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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Arthur’s work drew on historical
references—combining heroes from Greek myths with the Romantics’ notion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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
of the canvas: Curator Harvey Jones sits in front of Arthur
F. Mathews’s “Youth” (oil on canvas, 1917),
one of the works shown in the retrospective of Arthur and Lucia
Mathews opening this month at the Oakland Museum. Photo by
show: Arthur F. Mathews’s “Monterey Cypress, ” (oil
on canvas, 1933). Collection of the Oakland Museum of California,
gift of Concours d’Antiques, Art Guild.