Helen Lundeberg - Biography and Legacy
Los Angeles, 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.