Los Angeles, California
Summary of Helen Lundeberg
Helen Lundeberg was a profound thinker who started to paint and as such her work presents a highly intellectual response to art. She was interested in nature, but not specifically in flowers or vegetables, in all of nature, from the smallest crustacean in the sea to the largest planet in the sky. Indeed, Lundeberg was a dynamic personality and as she sought to investigate and understand life in all aspects, great energy bursts forth from her canvases. At the same time however, she was a rigorous and careful scientist making what seems like a contradiction - to unite passion and control - in fact a very good fit.
As her career was long and spans almost an entire century, it is interesting to use as a marker for art history moving from Surrealism, to Post-Surrealism and then on to abstraction. Indeed, Lundeberg seamlessly gleaned influences from the Renaissance to Early Surrealism. The artist's deeply inquisitive mind and particular interest in combining earth, sea, and sky, alongside even other worlds seems to align her work most accurately to that of the Surrealists Ithell Colquhoun and Remedios Varo. All of these artists wanted to constantly learn, to measure, to dissect and to join up all of the dots; a process that ideally moves towards illumination and enlightenment. It seems, in her late works - full of simple forms, soft color, and originary central energy - that Lundeberg got pretty close.
- Lundeberg was an intellectual as well as an artist. This combination resulted in her integral role in the establishment of two relatively influential new art movements. The first movement was initially called 'Subjective Classicism' - combining interests in both emotion and technique - but the title later changed to 'Post-Surrealism' and along with Lorser Feitelson, Lundeberg wrote the manifesto. The second movement was called 'Hard-edge Painting', a new form of abstraction, and once again the couple were at the center of its development.
- As 'artists in love', Lundeberg's relationship with her husband, Feitelson, was both romantic and professional. Like Dorothea Tanning and Georgia O'Keefe , supported by Max Ernst and Alfred Stieglitz in turn, Lundeberg received extended support from her artistic spouse. Interestingly, all three of these women remained childless and all three effectively create highly reflective visual spaces that provide means to address and unravel complex feelings implied by the state of childlessness.
- There is a sense that Lundeberg's influence base creates a harmonious marriage between Europe and The United States. Struck by the themes, motifs, and techniques of the early European Surrealists, René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, she also had a love of the American desert landscape and the same intense curiosity as Straight Photographers, particularly Edward Weston. Lundeberg paradoxically established an American Surrealist identity, whilst revealing that the most important motifs in art recur irreverent of time and place.
- Lundeberg's love of planets and the cosmos reveals that her career is one of a relentless quest for knowledge, even beyond our own earth. There is a strong parallel between Luneberg's later depictions of planets and the paintings of such similar globular and otherworldly spheres, also incased within a black ground, created by Yayoi Kusama in the 1950s, and by Ithell Colquhoun, slightly later, in the 1970s.
Progression of Art
The Red Planet
An interior domestic scene, Lundeberg's painting The Red Planet features a small round window on which rests a small red coin. Equally though, the window looks like a table and the 'coin' appears to be a floating sphere. Behind the window/table is an open door with gold doorknob, or another otherworldly globe. On the left side of the canvas on the floor next to the table is an image of the night sky propped up against a stack of books. Amazingly, it is as though pieces of the sky have been brought inside the room and have then been both implausibly and magically framed for our contemplation.
One of Lundeberg's early Surrealist works, this painting shows the influence of Salvador Dalí in that here, like in many of his works, she has employed the use of double images. The work too recalls early drawings by Max Ernst who enjoyed designing magical apparatus, and looks forward to the celestial paintings of Remedios Varo. What seem at first to be a coin and doorknob could instead or also be viewed as planets. According to art curator Ilene Susan Fort, these objects "...appear to float as orbs. Echoing the idea of Mars, nicknamed the red planet, the objects refer to the title of the painting as well as to the title of the book on the floor."
The well thought out, often autobiographical elements of Lundeberg's works, helped to set her apart from many of her Surrealist contemporaries who relied more on the subconscious and random assembling of objects to render their paintings. We see here that the depiction of objects relate to science and more specifically to astronomy; a subject that Lundeberg explored extensively in college before officially deciding to become an artist. She is attracted to the same motifs as many other Surrealist artists - for example the sphere, the form that René Magritte too returned to again and again throughout his career - but has a tendency to lay out her subject matter with rigorous text book type organization.
Oil on Celotex - Private Collection
Plant and Animal Analogies
Again here, there is not only the sense that Helen Lundeberg is depicting the intricacies of the world around her, but also that she is trying to solve a scientific and spiritual conundrum. Plant and Animal Analogies is rich in imagery including in the background, a large tree beside which stand a woman and small child. In the foreground are various objects including a knife, cherries, half a green pepper, and a dissected cross-sectional image of a brain. On the right side connected to these other images by white dashed lines is the dissected half of a female uterus. The overall message of the painting is that within the universe there is an overall sense of design, and for those who look closely enough, design features are repeated everywhere. Everything is linked. This connectivity extends beyond the natural world and into the trajectory of art history. Indeed, the specifically flesh-colored torso of a female body resting in a window structure offers visual proof that the Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico was an early influence on Lundeberg. Furthermore, the message behind the work is very similar to that of Edward Weston's from his series of close-up photographed fruits and vegetables also made in the early 1930s. As in Ithell Colquhoun's early work, and for Lundeberg, the most acute observation and deepest dissection of nature results in the dissolution of opposites and a merging of all things.
The importance of this early work, according to Ilene Susan Fort is that it is, "the only painting illustrating the New (or Subjective) Classicism manifesto" co-authored by Lundeberg and Feitelson which served to introduce Post-Surrealism. Every image was thought out and intentionally depicted for the intended larger message, that of the relationship between woman and child. The connections are made bolder by the dashed lines employed to connect the objects which Fort explains, "...led the observer from one disparate object to another: for example, on the left is the brain of a three-month old human fetus that is connected to the large human uterus on the right [...] The mind of the spectator associates the brain with the pepper because of the similarity of their shapes and interiors. All the objects conceptually refer to their functions, which involve various aspects of fertilization and creation. The mother and child in the distant horizon were added later in 1935, possibly to assure the proper reading of the foreground objects cluttered on the windowsill." The pair stands as the ultimate guarantee for the continued cycle of life.
Oil on Celotex - Collection of UCI Museum and Institute of Art, Irvine, California
Double Portrait of the Artist in Time
In this painting, a small child holding an unopened flower sits at a desk on which rests a blank sheet of paper and a clock. A long shadow of a female figure is cast on the wall behind her partially covering a painting featuring a woman holding a red flower at a desk with a small open dish in the shape of a globe. The painting is typically interpreted - as the title also directs us- as a self-portrait of the artist through time. Given the fact that the artist's own state of never having had children, there is also a great sense of longing and loss in the reflection of an experience that will never be. Read is this way, the painting becomes uncannily connected to Dorothea Tanning's Maternity (1946), a similar scene of longing for a relationship that does not exist.
While Lundeberg often created self-portraits, this work is unique in that it offers two images of the artist. The depiction of herself as a child based on an early photograph and as an adult seen in the self-portrait painting hanging on the wall - a reproduction of the 1934 painting Artist, Flowers, and Hemispheres - is clever and intends to illustrate the journey from childhood to adult life. According to the Luce Center Label for this work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "the time on the clock represents the child's age of two and a quarter, and the blank paper suggests her unknown future. She holds a flower bud to emphasize her undeveloped state, whereas the adult figure holds a blooming flower to show that she has experienced sex and love. Lundeberg connected the young girl to the grown woman with a shadow to suggest that the two parts of her life are "psychologically bridged."
This work can also be interpreted as a statement about the passing away of innocence leading to the personal and artistic maturity that developed once Lundeberg had met and started a relationship with Lorser Feitelson. According to Ilene Susan Fort, "The inclusion of both the child and adult suggests Lundeberg knew about the surrealist belief in the femme-enfant, the woman-child, who through her purity and naïveté possessed a direct path to the unconscious". Through known archive photography, Lundeberg looked like a femme-enfant when Feitelson first met her. It seems that this painting, however, which is one of her largest early canvases, was the artist's declaration that she had now matured and had left that stage of her life behind.
Oil on fiberboard - Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Microcosm and Macrocosm
A small portion of a female's contemplative face is depicted in the top left corner of Lundeberg's Microcosm and Macrocosm. While her head rests on her left hand, her right hand is visible in the left center of the canvas holding a magnifying glass needed to examine microscopic forms contained within the red circles. These forms seem to float against a waterscape with fish swimming in the bottom right of the canvas. In the sky a depiction of the planet Saturn and a constellation of stars are also captured in further red circles. We visit the same theme as Plant and Animal Analogies and consider the notion that by simply examining one tiny piece of the cosmos in great detail, that we may then in fact understand the whole.
This is an important Post-Surrealist painting; on one level the work can be seen as an attempt to examine the universe both in its tiniest (or micro) elements of cellular forms and in its vastness (or macro) in the astronomical elements of planets and stars. However, there is also a second, more intimate and personal layer to this work in that by incorporating a self-portrait in the painting, Lundeberg deliberately assigns herself the role of being responsible for this investigation. According to independent art critic and curator, Michael Duncan, this painting, "...presents the artist in a vast cosmic landscape as she examines microscopic forms through a hand-held lens [...]. Aligned along the side of the vertical painting, the human form rules and guides the action, dominating the contrastingly scaled realities while striking a hand-to-chin pose of serene contemplation. In Lundeberg's world, the mind determines scale." The personal connection and position of overseer that she visually manifests here is the beginning of a pattern that will dominate her work in varying degrees throughout her career.
Oil on Masonite - Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
As reflected in the title, the viewer has something recognizable to look at in this painting, namely the solid gray landscape and blue sky visible through two archways carved into a black wall. While the sharp lines and clean, depth-free colors employed here by the artist are characteristic of the Hard-edge Painting movement, Lundeberg's refusal to render completely abstract works set her apart from other artists working in this style. In explaining her reasoning for this, she stated, "I want both this interesting shape or assembly of shapes and whatever subjective impact the referential aspect has." The result is the creation of a landscape that always retains some trace of human presence, however abstract. This was also the case in the paintings of Kay Sage. Sage created barren physiological spaces that tend to speak of isolation. Although also sparse in composition, Lundeberg's images feel lighter and much more positive, perhaps because of her choice of colors.
The curvilinear lines of the archways in this picture, moving beyond basic geometric forms are important signposts leading to Lundeberg's maturity in approach to Hard-edge Painting. Again pushing boundaries, even those of her own theories, Lundeberg stated, "I have never been interested in pure, non-objective abstraction; I love, too much, the forms, perspectives, and atmosphere of our natural world." Specifically here, the archways show a further example of Giorgio de Chirico's influence on the artist, who often depicted open archways and outdoor plazas in his works. According to Ilene Susan Fort, Lundeberg distinguished herself from the early Surrealist master however, for "unlike de Chirico, she positioned the viewer inside her buildings behind the arches. The dark flat form of the arch or arcade became the framing device for the brilliant sunlight flowing through the open doorways toward the viewer. Thus the act of looking through a doorway or window and seeing the light outside became the major theme of her canvases."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
Planet No. 1
Painted against a black background, a large circular form dominates the canvas of Lundeberg's painting Planet No. 1. Inside the orb is a series of curving lines in orange and green at the top, beneath which is an abstract form rendered in pastel shades of pink and orange. There is a sexual organic quality to the work that resembles the blooms of Georgia O'Keeffe. There is a sense too that Lundeberg finds great comfort in the folds and forms of nature. Indeed, be the depiction of a planet, an earthy landscape, or a flower, the message is life and the force of energy that bursts and grows forth at the centre of many things. Focusing particularly on the cosmic, both Yayoi Kusuma and Ithell Colquhoun made striking series that bear much in common to this one; they paint multi-colored circular forms upon a black ground and the feeling is that we observe an embryo in the first stage of conception.
This particular work is one of a series of paintings by Lundeberg directly based on planets created during the 1960s. The Hard-edge style is evoked here, and according to Ilene Susan Fort, "the planet paintings do demonstrate the geometric abstractionists' concern for the figure-ground relationships. Lundeberg painted these works in large fields of monochromatic colors, applying pigments smoothly and evenly, without shading to suggest dimensionality or atmosphere. Most of the grounds (the area from the perimeter of the circle to the edges of the square) she colored black as if to suggest the absence of light in deep space." As in so many of her works however, this painting also contains an autobiographical element and incorporates her early interest in astronomy. Specifically the inclusion of planets at this time may also additionally reflect current events as Fort suggests that her return to the subject was, "...no doubt stimulated by the space explorations of the Americans and Russians."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
Rendered in beautiful shades of pastel, Helen Lundeberg's Tidelands is a landscape painting with a tiny thin strip of land depicted on the bottom edge of the canvas, above which is a huge sky rendered in curving stripes of orange, pink, gray, and purple. An important example of the style of Lundeberg's late career paintings, while still abstractly rendering objects, she has ceased to depict the clean, hard lines characteristic of her earlier Hard-edge Painting style. According to Ilene Susan Fort, "Lundeberg found consolation in the process of painting after her husband died in 1978. She pursued the same aesthetics and subjects as before with only slight variations. A softer palette at times suggested a sense of nostalgia. Creating more landscapes and seascapes than before....". Still though, the works do not appear hopeless in anyway (as those of Kay Sage have been at times accurately termed) but simply as quieter than earlier paintings.
More than a vehicle to cope with Fietelson's death however, continuing to paint well into old age also allowed the artist to look back on her own life. She had always enjoyed the childhood car trips taken with her family viewing the California landscape and it was these early experiences that became important influences in her later works. Indeed, she stated, "...I think a painter must be influenced by what he sees, all the time or even by what he conceives is around him... Because I've been looking all my life...It was one of my favorite occupations. I'm terribly visual minded. And when I was a kid (in Pasadena) and when we went for the Sunday afternoon drives that people went for in those days, or went anywhere, I was always in the back seat, looking at everything." Perhaps then, these late landscapes can be seen as a way to visually understand Lundeberg's emotions, moods, and imagination. Of these later works Lundeberg stated, "My own approach to landscape painting has always been more abstract and minimal than literal; I love the pure forms and space of the desert. My current paintings still incorporate 'landscape', imagined rather than seen." Interestingly, this love of desert landscape was, of course, shared by Georgia O'Keeffe, and the paired-down, tonal, and reflective lyrical paintings made by the two women really do have much in common.
Acrylic on canvas - Collection of Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood, California
Biography of Helen Lundeberg
Childhood and Education
While born in Chicago, Helen Lundeberg spent almost her entire life in California having initially moved to the city of Pasadena at the age of four to accommodate her father's job at a stock brokerage and real estate firm. Some of her fondest childhood memories were of car trips with her parents and younger sister; she would enjoy looking out of the window at the Californian landscape which would, years later, provide inspiration for some of her paintings.
A keen student, from an early age Lundeberg excelled in school and was included in a program for gifted children. While she finished high school in 1925, she delayed her enrollment in Pasadena Junior College for two years so she could care for her sick mother. While pursuing higher education, she briefly considered a career as a writer having been a prolific and avid reader from a very young age. As generally a person with great thirst for knowledge, she also further developed her interest in science and astronomy. In particular, scientific study drawings and diagrams that she had made during certain courses would later reappear as imagery in her Post-Surrealist works and her interest in astronomy would be reflected in a series of paintings based on planets.
Lundeberg's formal art training began in 1930. A friend of the family - a bookkeeper in her father's office - recognized her artistic talent and paid for her to attend a three-month course at Stickney Memorial School of Art. Lundeberg was hooked after this and stayed on at the art school to complete her fine art education. Her first few weeks as an art student did not go well and she described herself as being in a "state of confusion". That unclear period passed when artist Lorser Feitelson joined the teaching staff and encouraged his students, including Lundeberg, to start by studying the Old Masters and the Early Renaissance period. Lundeberg described the profound impact that Feitelson had on her career by saying, "when Lorser came and began to explain things, to make diagrams and to give us principles of different kinds of constructions - Wow, you know, light dawned!" Within months the young artist also fell in love with Feitelson and fondly remembers their first meeting. She was alone in the studio working on a drawing composition when someone came into the room to introduce himself as her new teacher. He then promptly sat down behind her and began to tell her all that she was doing wrong. Lundeberg credits Feitelson as being the person who triggered her realization that she was an 'artist'. He saw her for who she was and his encouragement from the outset was unbounded.
Lundeberg's relationship with Feitelson moved beyond that of student teacher as soon as she has completed her studies. Ten years his junior, she began a romantic relationship with him despite the fact that he was still a married man. There were complications in obtaining a divorce in California and one was not legally granted for many years, until after the death of Feitelson wife's in 1956. Finally, having already been together for over 20 years Lundeberg and Feitelson were able to marry.
Equally important as the love between Lundeberg and Feitelson was the professional artistic relationship that they built and developed together. The duo played an important role in shaping the direction of art in the United States through their development of the Post-Surrealist art movement which artist and writer, Diane D. Moran describes in a 2004 exhibition catalogue on Lundeberg's work as, "...the first American response to European Surrealism, the key distinction between the two being the Californians' emphasis on the processes of the rational mind, as opposed to the Europeans' stress on hallucinations and the dream world."
In addition to creating many works throughout her career in this style, Lundeberg was also responsible for writing the 1934 manifesto, New Classicism (or Subjective Classicism) which outlined the philosophies of the movement and later - as artists exhibited together under this style - became better known as Post-Surrealism. It attempted to capture the key aims of the movement, Lundeberg wrote, "in New Classicism alone do we find an aesthetic which departs from the principles of the decorative graphic arts to found a unique order, and integrity of subject matter and pictorial structure unprecedented in the history of art."
Lundeberg's move away from Post-Surrealism came about as a result of having been hired to work for the government's Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project during the years of the Great Depression. The majority of her tenure with the organization was spent making large-scale, realism-based murals, which represented a radical departure from the smaller-scale Post-Surrealist works that she had previously created. She found the new experience working as an employed artist highly gratifying as it allowed her to get paid while still leaving evenings and weekends free to do her own art. The experience of being employed by the WPA also led to a small adventure - she briefly drove a five-ton truck to and from a job site for a mural project at the Fullerton, California City Hall. The three men on her crew did not have driver's licenses meaning that Lundeberg was assigned to drive the truck.
In 1946, Lundeberg made her first visit to New York City. Accompanied by Feitelson, the couple visited museums and galleries and socialized with fellow artists. The experience included attending an evening party at famed gallerist Peggy Guggenheim's house where Lundeberg enjoyed looking at works by Jackson Pollock. Unlike so many artists of the period however, she had no desire to move to the city. She preferred, in her own words, the "relative isolation" of California that suited well what she considered to be her and Feitelson's loner personalities. She often called herself and her husband, a "group of two" and understood that they "liked to go their own way."
A major shift took place in the later years of Lundeberg's career beginning in the 1950s when, following the lead of Feitelson, she began focusing on geometric shapes and simple block color. Derived from their own theorization surrounding 'Hard-edge Painting', the works were altogether more abstract than previous pictures. Of her origins in this style she once stated, "My hard-edge debut came about for two reasons. First of all, this tendency which I already had, treatment of areas and spaces, meant to suggest walls, floors, cast shadows and so on. The other thing is that I would look at Lorser's Magical Space Forms, in which these flat areas are ambiguously positive and negative, and be fascinated by the three-dimensional possibilities I saw. But I wanted to use those possibilities for my own purposes."
By the 1960s, Lundeberg had begun to focus on adding curving lines and other more organic shapes to her works. Often featuring arches, she would render the pictures in acrylics rather than oils and rely heavily on the use of masking tape rather than pencil to create lines. Of the technique of using tape she stated, "you can't niggle with a piece of tape when you're putting it on." Later, in the 1970s, Lundeberg began to incorporate even more architectural elements and landscape into her hard-edge works. Interestingly then, at this point, although moving away from figurative and initial Surrealist inspiration, the recurring arch formations are very reminiscent of the work of Giorgio de Chirico.
A great personal loss came for Lundeberg in 1978 when Feitelson died suddenly a day after being admitted to the hospital with an illness. For Lundeberg, Feitelson was always her "grand support and encourager", something she felt to be very rare and not always the case with male artists for their artist wives. According to Moran, "considering the strength and duration of their marriage, it is difficult not to feel certain emotional content in Lundeberg's paintings of the years following this loss. One hesitates to read specific subjective meaning into this artist's work [...] and yet, as we have seen, she has insisted on the importance that content has had for her over her entire career." Her later work is generally sparser and much quieter in tone.
There was an increase in recognition for Lundeberg's art and career, including numerous exhibitions and awards, in the last years of her life. Once stating that she wished to "go on working as long as she could wiggle a brush," Lundeberg did so until 1990 when she could no longer paint due to failing health. She died in 1999 after a bout of pneumonia.
The Legacy of Helen Lundeberg
Helen Lundeberg had a dynamic impact on the direction of American art throughout the twentieth century. Alongside her husband and others, she was a key figure in the foundation of two new and influential art movements. The first, Post-Surrealism, not only established a new art style but also showed the world that American artists could play a key role in shaping the future direction of art, something that had previously been reserved primarily for the Europeans. Many other artists including Philip Guston and Grace Clements began to work in a Post-Surrealist style. More widely, what remained a relatively small movement, succeeded in empowering fellow American artists and helping to bolster identity in a way that later paved the way for the development of other important art movements, including Abstract Expressionism.
The second major movement coined by Lundeberg, the Hard-edge Painting movement, was perhaps the more influential of the two. Hard-edge work displayed particular interest in large blocks of flat color and in geometric abstraction, which in turn led to the more well-known movement of Color Field Painting headed by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Quite specifically, through her art - both practically and theoretically - Lundeberg helped to bring the attention of the art world to California and thus to broaden the focus on American artists beyond the confines of New York City. Therefore in time, laying the foundation for future generations of Californian artists such as John Baldessari, Mark Bradford, Robert Irwin, and Ed Ruscha. According to Los Angeles based art curator Carol Eliel, "she was a person who helped put California on the map in the years when people were not looking to the United States at all as an arts center, and certainly not looking to California."
Her work - as it progresses into very confident abstraction that retained a passion for figuration - like that of Georgia O'Keeffe's makes space and sets the stage for more understated, lyrical, whilst still somehow fleshy painting. Her work is thus connected to and likely influential for the careers of a younger generation of artists including Yayoi Kusuma and Agnes Martin.