Bob Matheny / Art for the Educated

Bob Mantheny, artist, educator and all around cool guy, recently told me how he camped out at the Aspen Design Conferences in the 1950's, took a field trip to the Eames House back in the day and even did some industrial design. I of course knew of Matheny's artwork and history in the art scene (including Southwestern College and the Art Disposal Service), but this aspect of his career was something I hadn't heard about before. Bob was nice enough to indulge me with a guest post...

Long Beach City College in the late nineteen forties and early fifties provided me the first introduction to the aesthetic we now call "Mid-Century Modern." The art department faculty at that time was young and enthusiastic about teaching art majors a contemporary approach to art, quite a revolution when you compare American art at the time with European art. Pedro Miller was the department chair and ceramics instructor. Norma Matlin was in charge of design, Joe Donat drawing, Fred Miers instructed painting. Art history classes were team taught each semester by the studio instructors. Fred Miers soon quit teaching and became a well known collector and dealer in Mexican folk art. The Mingei Museum inherited his collection. Pedro Miller and his family traveled to Aspen, Colorado every summer in those years to attend the International Design Conference. They always camped out.

Aspen Design Conference in the 1950s. The tent was designed by Eero Saarinen. Do you see Matheny in line?
Source: AIA  (Photographer: C. Ferenc Berko)

In the fifties I attended a number of these design conferences and remember Herbert Bayer (from the Bauhaus and one of the founders of the conference) driving around town in his black Citroen.

One time we camped near the large tent (used for lectures) on private property without permission. One day my companions and i walked into an empty store front downtown and played hockey with scraps of wood and a ball we found on the premises (we were art majors). At that time, aspen was an old, almost deserted ghost town, with a gorgeous opera house used for showing films at the conferences.

L.B.C.C. Art students John and Marilyn Neuhart went on to U.C.L.A. and worked for Charles Eames in Venice. Marilyn has produced two published books about the Eames office. Ed Moses is still painting, well known in Los Angeles and getting his professional start at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Those three individuals are the only art students I know who were inducted into the L.B.C.C. Hall of Fame, Ed Moses in 1993, Marilyn and John Neuhart in 2000.

Long Beach State College was founded in 1949 and at the time was primarily a teacher's college. The art department chair was Dr. John Olsen, a water color painter and professional art educator, who managed, during his tenure there, to pioneer an art department, now the largest public art school in the United States. He was an inspirational leader, teacher and mentor. He was very progressive and hired teachers who were young and dedicated to modern art and design. During my attendance there in the middle and late fifties, the art department grew very quickly in physical facilities and personnel. Ward Youry was about the only PHD in the country teaching ceramics. Ray Hein was the jewelry instructor. Stan Hodge was the graphic design teacher. There were a few other instructors who taught history and art education. In 1953, art classes were being taught in World War II buildings. John Olsen taught painting and art appreciation courses while he was there and lobbying very successfully to get a lot of money for the new department from the State of California. I was an art education major with an emphasis in graphic design and graduated in 1957 with a Master's degree. I signed-up for the first sculpture class offered by the department and was the only student. The legal instructor was not a studio artist but taught elementary school art education. I taught myself the basic and simple techniques of sculpture and had my own little office space for the classroom and studio. For one year I was the school's yearbook photo editor - used a 4x5 speed graphic camera with flash bulbs and developed the film and made prints in the art department's little dark room. No formal photography instruction. On weekends I took the 4x5 to Los Angeles and snapped photographs of the old victorian houses in the downtown area. The only photograph remaining from that experience is the greeter from Laguna Beach who stood on a corner of old 101 and smiled at people driving by.

Laguna greeter. c. fiftie, sixties, seventies

My art education at Long Beach State College was eclectic, naturally, because of the major. John Olsen organized field trips to Los Angeles for his art appreciated students. We visited the Charles/Ray Eames house in Pacific Palisades and the John Entenza house next door. These homes were examples of avant guard contemporary architecture. The Case Study project was well underway at the time sponsored by the magazine Arts and Architecture and John Entenza. Dr. Olsen's purchase of a Gerald McCabe conference table for the department in around 1955 confirmed the department's goal to be modern and contemporary in all departments.

The Entenza house in the foreground and the Eames house in the background (Case Study Houses 9 and 8, respectively).
Photo: Julius Shulman via Getty Research Institute 

Outstanding art students from that period included painter George James, painter Everet Connors, painter Vic Smith, painter Willie Susuki and craftsman Howard Warner, the painters all influenced in some way by John Olsen.

Bob Matheny, c 1954

Bob Matheny, c 1951

Because an art education curriculum was very broad in different disciplines, it's conceivable that diversity influenced in a very positive way what I did after graduating. Practicing artists I know now seem to me to be limited in their interests and curiosities. They all seem to have focused their art educations in specific art forms for example like, painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography. Specializing in one of the art forms and repeating themselves over and over, staying focused on one or two, made many of them moderately rich and famous. And they were very good at what they were doing.

An education in those days was relatively inexpensive, especially if you had served in the military and were receiving G.I. (government issued) benefits which took care of tuition, books and some art supplies plus $125. a month for rent, food and transportation. I drank 5 cents a quart home brew and barbecued horse meat fillet I bought at a pet store for 35 cents a pound.

I don't recall much concern at the time about social issues like race segregation in the South. In the fifties we were mostly white anglo saxons with a few Japanese students who had spent time in internment camps and one Jewish girl. One might read the resentment in the personality of Toshi Goto, who ended up teaching art at Jordan High School in North Long Beach where I had gone in the middle forties wanting someday to be an art teacher. She mentored one of my nephews. Willie Suzuki became student body president at Long Beach State and eventually taught painting in a community college in Los Angeles.

John Olsen was way ahead again and hired an African American man, Harold Jordan, from West Central Los Angeles to run department's check-out tool room. He commuted from Los Angles every day using public transportation. He lived in an old Victorian mansion and owned a Cadillac. He hosted a dinner at his home for about six of us art majors, which was a major memorable event.

Many young Twenty-first Century artists and designers seem to be focused on cartoony images, illustration and a popular kind of art we called kitsch. The kissing sailor and nurse on our waterfront is an example of public art going corny and kitschy. We seem to be moving away from art for the educated elite to art for the masses and the billionaires.

Bob Matheny
1929 - ?

It doesn't end here. Read more by Bob as he recounts the story of the Southwestern College art scene. You can also get up-to-date news and antics from Bob via his website and blog. I wonder if anyone took him up on this recent ADS activity? Matheny is a riot! I'm very grateful for the stories and insight.

Source: almostmaybe