Oakland curator Harvey Jones brought us the California Decorative Style 30 years ago, and again for his grand finale.
“I see art history not so much as a direct line, but more as a spiral. In time it comes around again and something from each period is added to it,” Harvey L. Jones mused on a recent morning in his sun-drenched offices in the Oakland Museum of California.
Sitting across from a rare object—a pop-influenced painting by ceramicist Robert Arneson—Jones is surrounded by overstuffed bookshelves. Entire rows are packed with exhibition catalogs and monographs, the weighty publications that combine scholarly essays with an encyclopedia of images from an artist’s career. Some, like the tomes on the California Tonalists, the plein air painters of the West, or proto-pop artist Mel Ramos, were written by Jones.
As the 72-year-old Jones prepares to retire from his 36-year run at the Oakland Museum, it’s clear that he’s been there at each recent rotation of art history advocating for an under-recognized California artist, opening our eyes to a forgotten chapter of the past.
“I have the greatest regard for Harvey’s ideas, for his curatorial expertise, his sense of humor,” says Philip Linhares, chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum and Jones’s boss. “While he specialized in the art of the 19th and early 20th century, his expertise goes way beyond that. This is the culmination of a brilliant career.” Linhares is referring to Jones’s swan song exhibit: “California as Muse: The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews.” Though it is his final curatorial project, it is his third time exploring the Mathewses.
Arthur and Lucia Mathews, married artists living in San Francisco, were at the forefront of the burgeoning Bay Area art scene at the turn of the 20th century. Arthur studied at the art academies of Europe. Lucia attended Mills College and the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art.
Immediately after the 1906 earthquake, Arthur began printing his own monthly journal Philopolis, to express his ideas ranging from a more pedestrian-friendly city with covered walkways to a tree-lined Acropolis atop Nob Hill. The couple joined a loose-knit group of architects and urban planners to reconceptualize San Francisco—turning it from a dingy port of call into the European-styled city it is today. All the while, the Mathewses were producing a vast body of art nouveau–styled oil paintings and commissioning murals and furniture, as well as operating a small publishing company.
The Mathewses developed very different bodies of work, collaborating on only a few occasions. Arthur’s work drew on historical references—combining heroes from Greek myths with the Romantics’ notion of the innocence of nature—to produce richly colored paintings that deftly featured classically-styled people cavorting in idyllic California settings. Lucia mostly shied away from the past and, with a great lucidity of stroke, focused on landscapes, floral studies, and portraits of her contemporaries.
Their fusion of early European modernism with the International Arts and Craft movement became known as the California Decorative Style. It is so prevalent here, especially in Berkeley—from murals on the U.C. campus to a large number of pieces still in private hands—that you no longer notice it. But that ubiquity was not always a given and we have Harvey Jones, in no small part, to thank for that.
Following Lucia’s death in 1955, ten years after Arthur’s, the Mathews estate passed through several hands. By the mid-1960s, Harold Wagner, a close friend and business associate of the couple, had gathered up a large portion of their work and felt it should be included in a museum’s permanent collection. The Mathewses were hugely out of fashion by then. Abstract expressionism and Bay Area figurative painting were all the rage. Fortunately, Wagner found an advocate in Paul Chadbourne Mills. Mills, then the visionary head of the Oakland Museum, was busy honing down a motley pile of objects into a shimmering collection of California-centric art. But he recognized the importance of the Mathewses and raised the funds to buy Arthur’s material. Wagner generously donated Lucia’s work.
When Jones became the Oakland Museum’s senior curator of art in 1971, his first assignment was to put together a Mathews retrospective. “I was very interested in making sure that we did well by them,” remembers Jones. “I was determined to show that the Mathewses were more than California artists, they were quintessential early 20th-century American artists.” The show opened to critical and public acclaim in 1972 and traveled to museums in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Milwaukee, New York, and Cincinnati.
When Jones talks about a Mathews work on view in the Oakland Museum’s gallery, his eyes light up and his gestures are lively. He points out Arthur’s use of the flat picture plane—a signature of early modernism—and both of the Mathewses combined use of color and mark to create a lyrical composition. What may have been an assigned task at a new job has over the years turned into a love affair.
Born in 1934, Harvey Jones grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. After high school, he joined the service because he didn’t think he was smart enough for college. While stationed in Europe, he used his leave time to travel and see as many museums and historic sites as he could. Upon his return home, he changed his mind and attended college. After graduating with honors in studio art from Colorado State University, he made his way to California for post-grad studies and to continue making sculpture. Though he did not plan on becoming a curator, Jones—who retains his relaxed Nebraska accent—does not see it as a big leap. “I’m able to compensate for the fact that I wasn’t a trained art historian, since I was a working artist. I have an understanding of why artists make art and their attitude toward it. I have a sense of color and form, and, of course, a knowledge of the creation process.”
Jones arrived at the Oakland Museum shortly after Mills had departed to head the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and based his exhibits on the philosophy that a good painting, American or European, is good forever; it may go in and out of fashion, but a bad painting will not improve with age.
At a time when most scholars were still not convinced there was even a valid American art, it was a radical notion that paid off. When California art was showcased at the Oakland Museum, Jones recalls, East Coast curators and art historians came, saw the work, and—especially with the 1972 Mathews retrospective—said, “‘What is this? Where did it come from?’ So I, along with the rest of the curatorial staff, continued the process of jump-starting California art that Mills had begun.”
Jones methodically worked his way through the list of emerging California artists, creating exhibitions and writing monographs, and then traveled them around the country or the world. “We were the first museum to do a show of California impressionism,” says Jones. “It was presumed there was no such thing, but I was aware there was material out there.”
In 1985, Harvey Jones decided to revisit the Mathewses’ work. This second show was timed to coincide with the reprinting of the first show’s catalog as a revised and updated hardbound coffee-table book by Peregrine Smith. More than a decade had passed since the Mathewses were rediscovered, and through the continuing efforts of Jones and the museum, there was a demand to see again the whole body of work created by Arthur and Lucia. The show’s attendance figures and touring schedule signified Jones’s discovery of a mother lode.
Now, 21 years later, art history has looped around again and Jones has returned to the Mathewses for his finale. In conjunction with “California as Muse: The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews,” he has produced a massive, masterfully researched and written catalog published by Pomegranate. “I don’t think my opinion of them has changed,” says Jones of his three-decade association with the Mathewses’ world. “In the intervening time, I have begun to appreciate more of their vision, especially Arthur’s civic pride and his efforts to make a culturally alert and beautiful environment. He believed that California was this utopia, and after the earthquake San Francisco was a blank slate that could be written on using ideas of planned architectural beauty. I still think they fit into an early modernist vein in California. But I have been able to fill some of the gaps in their shared history and since 1985 have found some more of their work.”
A highlight of the current exhibition is Arthur’s 1911 mural, “Vision of Saint Francis,” made for the Savings Union Bank. Pried off the walls of a San Francisco building 50 years ago, the canvas mural was recently discovered rolled up in storage at Sacramento’s Crocker Museum. After a nine-month restoration, the room-sized piece showcases Mathews’s engaging allegory painting on a grand scale.
As Jones prepares to take his leave, art lovers and California artists owe him a standing ovation. “I doubt there are many people alive today who have as much knowledge about the art of California as he does,” says Philip Linhares. “When you look at the gallery for California art in the Oakland Museum, you are seeing Harvey Jones.”
California as Muse: The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews, October 28, 2006 through March 25, 2007. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street in Oakland, (510) 238-2200; www.museumca.org.
Timothy Buckwalter is an artist living in Albany and The Monthly’s regular “Critic’s Choice” art columnist. His Web site is www.timothybuckwalter.typepad.com.