Friday, December 17, 2010

New article on Eva Slater

Eva Slater: The Death Valley Journey of a Modern Artist

Life in the Slater household in 1950s Orange County was like living in a mid-century modern postcard. John and Eva Slater and their kids, Dan and Miriam, lived in a custom-built A-frame house aligned with the North Star.

John Slater worked as an inventor and chief scientist at Autonetics—what could be more Space Age? Eva Slater, born in Berlin, Germany, in 1922, was part of an uber-cool modern art movement called Hard Edge.

Desert Rain

She and her artist friend Helen Lundeberg were both inspired by the geometry of the desert; both made trips to Death Valley and Palm Springs. Yet, only one of these artists went on to become famous.

“Everyone knows Helen Lundeberg. No ones knows my mom. She just walked away,” says Slater’s daughter Miriam, also an artist in Santa Barbara.

Why did Eva Slater leave the postcard life? Where did she go?

Today, Eva Slater is 88 and in poor health. She lives with her daughter, Miriam, who wants people to know her mother’s work and to recognize her forgotten place in California art. Hers is a story that leads deep into the California desert.

The Slater family in 1958

Eva Slater moved to the US from Berlin after the war and worked as a fashion illustrator in New York City. Later, while studying at the Art Center College of Design in LA, she met artists Frederick Hammersley, Helen Lundeberg and her husband, Lorser Feitelson, the acknowledged founder of Hard Edge. The painters frequently dropped in at the Slater household, adding even more style to the family’s stylish lives.

For a break from the city, the Slaters sometimes went on car trips to the desert: Utah, Arizona, Death Valley and Palm Springs. John would snap photos that Eva would later transform into abstract paintings. John himself painted traditional desert landscapes.

“The desert suited her (Eva’s) personality,” says Miriam. “She really liked the big space.”

In the Hard Edge world, landscapes were drawn from imagination rather than directly from nature. In Slater’s “Desert Rain”, for example, the painter started with John’s photo of a rainstorm and turned it into a sketch of only a few lines. Then it morphed again into a painting showing an abstract curtain of rain sweeping geometric buttes.

As Helen Lundeberg once said of a 1971 landscape painting: “It doesn’t represent anything any one ever saw on God’s earth or in the sky.”

Miriam Slater explains that Hard Edge is dependent on “rhythm, counterpoint, playing off opposites—that’s how you generate excitement.” She says the paintings were constructed with a lot of thought, describing a process almost like architecture.

The innovation was one of the first true LA exports to the modern art world, according to critic Benjamin Schwarz. He wrote in The Atlantic: “Southern California produced little noteworthy modern art before the austere, crisply defined Hard-Edge geometric paintings.”

So there was Eva Slater in the 1960s, exploring shapes and landscape, mixing at art world parties and enjoying the fruits of an OC high tech lifestyle. It all sounded pretty good. Why then did she change direction so completely? “We all kind of wondered,” Miriam says.

In the mid-1980s Eva Slater strolled into the Eastern California Museum in Independence, a little town tucked between the Sierras and Death Valley. She was there to inquire about local Indian basketmakers.

“She was wandering around the desert alone in an old vehicle,” says Bill Michael, then director of the museum. “Sometimes her husband would come along but she’d park him in a motel in Lone Pine. For years, all we talked about was baskets.”

Slater began researching a book she planned to write on the local basketmakers. Spending more and more time in Death Valley, she befriended Indians and sought the abandoned camps of the early artists. She was often alone but sometimes accompanied by her husband, John, daughter Miriam and Miriam’s husband Harry Carmean, also an artist who had been a student of Loser Feitelson.

“We would travel through the Panamint mountains, through the Saline Valley, and hike into desolate areas,“ says Miriam. Eva Slater frequented Darwin Wash, Hunter Canyon and the canyons above Lone Pine, searching for the basketmakers’ materials in their natural settings–willow, yucca root, devil’s claw, porcupine quill and woodpecker feathers. She’d walk for miles to find a rare junca that turned golden at a certain time of year.

In her former life, it sometimes took Slater a year to make a single painting; it took her ten to research and write her book: Panamint Shoshone Basketry: An American Art Form. “Her devotion to her chosen subject has never waned, wavered or abated,” wrote Armand Labbe of the Bowers Museum, in the introduction.

In the book jacket photo, Slater’s appearance contrasts with her sleekly modern look in the family’s early photos. Now past middle-age and suffering from heart problems, Slater has tousled graying hair and wears a faded, buttoned-up work shirt. To fellow travelers in Death Valley, she must have seemed to be yet another eccentric anthropologist out to plumb the secrets of the dunes.

Jane Wehrey, who met Slater in the early 1990s when the artist appraised her basket collection, says of her: “The word ‘patrician’ comes to mind. She was a lady; it was very apparent.”

To Wehrey, too, Slater talked little about her life in art. “I remember her saying something like: ‘That was another time. I’m done with that.’”

Eva Slater in Death Valley

As Slater’s life became more entwined with the Shoshone Indians, she enlisted a builder to make her a house in Lone Pine. Her city house had been aligned with the North Star; this house would be aimed at Mount Whitney. The interior would be one large loft-like room lined with 15-foot display cases for her baskets. In concept, it was a museum. “It was a house secondarily,” says Wehrey.

The builder, Francis Pedneau, was accustomed to demanding clients from the city, but Slater kept him jumping. First she wanted all the exposed nuts and bolts on the trusses painted one color. Then the color wouldn’t do at all and Pedneau had to start again.

Pedneau also talked baskets with Slater, and says she was fascinated by the utilitarian aspect of basket art. In LA, people made paintings to be seen and talked about. In the desert, he says, “they made baskets because they needed them.

Eva Slater, Mt. San Jacinto

Slater’s husband, John, had died by the time Slater moved her baskets into the Lone Pine house. She never had a chance to completely move in herself. Worsening heart problems forced her to give up her plan to move to the eastern Sierra. In 2001, she donated much of her basket collection to the Eastern California Museum.

Then-director Bill Michael had only known her as a basket fanatic, but now he had an opportunity to visit her home in LA. It was then, when he saw the paintings on the wall, that he began to realize Slater had a former glamorous life—one she never talked about.

The Lone Pine house sat empty for six years until one day in 1998. Maggie Wittenburg, then a producer for CBS News, was driving up Highway 395 for a needed getaway on the anniversary of a friend’s death. On impulse she stopped to look at the property.

It was peculiar from the street–the front of the house looked like the back. But when she looked in the windows she knew she was home: “Oh my God, somebody built my dream house.” Wittenburg left her life in LA and moved into Slater’s dream house, where she lives to this day. “It’s just the best place in the world,” she says.

Mt. San Jacinto sketch

Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson, both deceased, are again the talk of hip art circles. Hard Edge is coming back into vogue, especially in Europe. The Orange County Museum of Art launched a 2002 show that featured Hard Edge: “The Birth of the Cool”. The rock group Sonic Youth wrote a song honoring Lundeberg, a sure sign of having arrived in modern culture.

In contrast, there have been no songs written for Eva Slater. The house in Lone Pine still draws gawkers, but only because it’s unusual and not because the artist lived there. You have to search hard to find Slater’s paintings.

For now, the lasting testament to Slater’s life and career is her basketry book. It remains a classic because its one of the few to approach basketry as art, not strictly anthropology.

At first glance, Slater’s two lives appear to have no connection. But studying the baskets and paintings, you start to see the cord. The basketmakers began with the raw material of the land—the shapes of buttes and snakes. That was only for starters. Their essential job was to mix in emotion and imagination, to create something that was more than utilitarian.

Slater, too, began with a desert rainstorm and added a personal ingredient that helped make Hard Edge an international sensation.

When Slater describes the job of a basketmaker–“Composing and adjusting the rhythm, play of form, line, color and texture to express a human experience”–it sounds exactly like the task of a Hard Edge artist.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Photos of Eva Slater & her family in the 1960's

These are some photos of Eva Slater and her family taken in 1961. Her husband John Slater was an inventor and Chief Scientist at Autonetics. He loved art and painted himself (desert landscapes), plus he made exotic musical instruments such as the Egyptian harp shown above. The photos were all taken in the main studio of the house where Eva worked, which was a large A frame structure with a huge window which overlooked Orange County. The bottom photo shows John and Eva with their two children, Dan and Miriam.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Eva Slater painted by Harry Carmean

Eva Slater knew Harry Carmean for many years, starting in the 1950's at Art Center and in the 1980's she ended up being Harry Carmean's mother in law. Carmean first started collecting her work in the 1950's and owned the much admired Sun over the Ocean painting mentioned in the previous blog. The bottom painting by Carmean is of Eva holding her grand daughter Erin who is about a year old. The top painting is a portrait of Eva with her daughter Miriam Slater, who is also an artist.

Eva SLater's painting process

Eva Slater's paintings went through a lot of changes before they were finally finished as can be seen in the earlier version of "Sun over Ocean"above with its cadmium red triangles around the sun. (The photo was printed from a slide and the image was reversed.) In many of her paintings she often would render all the triangles in one color, only to repaint them out in another color later because everything had to be "just right". When it came to her art, Eva Slater was a perfectionist, especially in the area of color and this is one reason her paintings have such an exquisite palette - a lot of time and trial and error went into the making of each work. Some of Slater's paintings took over a year to complete because of the detail and relentless repainting but she always felt the results were worth the effort.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Eva's paintings in the Three Viewpoints exhibit in Santa Barbara

Eva Slater was in this "Three Viewpoints" exhibit with Harry Carmean and daughter Miriam Slater in Santa Barbara. All three artists work in completely different styles, Eva works in the Hard-edge manner, Miriam in a Japanese style and Harry works in a classic European style, however the underlying aesthetic principles used by these artists is the same and so there are just as many similarities as there are differences.

Panamint Shoshone basketry book by Eva Slater

Not only was Eva Slater an accomplished artist, she was also a scholar, writer and avid collector of American American basketry. In the seventies and eighties she put together a beautiful collection of baskets (that was later donated to museums) and wrote a well received book on basketry titled Panamint Shoshone basketry. The book is available at the Poetic Eye Gallery online. Slater also wrote for Sotheby's Auction House as well as other publications and was highly regarded in the field.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fire and the work of Eva Slater

The subject of fire is a recurrent theme throughout Eva Slater’s work and her life. From the powerful sun paintings she did on through her last painting of the mythological Icarus’ failed attempt to fly to the sun, its radiant force permeated her work. Fire was something Slater was familiar from her earlier days in Berlin, Germany during WW2 in which her house was burnt to the ground after getting hit by a bomb. Later her large and magnificent sun painting, considered one of her most important works, was destroyed in a fire in a collector’s home. Towards the end of her painting career she completed a series of drawings and paintings depicting Icarus with his wings melted by the sun, just before he fell to the earth to his death. Her fascination with fire can also be seen in her volcano paintings, which show their fiery interior displayed in a cross section of the earth. So, while Slater’s work is quite beautiful, there is also an underlying danger that smolders underneath.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eva Slater early life drawings

Eva Slater studied art and life drawing in Berlin, Germany (where top photo was taken) as well as Art Center in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Although she went on to paint landscapes and abstract hard-edge paintings, she had a solid traditional art training, which is one reason her later work was so good - it had a strong foundation. Slater's feeling for line and a more minimalist approach can be seen in her early works because the desire for simplicity was a part of her personality. A number of the abstract painters working in Slater's time (1950's and 60's), like Slater, had a good solid figurative background and it made for a more aesthetically sound abstract paintings. They really knew what they were doing back then.....

Friday, January 29, 2010

Eva Slater quotes on art

"The sum total of a work of art should be larger than its parts."

"You don't have to paint the desert to convey it."

"It is my aim to show ideas all people have in common rather than point out the differences".

"Color and form talk more strongly if the eye is not distracted by overwhelming subject matter".

"The only way to see something clearly is to step away from it."

"An evolutionary force within us wants to create."

"The essence of success is controversy."

"The purpose of art has to be more than getting attention".

"Knowledge without action is meaningless."

"Style is no substitute for substance."

"It is the weakest part of an artwork that determines the quality of its achievement."

"Every artist brings his soul to his work."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Helen Lundeburg and Eva Slater

Eva Slater and Helen Lundeburg were not only good friends, they were two kindred spirits when it came to their art. Both artists painted primarily landscapes, still lifes and imagery from the cosmos. (The painting above is by Slater and the painting below is by Lundeburg). The two artists were both active in the Hard Edge style of the 1950's and 1960's and both were known for their sophisticated compositions along with elegant and subtle colors. They both had studied with Lorser Feitelson who had imparted his sophisticated aesthetic principles to them (along with Harry Carmean, another student of Feitelson's), so with that much in common it was inevitable that they would end being in the same circle of artists.

The photo of Lundeburg and Slater was taken Lundeburg's show at the Tobey Moss Gallery in Los Angeles in the 1980's.

Helen Lundeburg quote about Eva Slater:

“Eva Slater’s art reveals an extraordinarily sensitive and poetic personality. Obeying the promptings of her creative personality, her exquisite craftsmanship explores the marvels of the hallucinatory world, attaining the unknown – the privileged moments of mystic ecstasy. She discovers the mystery itself, and makes communicable the inexplicable. Here is the autonomous world of pure lyricism.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nature was Eva Slater's inspiration for her art

Eva Slater drew her inspiration from nature. She and her husband John Slater, an inventor, would travel throughout the southwest and it was out in the wild, vast expanses that she would get her ideas. These photos were taken by John Slater on their trips and they show the correlation between what she saw and the subject matter of her work. The trunks of the trees in the forest in this photo were the basis of her black and white "Forest" series and the clouds with the areas of rain underneath them in the deserts inspired her "Desert Rain" pieces.

Artist's statement


By Eva Slater

When painting I like to make visible, through the use of color and form, an idea, rather than to show objects with the aim of achieving literal likeness.

The wish to work this way is based not only on the observation that different subject-matters are in vogue in different countries at different times but also on the belief that color and form talk more strongly if the eye is not distracted by overwhelming subject matter.

My strong urge to break down the picture area into small geometrical forms originated in the concept that everything consists of tiny cells or particles and that differences among all animate and inanimate objects are not based on differences in cells but rather on the way they are put together.

Just as nature arranges tiny cells in unending variety I like to use triangles (as a symbol for cells) and explore unlimited possibilities.

It is my aim to show ideas all people have in common rather than to point out the differences. I like to think of art as a force to unify, to let people meet in a common understanding, to find a common base to build on.

Maybe our form of painting has to be spiritual (reflecting the mind) to balance the over-materialism of our time. Or is just that, living with too many fashionable things around us, it would be meaningless to look at more things on the wall?

Welcome to the Eva Slater blog

This blog is about the art work of Eva Slater, a Hard Edge artist from Los Angeles who is also my mother. Having grown up with her, I learned a lot about art, and will share some of the things she taught and how she approached her own art in this blog. She was a core member of the Hard Edge movement of the 1950's and 60's, keeping company with artists such as Helen Lundeburg, Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley. She exhibited with them for many years until she left the scene in the 1960's and was then forgotten by the art world. The purpose of this blog is to reacquaint the art community with a wonderful artist whose work offers a unique approach to the modernistic Hard Edge art movement and who is now starting to be rediscovered. In recent years her work has been seen in some important contemporary exhibitions on the sixties art scene in Los Angeles. This time around, Eva Slater should rightfully be included in the movement that she helped bring about along with her friends Helen Lundeburg and Lorser Feitelson.