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REVIEW: The woman who brought modern art to Los Angeles, Galka Scheyer

Off-Ramp arts and culture correspondent Marc Haefele reviews “Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California,” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through September 25, 2017.

The jackdaw is one of the smartest birds around. In folklore, she is very acquisitive, picking up bright, beautiful, shiny things with which to line her nest. She is, in short, your basic avian art collector. In 1915, painter Alexei Jawlensky nick-named aspiring young artist Emilie Esther Scheyer “Galka,” Russian for “jackdaw.”  This was the name she wore for the rest of her life. Like her namesake, she was brilliant and spent her life surrounding herself with beautiful things—as well as the people who made them.

The Norton-Simon’s current show, “Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California,” includes about 100 works from some 500 in her personal collection. They range from pieces by Lyonel Feininger to Edward Weston, but the heart of the show is the assemblage of pictures by the quartet she called “The Blue Four,” of whom Jawlensky was the first: then came Feininger, Paul Klee, and Vasily Kandinsky. 

Galka  gave up her own artistic ambitions to present, promote and sell their work. In 1924, she came to California as a prophet of the Blue Four avant garde, first in San Francisco, whose taste she found to be too conservative, then in Los Angeles, where she remained for the rest of her life.  She lectured on, promoted, and publicized modern art as she socialized with celebrities like Joseph von Sternberg, John Cage, and Richard Neutra, who designed her house/gallery in Hollywood Hills. There she extended her collection to include another 44 painters and photographers. By the time of her 1946 death, she had acquired the best collection of modern art in the West—including Picasso, Nolde, Moholy-Nagy, Franz Marc, and Diego Rivera. By bringing so much great modern work to Los Angeles so early, she is credited with helping to make it the international art center it is today.

After her death, her collection went to the institution that is now the Norton Simon, which keeps most of it in storage. But every decade or so it treats us to a display (such as this one) of Galka’s artistic riches.

This Norton Simon show focuses on  work by her personal Four Horsemen of Modernity. For over 20 years, she promoted, lectured, networked, taught and gardened naked in the sun outside the Hollywood Hills Neutra house she paid for on the installment plan. And she even managed to sell some paintings, while complaining (loudly; she was famous for her boisterous personality) how the Southland’s  resistance to modern great art compelled her to live from hand to mouth in Depression Los Angeles. But she stayed her course because to her, disseminating the modern art that spoke directly of human feelings  was virtually her religious destiny.

The Feininger works are generally small woodcuts and water colors—showing his engaging geometries along with his sparse yet perfect color choices, particularly in the seascapes. There are 16 works of Alexei von Jawlensky, possibly the largest number to be seen this side of Europe. Jawlensky’s work lies on the boundary between Expressionism and Abstract art, but it also often evokes ancient Slavic icons. Klee and Kandinsky are now two of the most acclaimed of modern painters, and Scheyer acquired some of the best examples of their work. Few are familiar; all of them are very fine indeed.

MORE ART: Marc reviews PMCA's show on Kleitsch, who painted early Laguna

The “non-Blue” works here vary considerably in terms of interest and importance. They include Picassos, a Diego Rivera, and subtle work from Edward Weston, Franz Marc, Lazlo Moholy Nagy, and Emil Nolde, whose affectionate profile of Galka is the show’s key image.  

It is a well mounted and appealing show. But it leaves one hungering for more. Why can’t the Norton Simon find a venue where, if only once, Galka’s entire collection could be shown to the public? Although it may no longer be the best collection of modern art in the West, it is still a very fine one, assembled not just out of sheer acquisitiveness -- like most private collections -- but of love itself. It’s been in Pasadena for over 60 years. We now deserve to see it in full.