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Arts & Culture

John McLaughlin And Harry Bertoia Help Launch Modernism In San Diego

We couldn't find an image of John McLaughlin's "Hope Deferred" because it was such an early piece. However, this 1949 painting by McLaughlin is similar.
We couldn't find an image of John McLaughlin's "Hope Deferred" because it was such an early piece. However, this 1949 painting by McLaughlin is similar.

In 1948, an abstract painting called "Hope Deferred" took first prize in the annual San Diego Art Guild exhibition. People were pissed.

San Diegans were accustomed to art that was easily chewed and swallowed – happy landscapes and beautiful portraits with recognizable elements, maybe some social realism, but nothing too demanding.

"Hope Deferred" was an early example of geometric abstraction by Dana Point resident John McLaughlin, who became famous for zen-inspired, hard-edge paintings. McLaughlin’s early works are broadly appealing, almost decorative by today’s standards, and his mature style became hugely influential. Today, McLaughlin’s paintings routinely sell for $50 or $60,000. But in 1948, San Diego was fiercely conservative and the award-winning "Hope Deferred" provoked angry letters of protest.

The “furor” (that’s what the headlines called it!) made the papers in a big way. A photo of the oil painting was published two days in a row by the San Diego Union, accompanied on day two by an apologetic caption that started off: “No, no, not again!”

In a letter to the Mayor and City Manager one local resident called the painting “a monstrosity.” He described it as a “lopsided doughnut that has been kicked around the kitchen floor.” Also, according to the paper, a high school biology student was quick to identify the subject as an amoeba. “You can even see the nucleus!” he said.

Other irate San Diegans “harassed Union telephone operators” after the painting was published. But how, most of the callers wanted to know, could the judges pick "Hope Deferred" over paintings of “trees, birds and other recognizable objects?”

One of the judges who gave "Hope Deferred" its prize in the Art Guild competition was sculptor, designer, printmaker and La Jolla resident Harry Bertoia. Bertoia had just left the Eames office in Venice Beach (he contributed, without credit, to the design of the iconic wire version of the “Eames Chair,” produced by Herman Miller) and was working for the Naval Electronics Laboratory in Point Loma where artists were often employed in the graphic design branch.

Bertoia was a member of the Allied Craftsmen, with whom he exhibited jewelry in the Spanish Village. Founded in 1948, the Allied Craftsmen was a crafts organization that sought to unite crafts artists and familiarize the public with Modernism. Bertoia left San Diego after he was invited to work as a designer for Knoll furniture. His collection of wire chairs for Knoll Furniture became a staple of mid-century modern interiors and he became an important 20th century sculptor.

Modern art was not easily understood and modern artists in San Diego were accustomed to being under fire. But there was a small local art community dedicated to Modernism in art, design and architecture. That they even bothered in the face of such criticism is part of what makes this aspect of local art history so compelling.

Both John McLaughlin and Harry Bertoia are major figures in American art who struggled in a Modernist drama that played out right here in post-war San Diego. The San Diego modern art scene of the 1950s and 60s was full of fascinating people and places, but this period of local art history is poorly documented and about to fade from living memory. The dynamic painters, sculptors, architects and scene makers who made Modernism happen in San Diego are leaving us with alarming frequency these days.

In this new Culture Lust series, we investigate specific places that played a unique role in the San Diego modern art scene. From bookstores, coffeehouses and movie theater lobbies featuring local artists, to established galleries and the colorful people who owned them, we’ll dig into what it meant to be modern in San Diego.

Dave Hampton is a mid-century art and design enthusiast, collector, and co-founder of the mid-century art collective Objects USA.