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By Lillian Sizemore (lilliansizemore.com)
In May 2012, when the renowned Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles was slated to close its doors for good, the owners ran a huge liquidation sale—the entire contents of the hotel went up for grabs. The hotel changed hands over the years, originally the Statler—then Statler-Hilton, then Omni, and finally the Wilshire Grand— remained one of the “see and be-seen” hotspots of the midcentury atomic age.
During the clearance sale, a puzzling discovery was made: a fifteen-foot mosaic mural commissioned by The Los Angeles Petroleum Club was found behind some old wood paneling. The Club had at one time maintained a posh member’s suite at the hotel. This is where the intrigue and mosaic sleuthing begins.
In 1892, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield drilled the first oil well in Los Angeles. Today, rigs can still be seen bobbing up and down in the parking lots of big box stores. State officials count 3,071 active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles County, 842 of them offshore. The City of Long Beach still boasts its own “oil fraternity” club, which was established in 1954.(1)
Los Angeles was a major petroleum producer — a great deal of money was made and the titans of industry spent their new-found fortune on custom interior design to fluff their corporate nests with luxury. In the process, they commissioned artwork and murals that would commemorate their endeavors for posterity. A survey of midcentury California art reveals a wellspring of paintings, sculptures and mosaic murals depicting the predominance of oil in the Southlands. In 1950, when the Statler Hotel opened to great fanfare as LA’s swankest hotel, it became the perfect destination for the Los Angeles Petroleum Club to maintain a presence.
Amongst modern architects of the 1950s and 60s, mosaic muralism was beginning to peak as a preferred artistic medium to envision a bright, industrious future. Abstraction and minimalism lent itself to a broad audience, without having to depict the human form specifically; it spoke through the appeal of color and form. Italian glass and stone have for centuries been employed to convey richness, power, and stability in the architectural setting and these materials appeared once again in service to the cause. The post-war lifting of international trade restrictions made these materials more accessible and affordable to the American architect. (2) “Contemporary architecture,” Eugene Clute wrote in the May 1950 Progressive Architecture, “can gain much through the use of mosaic in a modern way to relieve the plainness of surfaces with enrichment at focal points, increasing the effectiveness of the buildings.” (3)
Fast forward to December 2012. The Statler-Hilton/Wilshire Grand announces its closure and the liquidation sale. Enter into our mosaic mystery Gregory Johnson, a Los Angeles-based interior designer and modern art collector. Curious to see what modernist treasures might be found in the hotel’s inventory, he hits the liquidation sale.
The sale continued for many weeks. On one visit, Johnson found a mysterious mural buried behind layers of old wood paneling. The imagery showed what appeared to be the Port of Los Angeles, and scenes of oil refineries, oil derricks and ships. The handmade mosaic done in a classic modernist abstract style appeared to be squarely a product of the 1950s. The glass tiles were covered with layers of cigarette smoke and years of yellowed funk. No identifying marks or signature were visible. The old Petroleum Club had been converted into the hotel’s storage area at least since the 1980s and the staff knew nothing about it. Mr. Johnson was keen to purchase the mural and wanted to find out who made it and its possible value. Enter Miss Marble: Mosaic Detective. Johnson contacted me during the discussions with the Hotel, and the mosaic investigation began.
On-site inspection found that the mural was not embedded into the wall but attached to a plywood backing. This was bolted and mounted onto the wall studs which allowed it be removed safely without damaging the substrate and surface of the mural. A flurry of emails ensued with professional mosaic installers and contractors to discuss and advise on the best system for timely removal as the hotel was scheduled for eminent closure and demolition.
The piece measured 6′ 10″ tall x 15′ wide, mounted in four sections. A small crew worked to find around 30 spots where a magnet showed some sign of attraction to the mosaic to identify where bolts had been used to attach the panels to the studs. These points were marked with blue masking tape. Once those areas were identified it became obvious where pieces of glass tile had been placed over the bolt, and could be popped off to reveal the bolt head hidden underneath.
In the midst of our investigation, a second mosaic mystery at the Wilshire Grand began. A colleague who volunteers for architectural preservation group sent me a 1952 LA Times article about the opening of the Statler hotel. The caption in the story describes the “colorful mosaic walls in a section of the lobby”.
Apparently, this mosaic mural had been covered over with paneling during a 1970s remodeling. The construction crew working on site made preparations to uncover what treasure might lie behind. They also made smaller cuts on the lobby entrance columns that revealed that the they had also been clad in a monochrome mosaic.
The liquidation company staged a dramatic live, “Geraldo Rivera Reveal” with an on-camera demolition of the wall to reveal a possible mosaic. See “Looking for Buried Treasure” for the outcome.
America’s Mosaic Movement
Whenever a mosaic is found in Los Angeles, the foremost question arises: “Is this mosaic by Millard Sheets?” Millard Sheets was a prolific artist, teacher, and design director. His oeuvre is becoming increasingly well known in modernist circles. The Sheets Studio established the brand identity of Howard Ahmanson’s Home Savings and Loan Banks through the use of masterful artworks in mosaic, tapestry, stained glass and sculpture. (4) His paintings and sketches are now highly valued if available through galleries. (5)
What is less known, is that besides Sheets, there were many active artist-mosaicists actively engaged in the architectural process during the 1950s and 60s in the United States. These artists were experimenting with mosaic techniques, propelled by the success and exposure of the WPA muralist movement and international expos. By the time Millard Sheets began his mosaic workshop in Claremont, California in 1960, dozens of architectural firms were already using large-scale mosaic murals for banks, insurance companies, airports, federal buildings, and libraries across the country. One prominent example was architect Welton Becket engaging Joseph L. Young to create a large-scale cantilevered glass mural for the Los Angeles Police Facilities Building, in 1955. (6) This mural depicts the oil industry of Los Angeles, along with many other notable L.A. landmarks.
Besides Sheets, there were other notable California-based mosaicists working in an emerging abstracted modernist style during the mid-1950s: Ray Rice, Jean Varda, Richard Haines, and Ben Mayer. Nonetheless, their work did not match the style found in the Statler Petroleum mural. Our detective work continued.
Don’t Mess with Texas
Digging deeper into the nationwide Petroleum Club phenomenon, I was able to identify an artistic collaboration between Texas Modernists Paul Hatgil and Michael Frary (d. 2005). In 1955, on behalf of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, the architecture firm of Brooks & Barr commissioned Hatgil and Frary to do an 8 ft. x 10 ft. entrance mural titled “Panorama” for the KTBC TV building, in Austin, TX. It is here we begin to see strong similarities in style with the Los Angeles Petroleum Club piece. We note the same abstracted linear depiction of a cityscape – the montage-like architecture and the river and bridges.
Frary’s bio (7) indicates a keen interest in engineering. Add this to his paintings of industrial landscapes, with supporting documentation from Hatgil’s comprehensive vita (8) (who was a noted ceramicist, mosaicist, and sculptor), we can begin to deduce that they were working together in this time period and had connections to the Petroleum Club network through the University of Texas and the architectural firm.
The Petroleum Club of Texas had commissioned a painted mural for their penthouse club in Houston in 1950. The atomic-style mural was designed and executed by “the father of Texas Modernists”, Seymour Fogel. (9) Fogel was a trained muralist, having worked as an assistant to Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera in the late 1930s. Fogel was a sought-after muralist working on projects from 1939 World’s Fair to the Federal Building Mural, in Fort Worth, Texas in 1964. He brought Hatgil and Frary on to his faculty at the UT. Petroleum Clubs based in other cities seeking artist connections for their penthouse interior design, would have certainly located talent through Fogel. Frary and Hatgil’s style and interests in the industrial landscape seemed perfect for our Los Angeles mystery mosaic. I thought I had nailed it.
Needle in a Haystack
Back in Los Angeles, Mr. Johnson was busy cleaning up his new acquisition. Lo and behold, underneath decades of Mad Man cigarette smoke, he found a faint grey tiled signature, belonging to one John Smith. Really? It might as well have been “John Doe”. The hunt for a needle in the haystack began.
After learning the name of the artist, I began to hunt for mosaics by “John Smith”. To my surprise, I located a 1956 mosaic for a cruise ship cafeteria, attributed to a John Smith. Hallelujah! Mr. Johnson continued to research as well. We have identified that John Smith was an active California artist, contributing to the burgeoning craft movement mainly through his works in tapestry. Johnson found references to his inclusion in the Pasadena Art Museum catalogs California Design/eight 1964 and California Design/nine 1965. (10) It seems he was not well known outside of California. Could the cruise ship mosaic be designed and executed by the same John Smith?
Inspecting the Petroleum mural closely, we can say that John Smith was not technically skilled as a trained mosaicist. My research suggests that artists working in mosaic during this era claimed to be “self-taught” and characterized mosaic as “not that hard” to do. In the case of the Petroleum mural, a water-soluble adhesive oozes out between the gaps covering the tops of the tesserae (pieces). Johnson reported that it turned white on contact with water. I consulted with Michael Van Enter, a Texas art conservator who has worked on hundreds of midcentury mosaics, and he suggests that the adhesive is most likely Elmer’s glue or some kind of hide or hoof glue. It was not uncommon for midcentury mosaic to be mounted on unprepared plywood with white glue, a practice that is eschewed today. From a tile-setting standpoint, the work exhibits a hurried “hand”, identified by awkward and misshapen cuts, with uneven and scattered placement of the tesserae/tiles.
On the other hand, the artful composition of the design, and the material surface shows a clear and knowledgeable use of color and texture. The flicker effect of color juxtaposition, the multi-level texture surface, excite the eye, along with the division of space the composition provides for a lively and attractive surface play. A trained textile artist like Mr. Smith would have the transferable skills to serve well in designing a mosaic: color blending and knowing how elements are seen from a distance are skills that provide a natural crossover between the two media. Smith could have figured out how to nip the tiles from a how-to mosaic book, which were widely available and popular at the time. He might have asked a colleague who was actively making mosaics for a couple of tips. Judging by the slapdash setting style, it appears he set the mural himself, without contracting a professional mosaicist to execute the design.
The Los Angeles Petroleum Club Mural provides us another valuable window into the atmosphere and use of modern mosaic in the American architectural landscape. Its physical evidence expands on the emerging level of expertise amongst American artists, experimenting with a new medium. It’s content delivers a glimpse into Los Angeles’s recent past, economics and built environment. The discovery of the Statler Hotel’s Petroleum Club mural, along with the loss of the lobby work, continues to emphasize the cultural relevance, significance and importance of preserving our American mosaic legacy. We can’t always depend on cultural institutions to swoop in and preserve our visual history. We are fortunate when an individual like Gregory Johnson takes personal initiative. Sometimes, there’s treasure where you least expect it.
Thank you to Gregory Johnson, Kevin Vogle, Katie R. Edwards, Russell Tether, Qathryn Brehm, Timothy Ronk, and Greg Andrews.
Lillian Sizemore, April 2013
- To see more of Lillian Sizemore’s mosaic mysteries on MAN click here: http://www.mosaicartnow.com/artists/lillian-sizemore/
- Lillian Sizemore’s Website here: http://www.lilliansizemore.com
Selected subsequent media coverage:
- Ikono http://ikono.org/2013/04/the-mystery-oil-mural-at-a-grand-hotel-in-los-angeles/
- Interview on Radio Station 89.3 KPCC http://www.scpr.org/programs/offramp/2013/04/12/31330/photos-amazing-mosaic-mural-discovered-inside-down/
- Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2013/04/16/the-secret-history-of-a-hidden.html
- Modernica http://blog.modernica.net/inspire-me-monday-mid-century-murals-in-los-angeles/
- Television Station KCET http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/landofsunshine/writing-on-the-wall/monthly-mural-wrap-a-dozen-tags-for-march-2013.html
- Curbed LA http://la.curbed.com/archives/2013/03/1950s_la_petroleum_club_mural_unearthed_at_wilshire_grand.php
- History, Los Angeles http://historylosangeles.blogspot.com/2013/03/lost-mosaic-lost-mosaicicst.html
FOOTNOTES AND RESOURCES
- Long Beach Petroleum Club http://www.lbpetroleumclub.com/aboutus.php
- See more on the topic of mosaic imports in Lillian Sizemore’s article about the midcentury Picasso mosaics
- Art Goes to Pieces, by Dave Weinstein. CAModern, Eichler Network, http://www.eichlernetwork.com/article/art-goes-pieces?page=0,1
- Adam Arenson’s blog is a repository for his research on the Home Savings brand adamarenson dot com.
- Millard Sheets official website is maintained by his son, Tony Sheets. millardsheetsart.com.
- See theworldofmosaic.com – Lillian Sizemore’s recent project, a 1956 film restoration includes footage on the making of the Police Facilities Bldg. mural.
- Michael Frary: http://www.feldergallery.com/Artist/Frary/frary.html
- Paul Peter Hatgil: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~hatgil/history.html
- In 1946, Fogel accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin and became one of the founding artists of the Texas Modernist Movement. At this time he began to devote himself solely to abstract, non-representational art and executed what many consider to be the very first abstract mural in the State of Texas at the American National Bank in Austin in 1953.
- Stewart, V. (1955, Oct 09). MOSAICS: A western renaissance. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), pp. L17.¬†