First Look: New Acquisitions

An exhibition featuring some of Peyton Wright’s new acquisitions, including work by Alexander Calder, Karl Benjamin, Ray Parker, Emil Bisttram,  Esteban Vicente, and Joan Mitchell.

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About the Artists
(1898 - 1976)
Credited with the invention of the mobile, Alexander Calder revolutionized twentieth-century art with his innovative use of subtle air currents to animate sculpture. An accomplished painter of gouaches and sculptor in a variety of media, Calder is best known for poetic arrangements of boldly colored, irregularly shaped geometric forms that convey a sense of harmony and balance.

Calder was born in a suburb of Philadelphia to a family of artists. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, and father, Alexander Stirling Calder, created sculptures and public monuments, and his mother was a painter. Accustomed to traveling in pursuit of public art commissions, the family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1906. The new environment—with its expansive night sky studded with brilliant planets and stars—fascinated the young Calder. These cosmic forms strongly influenced the structure and iconography of his future work.

At a young age, Calder began using tools and found materials to create various structures and inventions. This constructive impulse led him to attend the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. Yet by 1922 he had abandoned his new career. After a stint as a seaman, Calder began formal art study at the Art Students League in New York in 1923. During this period, Calder worked as a freelance illustrator and often visited zoos and circuses to sketch.

Calder moved to Paris in 1926, and during his seven-year stay he delighted fellow artists including Man Ray, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier and Piet Mondrian and attracted the attention of art patrons with his whimsical wire figures and portrait heads. Most notably, he created small sculptures of circus animals and performers with movable parts and developed and toured a performance/demonstration dubbed the "Cirque Calder." This series culminated in the completion of his most celebrated piece, Circus (1932, Whitney Museum of American Art).

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(1922 - 1990)
Originally from South Dakota, Ray Parker entered the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1940; he earned his MFA in 1948. From 1948 to 1951 he taught painting at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. During the 1940s his paintings were heavily influenced by cubism. In the early 1950s, however, Parker became associated with the leading Abstract Expressionists of the day, including Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Parker soon began to simplify and refine his works realizing that through abstraction, and color his paintings could convey and express emotion.Like Piet Mondrian, Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollock, Parker was a fan of jazz music; and his interest in jazz, combined with his interest in abstract expressionism, led to his improvised painting style.
(1925 - 2012)
Born on December 29, 1925, in Chicago, Benjamin joined the Pomona College faculty as artist-in-residence in 1979, following a 20-year career teaching in public elementary and middle school. He was appointed the Loren Babcock Miller Professor of Fine Arts in 1991. When he retired in 1994, he was granted emeritus status.

A school principal and his elementary students led Benjamin to painting. The principal told him that he needed to include 45 minutes of art instruction in his classes. So, according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times article, “I brought some crayons and paper, and the kids drew trucks, trees, mountains. That was boring, so I said, no trucks, no trees.’” And, according to the article, the students began to do work that really interested him.

Benjamin began to paint in the 1950s. Experimenting with oils leading him to Claremont Graduate University and a MFA degree. Benjamin is a member of the California Hard Edge group, along with Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin.

Benjamin’s paintings have been exhibited throughout the U.S. and are part of collections that include the National Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Recent exhibitions include retrospectives at the Claremont Museum of Art and the Oceanside Museum of Art, and inclusion in several Pacific Standard Time exhibitions in Southern California, including the J. Paul Getty Museum.
(1925 - 1992)
Joan Mitchell was born and received her art education in Chicago. In 1948 she visited France for a year before moving to New York, where Mitchell became a young leader in the Abstract Expressionist scene. Mitchell was well connected with New York School artists and poets.

Klaus Kertess admiringly writes of Mitchell, “She transformed the gestural painterliness of Abstract Expressionism into a vocabulary so completely her own that it could become ours as well. And her total absorption of the lessons of Matisse and van Gogh led to a mastery of color inseparable from the movement of light and paint. Her ability to reflect the flow of her consciousness in that of nature, and in paint, is all but unparalleled.”

The artist's legacy is preserved by the Joan Mitchell Foundation.
(1895 - 1976)
Emil Bisttram was born in Hungary in 1895 and immigrated to America with his family in 1906. He began working with commercial art at a young age, first working as a lettering and cover designer for shops and catalogues before opening his own commercial art studio with three of his colleagues. While running his successful art studio, Bisttram pursued his study of fine art with night classes at the National Academy of Art and Design, the Cooper Union, Parson’s School of Design and the Art Students League, where he studied under such well-known artists as Ivan Olinski, DeLeftwich Dodge, Howard Giles, and Leon Kroll.

It was during this time that he first became acquainted with Jay Hambidge’s artistic philosophy of Dynamic Symmetry – a methodology of proportion and design that influenced Bisttram’s work throughout his career. In 1920, he began teaching at Parson’s School of Design, where he remained until 1925. It was around this time that he was invited by the Russian artist Nicholas Konstantin Roerich to visit his Master Institute of United Arts – Roerich’s personal project to unify different art forms, such as music, dance, fine art, and drama. Roerich’s mystical spirituality, interest in the occult, and philosophy of serving humanity through the arts were profound influences on Bisttram’s own spiritual and philosophical development. Bisttram’s fascination with mysticism and spirituality were also influenced by his discovery of Vassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art.

Bisttram paid his first visit to Santa Fe in 1930. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship to study mural painting with Diego Rivera. In 1932, he settled in Taos. As a result of his new age philosophy and modern artistic ideas, Bisttram was received by Taos’ community of traditional and regional artists with ambivalence. Nonetheless, Bisttram lost no time making his mark there. During his first year in Taos, he opened the Taos Art School, later known as the Bisttram School of Fine Art. He also founded Taos’ first commercial art gallery, the Heptagon Gallery. In the next several years, Bisttram received several significant mural commissions, including one for the Taos Court House and another for the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C., for which he painted a heroic depiction of the liberation of women, a cause in which he believed strongly.

Though Bisttram continued to paint representational works – particularly portraits and depictions of Native American ceremonies and dances which were strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists – his work became increasingly abstract. His development into abstraction was strongly influenced by Native American geometric designs and symbolism. Bisttram was particularly fascinated with the way Native American artists were able to depict the natural world using symbols.

In 1938, Emil Bisttram and his close friend, Raymond Jonson, co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group, a group of artists whose shared vision was to transcend material reality and advance the expression of spirituality in art through the creation of non-representational work. The Group included Agnes Pelton, Lauren Harris, Ed Garman, Robert Gribbroek, William Lumpkins, Florence Miller Pierce, Stuart Walker, and Horace Towner Pierce. Along with Pelton, Bisttram was particularly devoted to exploring spirituality through art. Bisttram believed that art had the potential to lead an individual to a transcendental experience by speaking in “an esoteric language more easily felt than explained” (Wiggins 1988; 9). Along with his mentors Kandinsky and Roerich, Bisttram never lost his conviction that an individual could discover transcendent truths about the universe through the practice of art.

Bisttram continued to be a prominent member of the Taos art community. In 1952, he helped to found the Taos Artists Association, along with artists such as Ernest Blumenschein and Joseph Fleck. He exhibited widely throughout his lifetime, including one-man exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Jonson Gallery at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

His work is included in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other public and private collections.

Sources and Further Reading: Wiggins, Walt. The Transcendental Art of Emil Bisttram. Ruidoso Downs, NM: Pintores Press, 1988.

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(1903 - 2001)
Known for his Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field paintings in oil as well as collages, Esteban Vicente attended art school in Madrid at the Academy Belles Artes before moving to New York City in 1936. There he became affiliated with the Action Painters in the 1950s including Willem and Elaine De Kooning. In "Art News" magazine, 1952, Elaine De Kooning had an article published on Esteban Vicente titled "Vicente Paints a Collage"

Vicente was also an art educator with positions at Black Mountain College, University of California at Berkeley, New York University, Yale University, Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

He had his first one-man show at the Ateneo de Madrid in 1928, and from that time entered many exhibitions in Spain including Barcelona as well as Madrid where his paintings are in the Reina Sofia Museum. In 1991 Vicente was honored by King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain with the Gold Medal for Fine Arts.

Of his painting Esteban Vicente said: ...If I have to say something about the subject of my painting, I might say that it is an interior landscape. This image becomes the subject. It is always the same idea, the same image---from an accumulation of experience. I don't know if one can actually identify this image. When I say 'landscape', I mean a structure. The structure of the painting is landscape---but not the color. That's why I say they are 'inter landscapes'. " (Herskovic 346)