Dr. Gail Levin writes: "Stanton Macdonald-Wright, born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1890, from childhood on was to live a life of displacement and exploration, a pattern often found in the lives of modernist artists. A number of his aesthetic engagements would be shared by his brother Willard Huntington Wright, less than three years older, who became a writer and art critic. Their father, who managed luxury hotels, provided his two sons with private tutors, including painting lessons for Stanton, who was only ten when the family moved to Santa Monica, California. From the age of sixteen, he began taking classes at the Arts Students League of Los Angeles. Expelled the next year from military school over allegations of vandalism, young Stanton married at the age of seventeen. In 1909, he left for Europe with his new wife and mother-in-law, settling in Paris, where he took a studio and continued to study art. He met Morgan Russell, another young expatriate American artist, who introduced him to Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart, a Canadian artist and color theorist, with whom both began to study.
Inspired by European modernism, including the work of the Futurists and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the two young Americans published aesthetic declarations that they designed to lay claim to a theoretical space for their work. Together, Russell and Macdonald-Wright coined the term 'Synchromism,' using Greek elements meaning 'system of combining color'; and they launched their own movement in Munich and Paris with shows in 1913.
They publicized these two shows with posters and catalogues featuring their own bold theoretical declarations. For the Munich show at Der Neue Kunstsalon their statement dismissed the 'brown and white of the Cubists' and promoted 'gradations of color' to express 'the depth of space.' They also argued that 'The Futurists naively believed they had taken a big step forward by subordinating the static element in favor of movement. But static and dynamic qualities in art are two forces that supplement each other, and their concurrence permits us to feel one or the other strongly.' For the Paris show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, the two stressed their emphasis on color as the generating force of painting and their attempt to create tactile sensation in their paintings.
After the shows in Paris and Munich, Macdonald-Wright separated from his wife and moved to New York City at the end of 1913. By early March 1914, the Carroll Galleries there opened an Exhibition of Synchromist paintings by Morgan Russell and S. Macdonald-Wright. The artists claimed in this catalogue to have solved 'the problem of the inherent nature of colors in their relationship to form,' to have made 'a close study of the harmonious relation of these colors to one another,' and to have developed the ability to 'convey the notion of time in painting.'
By 1916 Macdonald-Wright had established enough presence on the New York art scene that he was one of the sixteen men - including Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, Morgan Russell, and William Zorach (who shared his space with his wife and others) - featured in the important group exhibition at the Anderson Galleries, The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, for which Macdonald-Wright's brother Willard was both an organizer and catalogue essayist. Macdonald-Wright noted in his artist's statement: 'I strive to make my art bear the same relation to painting that polyphany [sic] bears to music. Illustrative music is a thing of the past.' What relates to music of course is polyphony (multiple voicing from Greek); his 'polyphany' (Greek: multiple appearances or visions) applies literally not to a style of music but to his own art. His mind gropes towards a synesthetic metaphor identifying visual and musical art.
The next year, Alfred Stieglitz gave Macdonald-Wright a solo show at '291,' the Fifth Avenue address and moniker for his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. By March 1918, Macdonald-Wright was the subject of another one-person show, this time at the Daniel Gallery in New York. However, on October 12, 1918, he left to live and paint in Southern California, where he would become active as a teacher, work as a muralist, and serve as an important influence on modernist painters.
Macdonald-Wright painted the present Synchromy in 1918 before he left New York. He considered it such an important exemplar of his work that he chose to include it in his retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1956. It is close in palette and shares the table motif with Synchromy No. 3 of 1917 (Brooklyn Museum of Art). Though he dated Synchromy the same year as his Oriental Synchromy in Blue-green (Whitney Museum of American Art), Macdonald-Wright later wrote on a form filled out in 1953 for the Whitney that Oriental Synchromy was actually completed in 1917. He also revealed that "Oriental Synchromy is based - in its forms, arrangement and subject matter - on an opium smoking group."
Such a hint about veiled forms and subjects prompts inquiry into what may lie behind the partially visible forms in Synchromy itself. If we take Macdonald-Wright at his word -- the word he coined, polyphany--he may have meant to enable his viewers to see more than an illustration of any one scene; in fact, he may have intended to elicit multiple readings.
Upon examination, beneath the prismatic color planes, there appears to lurk the figure of a woman, her long green hair visible behind her right ear; she seems to wear a hat with a round brim and a raised shape in the center. Posed at a table, she holds a raised glass in her left hand. Her right hand appears to hold a cylindrical object, green on its round end and blue along the cylinder, apparently a bottle from which she pours into the glass she holds in her other hand. Beneath this object appears the head of a man, complete with an orange ear and reddish-orange hair on the top of his head. A viewer in search of a story would need to connect these visual hints: the figures of a male and female in a café setting. No specific documentation has yet come to light that would definitively identify the painting's precise subject matter. Indeed, this painting had slipped from public view and from study for several decades.
Though a café scene brings to mind cubist compositions by his contemporaries, around the time that Macdonald-Wright produced, inscribed, and signed (on the verso) this canvas, he often referred to the work of old master artists, which was quite the fashion among his contemporaries. His colleague Morgan Russell made several paintings and sketches after Michelangelo as did Thomas Hart Benton, another friend. Macdonald-Wright showed his Synchromate en vert (1912, now lost), which repeated the form of Michelangelo's Dying Slave in the 1913 exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune. Macdonald-Wright's Sunrise Synchromy in Violet (Carnegie Museum of Art) of c. 1917-1918 took both its pose and theme from Michelangelo's figure of Dawn from the Medici Chapel in Florence. Around this same time, Macdonald-Wright also made studies for synchromies after figures in paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. Much later, in his murals for the Santa Monica Public Library, painted in 1934 for the Federal Public Works of Art Project, he would include Michelangelo's image of the Rebellious Slave.
In Synchromy, Macdonald-Wright summed up his experiments with using color to express depth and movement in space. His collaboration with Morgan Russell behind him, he had continued to explore the depiction of the heroic figure through planes of color. He spent his last months in New York City in dire financial straits, teaching art to young women.
During the first years of his return to California, Macdonald-Wright began to apply Synchromist principles to his paintings of the local landscape (Cañon Synchromy, ca. 1919, Frederick R. Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota), of the flora (Trumpet Flowers, 1919, The Museum of Modern Art), and even to the new technological development of the airplane (Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow Orange, 1920, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Soon, however, other interests began to dominate Macdonald-Wright's restless imagination. He first looked to Asian art and adopted Chinese themes. Eventually, beginning in the 1950s, he traveled frequently to Japan, where he spent months at a time, absorbing that culture with his usual gusto. Yet Macdonald-Wright's most enduring impact came through his youthful experiments with color, which he and Russell so immodestly designated as Synchromism, the movement that they founded while still young men in their twenties."
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