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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Stanton Macdonald-Wright

Oriental Synchromy in Blue-Green, 1918, Macdonald-Wright                               
Although some might insist that drawing--simple eye-hand coordination--is the most difficult area of art to master, most artists would probably insist otherwise. I and most other working, thinking, learning artist would insist that color is far more difficult. Quite apart from any debate involving lines, there is simply no question that color is by far the most complex of all the elements we use to define art. Of course, we have no need to master color to employ color. Indeed, if we sought to do so, we'd likely have no time to paint, draw, or even think about anything else. Although several thinkers and writers have expounded on color theory down through the ages, it wasn't until 1855 when the French scientist, Michel Eugène Chevreul published his book, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors, and Their Applications to the Arts that it began to dawn upon artists just how complex color might be as applied to painting. However it wasn't until that advent of the computer that the really massive scope of the subject came to rest upon the minds of men.
The 216 color palette--count them if you like.
(Better yet, try naming them.)
Early computers dealt with a palette of 216 colors (above). Then the mathematicians and the computer geeks got together and came up with the nice, round number of 16.8-MILLION colors (256 shades of red x 256 shades of green x 256 shades of blue), the number which the hardware could theoretically produce. Of course that far outstripped the number of colors the mind could name, and even the estimated number of colors which the eyes can perceive. Estimates of that number (and believe me, they are just estimates), vary widely from some 100,000 (based more on differentiating names than science) to as high as ten-million. And if the color math is starting to boggle your mind, just consider the psychology of color, not to mention Synchromism, Synesthesia, and Ideasthesia, all having to do with the neurology of color (how colors and other sensory inputs effect the brain). You think this goes way beyond the boundaries of art? Let me tell you about Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Self-portrait, ca. 1930
Stanton Wright was an American painter born in 1890. His mother was an admirer of the women's rights activist Cady Stanton. He added the hyphenated Macdonald himself later when people kept asking him if he was related to Frank Lloyd Wright. He grew up in Santa Monica, California where his family ran a seaside hotel. He began studying art as a child and pretty much continued to do so the rest of his life including a stint  in Paris at the Sorbonne, the Académie Julian, the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Colarossi, which probably gives him one of the longest academic resumes in the history of art. While studying at one or the other of these vaunted institutions of higher learning, Macdonald-Wright met a fellow student from Canada named Morgan Russell. Together, they hatched Synchromism.

Cosmic Synchrony, 1913-14
Morgan Russell 

Synchromism simply means, "with color," which may be one of the greatest oversimplifications in the history of oversimplification. To un-simplify it somewhat, Synchromism is based on the concept that color and sound are similar, and that painted colors can be orchestrated harmoniously in the same way a composer arranges notes in a symphony. Does that mean I have to learn to read music to paint? Keep in mind this was way back in 1913, more than a hundred years ago. These two colorists, influenced by Delacroix, Cezanne, and Matisse, were so far ahead of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism as to make some of the color-field painters (forty years later)look like copyists. Macdonald-Wright's Oriental Synchromy in Blue-Green (top) dating from 1918, gives you some idea what they came up with. Morgan Russell's Cosmic Synchrony (right), from 1913-14, is one of the earliest explorations of the synchromism concept. The work of these two artist is so similar it's like trying to tell a Braque from a Picasso. Together they established Synchromism, along side Orphism, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, and the various international flavors of Expressionism, as one of the cornerstones of Modern Art.

Airplane Synch Yellow-Orange, 1920, Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Initially a least, Macdonald-Wright and Russell tried to divorce Synchromism completely from any vestige of representational content. Upon returning to New York around 1916, the two artists parted company though both continued to paint "synchromistically." Macdonald-Wright had married before going to Europe (he was seventeen at the time) thus had a wife to support. As one might guess, in the pre-WW I art world, even in New York, where the art crowd was still trying to digest the 1913 Armory Show--Cubism, and perhaps half-a-dozen other alien "isms"--a complex concept as high-flown as equating sound and color was pretty much a tough sell. Despite having organized several avant-garde shows of his work, and the fact that his brother was a New York literary critic offering him press coverage, by 1918, Macdonald-Wright and his wife were headed back to California.

Macdonald-Wright, Mural for the Santa Monica Public Library, ca. 1930s.
Still-life with Arum Lilies and Fruit,  1923,
Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The lingering
influence of Cezanne can be seen.
There, though still espousing the basic tenets of Synchromism, a certain amount of Expressionistic content crept back into Macdonald-Wright's work. Other artists, literally around the world, were picking up on the Synchromism theories and discovering that they did not automatically preclude the inclusion of representational content. At the same time, other artists and scientists were moving in the direction of Synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway). Synchromism was an important building block for this form of conceptual art. Synesthesia eventually came to be labeled Ideasthesia, which is defined as a phenomenon wherein activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). And though there is an artistic element in each of these areas, they tend to move into realms of complexity few artists, myself included, could or would want to explore. The little color chart experiment below suggests (in simplified form) the nature of such developments.

First, moving from left to right in each row, read the word in each block. Second,
name the color of each block. Third, go back and name the color of the word
in each block. Notice the growing degree of difficulty each exercise entails.


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