg, Jan Matulka, Stuart
Davis, Arnold Friedman, and Alfred Maurer.
Although successful in New York, Macdonald-Wright became increasingly
dissatisfied with what he saw as the “sterile artistic formulism” of modern art and the
237 East Palace Avenue
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In the historic Spiegelberg House § Palace Avenue at Paseo de Peralta
“academicism” of his own Synchromism. Consequently, he permanently resettled in Santa
Monica in 1919 and withdrew from the commercial art scene for the following three
decades. Instead, he became an active and energetic force in the southern Californian art
world primarily as a teacher and administrator, all the while still continuing his artistic
pursuits, which turned heavily toward Eastern representational models, especially Chinese
painting. From 1922 to 1930 he served as Director of the Art Students League in Los
Angeles, writing a student textbook entitled Treatise on Color (1924). During the late
twenties and early thirties, he co-exhibited at several museums in California with Morgan
Russell and had a one-man show at Stieglitz’s “An American Place” in New York in
1932. He then worked for the WPA Art Project as Director of Southern California and as
Technical Advisor for seven western states from 1935 to 1942, during which time he
personally completed several major civil art projects, including the murals at the Santa
Monica City Hall. During World War II and up through 1952, Macdonald-Wright taught
at UCLA, USC, Scripps College, and the University of Hawaii on the subjects of art
history, Oriental aesthetics, and iconography. In 1952-53, he visited Japan as a Fulbright
exchange professor and briefly lectured at Kyoiku Daigaku (Tokyo University of
Education). Finally, in 1954, he retired from academia.
After a hiatus of more than thirty years, Macdonald-Wright returned to
nonobjective painting in the mid 1950s with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, producing
some of his finest canvases. This new body of Neo-Synchromist work surpassed the
artist’s earlier paintings by way of a heightened luminosity and augmented spatiality,
creating as a result, in the opinion of the modern art champion, Alfred Barr, a deeper
spirituality. As the artist himself described it,
“At first I saw my new painting with a certain astonishment, for I had made the
“great circle”, coming back after 35 years to an art that was, superficially, not
unlike the canvases of my youth. However, at bottom there was a great difference:
I had achieved an interior realism, what is called yugen by the Japanese. This is a
sense of reality which cannot be seen but which is evident by feeling, and I am
certain that this quality of hidden reality was what I felt to be lacking in my
younger days.”
From 1958 on, Macdonald-Wright spent five months each year at Kenninji, a Zen
monastery in the center of Kyoto, Japan. One of the most fruitful outcomes of his
exposure to Japanese poetry and art was the creation of the Haiga portfolio (1965-66), a
suite of twenty Haiku illustrations in brilliant color that is a masterful synthesis of
modernist art in the Synchromist style and the traditional technique of Japanese
woodblock printing.
In 1967 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts held a
237 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, NM 87501
800 879-8898
505 989-9888
505 989-9889 Fax
In the historic Spiegelberg House § Palace Avenue at Paseo de Peralta
major retrospective exhibition on Macdonald-Wright, honoring his more than six decades
of artistic achievement. During the remaining years of his life and up until his passing in
1973 at the age of 83, Macdonald-Wright continued to be productive and inventive,
leaving as his legacy a large and diverse body of modernist painting, which has since
taken its rightful place as being of premier importance in American twentieth-century art.
~ Andrew Diversey
Daviee, Jerry M. 1982. Stanton Macdonald-Wright: Watercolors and Drawings. San
Francisco: The Art Museum Association.
Figoten, Sheldon. 1985. Stanton Macdonald-Wright: Paintings 1953-1964. Redding, CA:
Redding Museum and Art Center.
Scott, David W. and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. 1967. The Art of Stanton Macdonald-
Wright. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Press.
South, Will. 2001. Color, Music, and Myth. Stanton Macdonald-Wright and
Synchromism. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Museum of Art.
Wight, Frederick. 1970. Stanton Macdonald-Wright: A Retrospective Exhibition 1911-
1970. Los Angeles: The UCLA Art Galleries.

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