Sheets and Siqueiros: Los Angeles, 1932

October 13, 2010

Recently I couriered Millard Sheets’ Angel’s Flight (1931) across town to the Autry National Center, where it is included in the groundbreaking new exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, the first examination of the seven pivotal months the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros spent in Los Angeles in 1932. I was on hand to make sure LACMA’s painting was safely unpacked, installed and prominently featured. Angel’s Flight is one of our most important paintings, so we rarely lend it. But this loan request was especially compelling: visitors would be able to see Sheets’ masterpiece in the context of Siqueiros’ landmark contemporaneous work in Los Angeles, where both painters knew each other and achieved artistic and professional breakthroughs in the space of a few short months.

Angel's Flight, Millard Sheets, 1931. Copyright: Millard Sheets Estate.

In 1931, Sheets, just 24 years old, completed Angel’s Flight, a dramatically composed and inventive view of downtown L.A. that refers to, but does not picture, the electric cable railway that used to carry pedestrians in downtown Los Angeles to the top of Bunker Hill between 1901 and 1969. Entered by invitation (his first) into the 30th Annual International Exhibition of Paintings held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Sheets submitted Angel’s Flight, which was praised by critics nationwide, including at the New York Times, which reproduced the work. In early 1932, the painting was back in Los Angeles for the Thirteenth Annual Painters and Sculptors Exhibition at LACMA’s forerunner, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, where it won the $100 painting prize. All of this caught the attention of Mrs. L. M. Maitland of Beverly Hills, who bought the painting for the museum. The Los Angeles Times reported in May: “Famed Work of Art Wins Home Here,” and Mrs. Maitland stated “I gave the museum the picture first of all because I like it, and secondly because I believe Los Angeles art patrons should buy the work of our own artists here.”

It is entirely possible that once Siqueiros was in L.A. by June of 1932 he saw and was impressed by Sheets’ unique and masterful vision of the downtown L.A. urban scene pictured in Angel’s Flight and now part of the museum’s permanent collection.  Then he actually met Sheets while a guest professor at Chouinard Art School, where Siqueiros taught a course on fresco painting, a class that Sheets went on to teach that fall. Siqueiros’ soon formed his “Bloc of Painters,” a group of American artists then active in L.A. that included Sheets, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Philip Guston, and many others. The Bloc of Painters helped Siqueiros complete three murals in L.A.: one for a private residence in Pacific Palisades, Street Meeting, right on Chouinard’s wall, Tropical America on Olvera Street. But the public murals proved highly controversial: the little known histories of the intertwined careers of the Bloc of Painters and the art of Siqueiros as well as the legacy of Siqueiros’ near deportation and his 1932 Los Angeles murals are uncovered in this fascinating and must-see exhibition.

Austen Bailly

Geocaching Angel’s Flight

November 20, 2008

Recently I was introduced to geocaching. It’s a simple premise: to find cleverly hidden “caches” with global coordinates as your main clue. Caches usually contain a logbook and are hidden worldwide. Ranging in size, they can be as large as Tupperware containers or as small as a box of mints, or even minuscule enough to look like a bolt. Handheld GPS navigators are extremely helpful—but beware! The caches in urban areas tend to be extremely well-disguised, and some nanocaches like these are quite inconspicuous:

In one afternoon I explored various parts of downtown L.A., finding quaint gardens and parks sprawled in between massive skyscrapers. One of my favorite caches that day was located near the funicular Angels Flight, said to be the world’s smallest railway. I stared down from the platform, and Millard Sheets’s eponymous work immediately came to mind.


Millard Sheets, Angel’s Flight, gift of Mrs. L. M. Maitland


In his painting, Sheets depicted his own impression of the Bunker Hill area by adding additional characters in the background, playing with the perspective of the hilly turf, even removing the funicular and replacing it with a meandering staircase that emphasized the steep trek of those who typically could not afford the fare.

My geocaching experience was similar to the viewers of Sheets’s painting. As I looked out that afternoon, I saw lovers in the park, men on benches warmed by the sun, and people walking their dogs—everyone was enjoying the lovely weather of the day. Essentially, like those who view Angel’s Flight, I got a charming peek into Bunker Hill as I hunted for the cache, no doubt the intent of the geocacher who cleverly hid it.

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art

Stay tuned tomorrow for more on Millard Sheets…

%d bloggers like this: