LOS ANGELES — Paul Klee’s work “Refuge,” featured in the exhibition Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, shows the arms and head of a disembodied figure who appears to be swimming or perhaps climbing out of the ground. The colors are dull and gray, and the fine crosshatched markings add a layer of instability to the cracked and uneven surface. Created in 1930, the work seems to presage a feeling of dread that would overcome a community of artists sandwiched by World War I and World War II, forced to create lives and produce art away from their homes.
Maven of Modernism hones in on German-born Emilie Esther Scheyer, a beloved art dealer who moved to Los Angeles in 1930. When she left Germany in 1924, first for New York and later the Bay Area, Scheyer dedicated her life to circulating the artwork of the interwar European avant-garde in the United States. Though she had an eye for work by the likes of El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Edward Weston, Scheyer primarily promoted the “Blue Four” artists, who became known for their foray into modernist abstraction: the aforementioned Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, and Wassily Kandinsky. Scheyer first became obsessed with art through her acquaintance with the Russian-born Jawlensky, whom she met as a young woman in 1916. He eventually connected Scheyer to the wider circle of European modernists, and christened her with the nickname “Galka,” the Russian word for the jackdaw bird.
Scheyer loosely grouped the four artists under the “Blue Four” name to refer to the “Der Blaue Reiter” (Blue Rider) artist group that Kandinsky, Jawlensky, and Klee had taken part of in Munich. Kandinsky, whose association with theosophy strongly shaped his theories of art and color, believed that blue had powerful mystical qualities. The name Scheyer chose and its visual identity — four parallel stripes in blue — were also easily translatable in numerous languages and cultures, conveying the universality of abstraction in artistic production. Scheyer’s influence peppered California from north to south, from the Bay Area to Carmel-by-the-Sea to Los Angeles, and even extended to Mexico, where she met and befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The Norton Simon show recounts the exhibition history of the traveling Blue Four exhibition, which would launch in Los Angeles in 1926 and travel to Oakland and Mexico City in 1931, among other places.
Scheyer was friends with the power players of collecting in the US during the 1920s and ’30s. She hosted informal salon-type gatherings at her sleek Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles, and connected artists and patrons through her vast network. She introduced the work of the Blue Four to collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who had relocated to Hollywood permanently in 1921 and also played a heavy role in spreading the influence of the European avant-garde in Los Angeles and nationwide. (Marcel Duchamp, a close friend of the couple, oftentimes guided their decisions in patronage.) Many Americans held skepticism towards the artwork coming out of Western Europe, evidenced by the critical uproar around the 1913 Armory Show. As critic Christopher Knight notes, the Sun, a conservative periodical, published accompanying doggerel: “Awful lack of technique / Awful lot of paint / Makes a Cubist picture / Look like what it ain’t.” Regardless, the collections amassed by this group now inform the modern art wings of many art institutions in the US.
Scheyer gifted her collection to the Pasadena Art Institute, which is now the Norton Simon Museum, in the 1950s. The exhibition comprises two larger galleries and a smaller gallery: the visitors enter a space dedicated to the presentation of work by Blue Four artists, and are then guided through a gallery of work by other artists whose careers Scheyer helped cultivate, such as Peter Krasnow, Imogen Cunningham, László Moholy-Nagy, and Alexander Archipenko. There is extensive correspondence exchanged between Scheyer and numerous parties, including artists and arts institutions. A letter Jawlensky sent to Scheyer in 1928 features a colorful sketch and complaints of cold weather, while Jawlensky lightheartedly asks the dealer for more clients. Feininger writes to Scheyer that the “ship is going down, down, down,” as the Bauhaus closes in Weimar. The smaller gallery has a group of charming portraits of Scheyer completed by her artist friends, as well as artwork by their small children — drawings for the refrigerator by Felix Klee and Brett Weston — and announcements for Scheyer’s lectures, which showcases Scheyer’s dedication to arts education at all levels.
These artists and intellectuals would also contribute to the pedagogical foundations of various academic institutions in the States, including the developments in arts education at the Museum of Modern Art spearheaded by Victor D’Amico. Scheyer herself taught youth at the Anna Head School in Berkeley and the Broadoaks School in Pasadena. Feininger accepted a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland in 1936. Many associated with the Bauhaus lent their talents to experimental programs such as the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A contingent of the Frankfurt School made their home at the New School for Social Research in New York. Intrepid figures of the German avant-garde theater and film, such as Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang, would make their way to Hollywood — exiled by the Pacific Ocean with some reluctance and bitterness.
As the historical record shows, despite the efforts of those like Scheyer who attempted to cultivate and provide spaces for these émigrés to thrive in the States while their homes and culture were being ransacked in Europe, the United States and its citizens were not necessarily welcoming these artists with open arms. Roosevelt and his ilk limited quotas to curb the flow of immigration, and many protested the arrival of these desperate, weary refugees by aligning themselves with a homegrown movement supportive of white nationalists and Nazis. Maven of Modernism reveals Scheyer’ss influence in shaping the public perception of European modern art, as well as a glimpse of a not-too-distant past chillingly similar to our own.
Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California continues at the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena through September 25.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Galka Scheyer moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1930. This is incorrect; she moved from the Bay Area. This has been fixed.