Art's history

04/08/96
by Christine E. Shade
Above: Art students in this 1917 drawing class work at sketching portraits from plaster busts.Below: The university's art classes were first taught off-campus. After a 1910 fire destroyed the school's early buildings, a new structure - shown here about 1920 - housed the students in Garvanza (now known as Highland Park)

Photo- UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
A vintage 1902 course catalog describes USC's art school in pastoral terms:

"Surround[ed by] spacious and beautiful gardens ... the outdoor classes found ample material for sketching in the pool and the running stream, in the magnificent mountain and foothill scenery," the catalog description reads.

The setting - high on a bluff overlooking the Arroyo Seco and the San Gabriel Valley - was far from the University Park Campus. Those first art students who attended the newly formed university in the late 1800s often hauled their easels and sketch pads into the great outdoors to study Pasadena's stately oaks. Often, they traveled to missions and to remote beaches.

Over its 100-year history, both the School of Fine Arts and its students have lost their early veneer of simplicity. Today, the school trains savvy creative entrepreneurs who intend to make their mark in a complex art world - as studio artists, museum curators, sculptors, digital artists and administrators in the new frontier of "public art."

The school has much to celebrate as it marks its centennial (see box, page 10), according to dean of fine arts Ruth Weisberg. "Our history and the history of art in Southern California are totally intertwined," she said.

Like Los Angeles itself, the school has matured and expanded through the past century, said Weisberg, a professor of studio arts who was named dean in 1995. Courses of study now include everything from traditional clay methods to the latest in digital design. Art history classes span the classical era to contemporary multicultural expression.

Today's fine arts faculty includes distinguished scholars and noted professionals.

But in 1894, things were different. The school boasted just two art teachers. The College of Fine Arts, as it was called, came into its own in 1895, when English-born California painter William Lees Judson was named as its first dean. Under Judson's watch, the school flourished as an integral part of Pasadena's Arts and Crafts movement, with the artist-administrator serving as a link to the aesthetic philosophy's English origins. The school gained a reputation as among the largest, best-equipped and most efficient in the West.

A landmark still harks back to USC's illustrious past: Pasadena's Judson Stained-Glass Studios - named after the founding dean, who ran the school until 1928 - is still standing. A flesh-and-blood connection also remains: David Judson, the great-great-grandson of the school's patriarch, is today a USC undergraduate, majoring in international relations but fleshing out his curriculum, here and there, with fine arts classes. "I'm experimenting," said the younger Judson. "The arts are becoming more international, and there's an economic side as well as a cultural side to art."

The school's early bloom was stunted in 1910, when a fire devoured its buildings and dormitories. Judson and his students escaped with their lives, but many artworks perished.

Despite this setback, the school carried on. By 1912, the Los Angeles Tribune was again singing its praises. An article, dealing with outdoor and still-life studies, lauded the "finished appearances of the sketches ... the class exhibited unusual success with models."

When the study of fine arts moved to the University Park Campus in 1919, architecture - which had started as a separate department in 1914 - was folded into the curriculum.

The war years were good to the school. The Elizabeth Holmes Fisher Art Gallery opened in November 1939. A year later, May Omerod Harris Hall of Architecture and Fine Arts was dedicated. Built at a cost of $200,000, the structure's five wings contained 14 studios, each individually designed to hold courses in ceramics, sculpture, painting, drafting and general design. (The 60-year marriage between fine arts and architecture was annulled in 1979, though the schools still share the Watt Hall and Harris Hall facilities.)

The school enjoyed a lively reputation in the 1940s, when painters Edgar Ewing and Francis de Erdely were on the faculty.

"When you talk to people of that era," said Weisberg, "they were either de Erdely students or Ewing students." Ewing taught at USC for 32 years, retiring in 1978. In 1993, the Fisher Gallery mounted a major exhibition of his work. Ewing, known for his paintings of Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas and, most extensively, Greece, is still a force in modern art.

Prominent sculptor Merrell Gage, best known for his busts of Abraham Lincoln, taught at the school until 1958. School of Cinema-Television faculty produced an Oscar-winning short film about the artist and his work - titled The Face of Lincoln - in 1955.

"The '40s, '50s and '60s were our original 'ceramics era,'" said Weisberg, referring to the influence of former ceramics professor Susan Peterson. Contemporary jewelry artist Faith Zink Porter is a product of those fertile years (see sidebar, page 10).

"There were incredible professors here," Porter said. "Keith Crown and Carlton Ball, Edgar Ewing and Susan Peterson. It was amazing."

Kenneth Price, a professor of ceramics who joined USC in 1993, is also a product of that era. He took his first ceramics course with Peterson, earning his B.F.A. in 1956. The field remains popular today, attracting more than 190 students this year.

Following in Judson's footsteps, Weisberg is also an artist-administrator. The painter joined USC in 1970, overlapping with the Ewing years. Like most of the studio arts faculty, Weisberg often exhibits her work. Currently, she has two major shows in the Los Angeles area. In recent years, other studio faculty have had exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Municipal Gallery at Barnsdall Park and at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA. The works of two faculty, associate professor David Bunn and professor Jud Fine, are permanent installations at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. For their part, faculty scholars and art historians publish and lecture extensively.

On an academic level, fine arts has kept its core programs while launching innovative programs.

"We have a wonderful balance," said Weisberg. "There are schools that are neglecting painting and drawing and the initial ceramics and sculpture skills. We're not."

The school's new programs include:

* the Museum Studies Program. Since 1980, USC has offered a Master of Art History degree, under the direction of Fisher Gallery director Selma Holo. The program "is arguably the best in the country," according to Weisberg. It combines history, theory and practice, giving students a solid hands-on foundation in all aspects of museum studies. Each spring, the museum studies class mounts a major exhibition in the Fisher Gallery, a fully accredited museum. Museum Studies Program graduates secure coveted positions in America's top art institutions. The master's in museum studies is highly regarded, Weisberg said. Of the program's graduates, she said, "99.9 percent are placed in good jobs." In 1995, the school introduced the Getty/USC Fellowship, designed to promote ethnic diversity among entry-level museum professionals.

* a master's degree in public art studies. In 1992, the school implemented the first such academic program in the nation (see sidebar, below). "It's unique," said Weisberg. The program, under the direction of sculpture professor Jay S. Willis, is designed to foster the proliferation of art in public spaces by training individuals in the administration of public art programs.

* the MATRIX program. Begun in 1992 under the direction of Robbert Flick, this program marries computer technology and the world of studio arts through the use of real-time video and digital-image manipulation. Flick, who also teaches photography, is known for his large-scale video images of the streets of Los Angeles. The MATRIX program was one of the first to hold classes in the interactive teaching modules in the new Leavey Library. "We're not teaching desktop publishing," said Flick. "The emphasis is on incorporating digital media into fine arts practice. Students learn to use the software and hardware in an exploratory manner."

Collaborations and exchange programs with other prestigious art schools, universities and museums continue to link USC student-artists with the professional art world. Ongoing relationships exist with institutions such as the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Huntington Museum.

The school is also strengthening its international ties. Holo's Fulbright last year took her to Spain to research the training of art museum professionals; Weisberg was in residence at the American Academy in Rome. The school recently established cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaboration with Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. A joint venture with USC's own Department of Slavic Studies has led to a scholar exchange program with Russia, spearheaded by John E. Bowlt, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures, who has written extensively on 20th-century Russian artists.

The Slavic studies/fine arts connection is one example of the interdisciplinary work that the school encourages. Another is the link between art studies and the School of Engineering's robotics program.

Finally, the school's community activism has yielded strong neighborhood roots. Through the Pre-College Art Education Program for inner-city public schools and PASEO (Public Arts Studies Educational Outreach), fine arts students and faculty reach out to hundreds of local youths.

With 238 students, the School of Fine Arts is a major contributor to USC's educational experience. More than half of these students will receive B.A.s in fine arts or art history. Currently, 85 graduate students are working toward degrees in fine arts, art history, museum studies and public art studies. A Ph.D. is also offered in art history.

"We want people to have the relevant degree for their field," said Weisberg.

With a faculty of active professionals and scholars, a diverse student body, and graduates who move on each year to populate tomorrow's art scene, Weisberg believes all signs point to a second century of success.