Stanton Macdonald-Wright - Biography and Legacy
American Abstract Painter
Charlottesville, Virginia, United States
Los Angeles, California, United States
Biography of Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie van Vranken, Stanton MacDonald-Wright was named after women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom his mother greatly admired. The family lived comfortably in Santa Monica, where his father ran a beachfront hotel. Archibald Wright was also an amateur artist, who encouraged Stanton's artistic talents, enrolling him in private art lessons as a young boy. His older brother, Willard Huntington Wright was an art writer and critic, who later wrote the very popular Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine.
Although the family was not Catholic, the boys were sent to a local Catholic school. It was reported that whenever the nuns needed someone to do a creative project, they asked Stanton. At the age of thirteen, Stanton enrolled at the Art Students League in Los Angeles, where he spent the next two years developing his artistic skills under the tutelage of Warren T. Hedges, who himself had studied with Robert Henri. This introduced Stanton to the Ashcan School style and also emphasized the importance of integrating personal expression into artwork. In these early years, his painting style was also closely connected to California Impressionism.
Education and Early training
In 1907, at the age of seventeen, Macdonald-Wright married Ida Wyman, a guest at his father's hotel whom he had known for two weeks. The young couple relocated to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne, the Académie Julian, the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Colarossi. While in Paris, Stanton moved in avant-garde art circles, meeting Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Gertrude and Leo Stein, and fellow American student Thomas Hart Benton. As a young student, he was fascinated by color theory, most recently developed by optical scientists Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Ogdon Rood. In particular, Chevreul's writing on "simultaneous contrast," studying how colors react to one another, would influence Macdonald-Wright.
During his studies in Paris, Macdonald-Wright met Morgan Russell, a fellow American studying art. From 1911 to 1913, the two friends studied intensely with the Canadian painter and color theory proponent, Percyval Tudor-Hart. From Tudor-Hart, they learned to see color as related to music (in fact, he directly correlated the twelve colors of the spectrum with the twelve steps of the musical scale, and used this scheme to compose visual "melodies"). The painters argued that harmonious visual compositions could be produced by selecting "color chords" that were developed from chromatic scales in which each color was assigned to a note on the musical scale. Pitch was expressed through luminosity of color, tone through hue, and intensity through saturation.
Working as a pair, Macdonald-Wright and Russell developed a movement they called Synchromism, which used color in an abstract, rather than (what they saw as restrictive) representational manner. They drew on analogies with musical composition, but combined planned intervals and chords with more intuitive combinations. By focusing on juxtaposed planes of color, contrasting to emphasize the materiality and tactility of color, they believed their paintings could directly evoke emotions and sensations. Its guiding principle was the close relationship between color and music, as MacDonald-Wright explained, "Synchromism simply means 'with color' as symphony means 'with sound.' Their first exhibition as Synchromists took place in June 1913 in Munich.
Macdonald-Wright and Russell correlated particular colors with particular emotions, for instance, as Macdonald-Wright once explained, "Yellow-Orange has also a braggart tendency but at bottom it is weak and sickly. It is like the last pretenses dying in a pompous soul. On this account it has a quasi-sad note, like an old man who feels senility to be not far off." Although the Synchromists aimed to emphasize color itself as both subject and theme, not all of their works were purely abstract. Macdonald-Wright experimented with representing more figurative subjects (often the ideal male form), but in an abstracted, nearly-cubist faceted manner, whereas Russell's works tended to be more purely abstract.
The Romanticist painter Eugène Delacroix's writing on color, particularly his work with complementary colors was critical to the development of Synchromism. Aside from color theory, Macdonald-Wright was inspired by Paul Cézanne, who he believed had used color in a more structural (rather than decorative) fashion. He owned four watercolors by Cézanne and had experimented with his Post-Impressionist style. He was also deeply interested in the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner, who he credited with having "removed all the gross materialism out of objects and has given me the essence of the beautiful."
Relying on color, Synchromism bridged elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and German Expressionism. Indeed, the relationships between color, music, and sensation were themes common in early 20th-century abstraction. While Synchromism was one of the earliest to develop, it was commonly dismissed by other abstract artists as having merely borrowed the principles of Orphism or Cubism. Macdonald-Wright adamantly denied these influences, although their grandiose language might have contributed to the critics' hostility. In their writings, Macdonald-Wright and Russell aimed to differentiate Synchromism from other similar movements, explaining in exhibition catalogues that they rejected the "brown and white of the Cubists" in favor of using "gradations of color" to express "the depth of space," and also calling Futurism "superficial" and "of secondary interest." They similarly dismissed Orphism as flat, weightless, and too decorative.
At the start of WWI, Macdonald-Wright and his brother Willard Huntington Wright (who had been working as an author and editor) moved to London, where they lived for the next two years. During this time, the brothers collaborated on three art books that would later be published in New York. The most famous, Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915), provided an overview of major modernist art movements which predicted the forthcoming domination of abstraction over realism (simultaneously championing Synchromism). During these same years, however, Macdonald-Wright began reintroducing figurative elements into his paintings, often referencing a Greco-Roman tradition. This reflected a general trend during the war, when many artists embraced the classical past both as an escape from present-day turmoil and as a historical connection that extended beyond modern politics.
In 1915, Macdonald-Wright moved to New York, where he lived with Thomas Hart Benton and attempted to gain recognition with American audiences. In 1916 he participated in the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters (organized by his brother), and in 1917 he had his first solo exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery. Unfortunately, despite this mild success, he did not reach the level of fame he had been hoping for, and struggled to make ends meet financially. Towards the end of his time in New York, he taught painting lessons to young women in order to earn money and created posters and illustrations (often working under the pseudonym "d'Este." Meanwhile, Morgan Russell turned away from the Synchromist style in 1916.
In 1918, Macdonald-Wright decided to move to Los Angeles, to see if he might have better success there. In 1920, with the support of Alfred Stieglitz, he organized "The Exhibition of American Modernists," the first show of modern art in Los Angeles. Held at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art, the exhibition included several of his own "synchromies" as well as pieces by John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. Although the show received good press and had decent attendance, sales were slow.
Shortly after this exhibition, Macdonald-Wright decided he was dissatisfied with the "sterile artistic formulism" of modern art, and even found that Synchromism felt stale and academic. He thus abandoned the style from 1921 (to revisit it in 1953). From 1922 to 1930, he served as the director of the Los Angeles Art Students League, where he emphasized drawing from live models instead of traditional plaster casts, and redesigned the school's curriculum based on "intelligent drawing." In 1924 he published the textbook, Treatise on Color, in a limited-edition series of 60 copies, mostly intended for his students. Through reproductions and circulated copies, this book would have an outsized impact on the development of color-based abstract painting.
During the 1920s, he expanded his studies of Eastern art and culture, which had first started in Paris during 1912. In addition to art, philosophy, and literature, he began learning the Chinese language and wrote four Chinese-themed plays for the Santa Monica Theater Guild, where he also served as the director, set designer, and actor. He integrated this into his esoteric paintings, arguing that "Western philosophy has tried to solve the universal mystery by means of finding an absolute rather than accepting, as the Chinese have, the mystery as fait accompli."
Under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), that was a pilot for the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA) employing artists during the Great Depression, Macdonald-Wright was selected to paint a series of murals for the Santa Monica Library. His ambitious scheme, depicting the development of mankind, was completed in 18 months, during which Macdonald-Wright reallocated his own salary to pay other struggling artists. Then, beginning in 1935, he served as the Director of the Southern California division of the WPA, as well as WPA Technical Advisor for seven western states. During the next seven years, he oversaw the work of WPA artists, and personally completed several important projects.
From 1942 to 1952, Macdonald-Wright taught courses on art history, Oriental aesthetics, and iconography at UCLA, USC, Scripps College, and the University of Hawaii. In 1952 and 1953, he traveled to Japan as a Fulbright exchange professor and lectured at Kyoiku Daigaku (the Tokyo University of Education).
In 1954, Macdonald-Wright retired from teaching, and returned his focus to abstract painting, producing an impressive body of "neo-synchromist" work. He continued to experiment with elements of Eastern art in these works, integrating them with the elements and principles of Synchomism. MacDonald-Wright later reflected on this artistic reawakening, stating that "At first I saw my new painting with a certain astonishment, for I had made the 'great circle,' coming back after 35 years to an art that was, superficially, not unlike the canvases of my youth. However, at bottom there was a great difference: I had achieved an interior realism, what is called yugen by the Japanese. This is a sense of reality which cannot be seen but which is evident by feeling, and I am certain that this quality of hidden reality was what I felt to be lacking in my younger days." Notably, the renowned Alfred Barr, Jr., the American art historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, agreed that these Neo-Synchromist painting surpassed MacDonald-Wright's earlier works by carrying a stronger sense of luminosity and "a deeper spirituality."
Beginning in 1958, Macdonald-Wright spent five months of each year living at the Zen monastery of Kenninji, in central Kyoto, where he learned more about Japanese art and poetry, and did a great deal of his painting. The following year, in 1959, MacDonald-Wright completed his Synchome Kineidoscope, a project he had envisaged with Russell decades earlier. The structure was designed to "make a painting exist and change through a period of time." He intended it to be a synthesis of artistic media, unifying the arts by incorporating color, light, sound, movement, and time.
These years witnessed a resurgence of interest in Macdonald-Wright's color painting. He was the subject of retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1956, at the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1967, and at the Art Galleries of UCLA in 1970. There was also a brief revival of interest in Synchromism, with the Whitney Museum of American Art organizing "Synchromism and American Color Abstraction: 1910-1925" in 1978-1979, a six-museum travelling exhibition of earlier Synchromist works.
Stanton Macdonald-Wright passed away at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, at the age of eighty-three.
The Legacy of Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Although Synchromism was not a commercial success in the 1910s, it was an early conduit of modernist abstraction in America. It also introduced new color theory and musicality from Europe, influencing avant-garde artists in New York and Los Angeles. American artist Georgia O'Keeffe was a proponent of Synchromism, describing some of Macdonald-Wright's paintings in 1916 as "Theory plus feeling - They are really great." Robert Henri called Macdonald-Wright "the greatest master of color in painting that ever lived."
Macdonald-Wright had significant influence on the development of American abstraction. Artists who adopted some of the principles of Synchromism in their work include Russian-American painter Jules Olitski, whose Color Field paintings aimed to present pure color's power to evoke strong emotions, painter Stuart Davis, who used color chords arranged in geometric compositions to visually convey the musical qualities of jazz music, as well as American artists Thomas Hart Benton and Andrew Dasburg, who experimented with Synchromism and aimed to link color and music in their works. Curator Marilyn Kushner also notes that Synchromist ideas can be seen in Joseph Stella's spectrums-filled paintings as well as in the works of Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Alfred Maurer, and O'Keeffe.
Moreover, Macdonald-Wright also had a considerable impact through his teaching and administrative activities. In particular, his Treatise on Color (1924) influenced later teaching, perhaps trickling through the generations to impact Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock. Working for the WPA, Macdonald-Wright provided an important source of income for a generation of artists, but also advocated for the program to support styles other than American Regionalism.
Macdonald-Wright's Neo-synchromist paintings of the post-World War II era provided a direct connection from contemporary abstraction, including Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, to the beginnings of twentieth-century American abstraction. He was essential in connecting the legacy of earlier abstract painters to the practices of the 1950s and 1960s.
More generally, Macdonald-Wright brought abstract art to public attention through his organization of Synchromist exhibitions outside of New York, including the first Modern Art exhibition to ever take place in Los Angeles. Christopher Knight, writer and art critic for the Los Angeles Times, has declared "It simply isn't possible to understand 20th century art in L.A. without understanding Macdonald-Wright's work and career."