Helen Lundeberg’s painting grew from a unique blend of intense intellectuality and California cool.
By John Dorfman
Running alongside the foaming rapids of avant-garde art in the 20th century is another stream, quieter, often in the shadows, but steadily flowing nonetheless. In that current can be found movements such as Precisionism, the New Objectivity, Metaphysical art, Neo-Romanticism, and a few others less well known. Among those others is Post Surrealism, also called the New Classicism, a school of painting that was born in Southern California in 1934—announced, in typical modernist fashion, by a manifesto—gave rise to some intriguing exhibitions, and ceased to exist as an organized phenomenon by the end of World War II. While Post Surrealism never became a household word, even in the not-always-cozy household of American modern art, it did yield some works of lasting value and marked the careers of the two artists who co-founded it—Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg. Feitelson, a prominent teacher and public figure in the L.A. art world, is better known than Lundeberg, his artistic partner and life partner, but it was in fact she who wrote the manifesto of Post Surrealism, at the young age of 26, and the steely intellect and virtuoso painting skills that she had developed by then powered her through six more decades of artistic creation.
In its essence, Post-Surrealism was an effort to stimulate the production of ideas in the mind by the use of symbolic forms placed together in non-naturalistic, non-traditional ways, but without the automatism of Surrealism. It appealed to the conscious mind, not the unconscious. Like Giorgio de Chirico’s work, it was Classical in its love of balance, dignity, and austerity, in tandem with the uncanny. “Post Surrealism is concerned with the creation of order through introspection rather than with the surface organization of introspective subject matter,” wrote Lundeberg in 1934. “It differs equally from the expressionist Surrealism which plays with caprice, with the unorganized psychic meanderings, and from the Cubistic Surrealism which, in organizing subjective material, still clings to the traditional principles of objective order.” Lundeberg’s early paintings tend to be enigmatic juxtapositions of objects and figures in which, as she put it, “the introspective activity is not recorded, but takes place entirely in the mind of the spectator.” Imagery of stars and planets, microbiology and natural history mingle with domestic interiors, still lifes and portraits, reflecting her lively interest in scientific studies. At this period of her career, Lundeberg was also very taken with early Italian painters such as Piero della Francesca and Domenico Ghirlandaio; in common with other modern artists, including de Chirico, she prized their crispness, astringency, and geometric sense of order. A portrait she made of her sister Inez in 1933 is rendered as a profile view, very much as Ghirlandaio might have done it if he had lived in Southern California in the 20th century. While Inez’s dress is a sleeveless 1930s sheath, the trees could be Mediterranean cypresses, and the hilly landscape in the background, punctuated by a river receding into the far distance, could be in the countryside outside Florence.
Lundeberg was born in Chicago in 1908 to second-generation American parents of Swedish descent. When she was four years old, the family moved to Pasadena, Calif., where she grew up. A precocious reader, she participated in the Study of Gifted Children, a state project that charted the progress of the top 1 percent of students in California schools, following up with them into adulthood, up until 1945. Despite the early promise, family finances prohibited her from attending college when she finished high school. After a hiatus staying home to care for her ailing mother, Lundeberg enrolled in Pasadena Junior College, graduating in 1930. Up to this point her orientation had been toward literature, mathematics, and science, and she had intended to continue to a four-year college program and become a writer.
However, fate stepped in in the form of an offer from a family friend to pay for three months of classes at the Stickney Memorial School of Fine Arts in Pasadena, a precursor institution of the Norton Simon Museum. During her first term there, her teacher was Lawrence Murphy, who taught in a traditional style based on the precepts of George Bridgman, the longtime anatomy and figure-drawing teacher at the Art Students League of New York. But for the second term, Murphy was replaced by Lorser Feitelson, who had been raised in New York, studied and painted there and in Europe, and established himself in L.A. in the late 1920s. Feitelson’s teaching, which emphasized formal principles of art that could be traced back to Piero and Fra Angelico, set Lundeberg on a whole new track. She made such rapid progress that after less than a year, she submitted a painting, titled Apple Harvesters, to the Annual Exhibition of Southern California Art at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego and had it accepted. In 1933, she had her first solo show, at the Stanley Rose Gallery in Hollywood, and participated in a group show of “Progressive Painters of Southern California” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.
Soon she and Feitelson were no longer teacher and student but two colleagues working intensely together, inspiring each other to push boundaries and create not only a new style of painting but the theoretical apparatus to explain it and spread it to others. Post-Surrealism attracted several Southern California artists into its orbit, including Knud Merrild, Lucien Labaudt, Grace Clements, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, and Philip Goldstein (later known as Philip Guston). During 1935, the Post Surrealist group exhibited together at Stanley Rose and then at the San Francisco Museum of Art. This latter show traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, giving the Post Surrealists their first exposure on the East Coast. This led to Lundeberg, Feitelson, and Merrild being included in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in 1936.
Back in California, Lundeberg joined Feitelson in working on mural projects for the WPA, on topics such as “The History of Transportation.” Some of these public works are still extant, at the Venice High School library, George Washington High School, Canoga Park High School, the Fullerton Police Station, and Grevillea Art Park. This work occupied much of her time through 1942, when the Federal Art Project began winding down. By this point, Lundeberg had begun to change her style of painting to some extent. While previously she had emphasized what she called the “idea-entity” in a painting, now she focused on the “mood-entity,” her term for the product of an effort “to create an ambience of the intuitive, the imaginative, and the subjective within a precisely calculated and logical formal structure,” as she put it in a 1942 artist’s statement. Her paintings from the 1940s through the mid-1950s, while preserving many of the outward aspects of Post Surrealism, are less eerily enigmatic and more emotionally resonant. Barren landscapes and views out solitary windows predominate, and the “mood-entity” is often of a melancholic, contemplative nature.
In the late ’50s, Lundeberg used her window views and landscapes to pivot into a radically new style. She simplified her compositions into planes of pure colors, using a restrained palette, going almost to the point of abstraction. Not then or ever did she leave figuration behind completely, though, as to do so would have been to abandon her basic principle that it was through objects seen in the world that the mind was to be led to the ideas and emotions intended by the artist. Her works from the late ’50s and early ’60s have an overall look akin to hard-edge geometric abstraction, but they do not adhere to the dogma of pure flatness. In these works, Lundeberg again confronts the viewer with an enigma; now it is the paradoxical coexistence of abstract geometric forms and elements of illusionistic depth in space. Sometimes a strategically placed still-life object brings about a perceptual change in which a group of abstract shapes suddenly comes into focus as a view in space—a room, a window, or a road stretching into the distance. A series titled “Arches” is based on the ability of a rectangle with rounded corners at the top to suggest a portal and therefore two spaces, one within the other. Despite her refusal to cross the threshold into non-objectivity, Lundeberg was invited to participate in the Whitney Museum’s 1962 exhibition “Geometric Abstraction in America.” She also exhibited in a 1964 gallery show of California hard-edge painting.
The year 1965 saw Lundeberg switching from oil to water-based, quick-drying acrylic paint. In addition to being easier to work with, the new medium affected her aesthetic, leading her to brighten her palette, and her paintings from the late 1960s and on into the ’80s are often rich in pastel shades of light green, pale pink, apricot, lavender, and cream. Among her first works in acrylic were the “Planet” series, circular color abstractions that mark a return to her earlier interest in celestial objects as a subject for art. If her hard-edge compositions were abstract landscapes, the “Planet” paintings were abstract astronomy. These orbs of swirling bright colors suggest alien worlds seen through a powerful telescope, their light refracted through the depths of cosmic space.
Lundeberg’s work took a more figurative turn in the ’70s, with a reappearance of still life in more or less realistic form, often within a landscape. The landscapes themselves shed some of their hard-edged abstraction, and the frequent inclusion of architectural details such as archways suggests a sort of cool California classicism, bathed in pinkish or bluish light. Her last known painting, Two Mountains, made in 1990, nine years before her death at 91, is a depiction of a snow-capped mountain reflected perfectly in a lake. The colors—salmon pink, teal, blue, and dark orange—are not particularly natural. In this painting, it is the artist, not nature, who is in charge. Despite all the changes in her work over the years, there is a deep consistency to Lundeberg’s career. In her 1942 artist’s statement, she wrote, “I am, apparently, a classicist by nature as well as conviction. By classicism I mean, not traditionalism of any sort, but that highly conscious concern with aesthetic structure which is the antithesis of intuitive, romantic, or realistic approaches to painting.” These words are just as applicable to her last paintings as to her first.