If you go
What:Contemporary Art Wins a Beachhead: The La Jolla School of Arts 1960-64
When:10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 1-4 p.m. Sundays through July 8
Where:Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way
Admission:$5-$8, free Tuesdays
Special Event:“Remembering the Art Center in La Jolla,” 2 p.m. April 14, guest curator Dave Hampton will lead a conversation about the school with former faculty member Fred Holle and former students James Aitchison and Karen Kozlow. Free with OMA admission.
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art has gone through several incarnations in its lifetime. Originally the residence of Ellen Browning Scripps, designed by architect Irving Gill, it was used by local artists as an informal gallery space after her death in 1932. In 1941, it became an official community art center where the prevailing form was impressionistic landscape paintings.
By the late 1950s, The Art Center in La Jolla had turned into something quite different: a showplace for progressive contemporary art. Abstract expressionism came to town, and in 1960, an in-house art school was established, with a faculty of cutting-edge, often controversial artists teaching and exhibiting painting, ceramics, and sculpture.
“Contemporary Art Wins a Beachhead: The La Jolla School of Arts 1960-64,” now on view at Oceanside Museum of Art, is a tribute to the Art Center’s school, which only lasted four years, but paved the way for what is now MCASD-LJ. Curated by Dave Hampton, an expert in mid-20th-century California art and design, this is the kind of show you might have seen at the Art Center 50 years ago.
Featured are six artists from the ‘60s who were among the most influential contributors to the Art Center’s glory days — painters Don Dudley (1930- ), Fred Holle (1931- ), Sheldon Kirby (1924-1990) and Guy Williams (1932-2004), and ceramic artists Malcolm McClain (1923- ) and Rhoda Lopez (1912-1993). Their work from that period, so often displayed in group and solo shows at the time, has not been shown publicly since, and is a vibrant reminder of a turning point in La Jolla’s art history.
Fred Holle, who was still a student at SDSU in 1960 when he became the art school’s youngest faculty member, recalls the epoch as “a hot time.”
“It was a time when intuition played a dominant role,” he said. “We were after the unusual, the impossible. The impulse was the exciting part of a painting.”
Holle moved on to the Bay Area and other art forms when the school folded. “I don’t want anyone to think I died in 1964,” he said. “I’m still painting full-time.”
He will take part in a “conversation” about the Art Center on April 14 (see sidebar), along with James Aitchison, who remembers being a 17-year-old “beatnik-appreciator” with a scholarship to L.A.’s Chouinard Art Institute when he first came to the Art School.
Don Dudley, the assistant director, showed him around, and Aitchison says he was more impressed by Dudley’s 6’7” height and huge moustache than he was with the place, which seemed too beautiful for a serious school. “Then I looked out the window of one of the studios, and saw bevies of teenage girls in teeny-weeny bikinis on the beach below, and I thought: I could do worse than spend a year here!”
Aitchison spent two years at the Art School, learning to throw pots with Rhoda Lopez, going on watercolor excursions with Sheldon Kirby, making friends with all the instructors.
“They were real mentors,” he said. “They were there to show you about life. I learned that art is not just shapes, colors, and forms; there’s an emotional element too, and it was my job to capture that. Those two years changed everything for me.”
Hampton says the “Beachhead” exhibit documents “a magical time when a bunch of wild young artists were adopted by a proto-museum in a largely conservative town.”
“It’s a little-known chapter in local art history,” he said, “but it went a long way toward developing our knowledge of art.”