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.¬†
Attention class! Miss Marble (aka Lillian Sizemore) has spotted a wordy trend in contemporary mosaic and she’s going to use it to give us a grammar lesson. The good news is, there is no pop quiz at the end, so all you have to do is enjoy! Nancie
by Lillian Sizemore
UPDATED for Mosaic Art NOW from original post of November 28, 2011 All photos by author, Lillian Sizemore unless otherwise noted.
Recently, I’ve noticed there’s a contemporary art trend of using words or letters— language— as the mosaic itself. A ‘double entendre’ if you will. Entendre is French for “to hear”, So double entendre means a phrase that can be taken in more than one way… And there you have the irony of meaning. Do we hear or see mosaics?
Music, Muse, Mosaic, Museum…all derive from the same Greek root word, μουσική for music, a divine order…and mosaics are called l’arte musivum, the Art of the Muses.
Class dismissed. But, before you head for the cafeteria, have look at these:
Frost’s pieces, made entirely out of cast-off keyboard keys, discarded by an array of users from individuals and small businesses to financial institutions, government offices and Fortune 500 companies, can cover whole rooms. Each key has a unique history and bears the imprint of the thousands of taps by countless users.
See more of Sarah Frost’s work here.
Above, Samantha Holmes won a 2000 Euro prize for this piece for the Use of Unconventional Technique and Materials. Seen at the GAEM exhibition at Ravenna Mosaico 2011, this old wooden sample board normally used for mosaic samples of colored glass instead contains folded and bound papers bearing her private thoughts. Read an excellent recount of this work and the backstory from the artist on MosaicArt Now here.
In the photo below, Raniero Bittante’s multi-media mosaic-riff seen at the BIBLIOMOSAICO exhibition in Ravenna. The exhibition, conceived by Rosetta Berardi invited many mosaic artists to create mosaic ‘books’. Using three copies of the Repubblica Italiana, Italy’s constitution, each book is embellished with red, white and green smalti (colors of the Italian flag) and representing the fragmentation of unity – the wads of chewed bubble gum, the cohesion. The “mosaic work” was enhanced by a tiny video screening of citizens blowing bubbles – then the gum was used to stick the pieces (tesserae, in Italian) to the book. A tribute and reflection on Italy’s 150th year.
Referencing language in this page-turner of a mosaic, Jo Braun asks you to read between the lines. She says:
“It’s an experimental blending of contemporary mosaic and the hand-written essay of the tedious variety that school children dread.” – Jo Braun
I spotted this work at the KokoMosaico studio in Ravenna: a book filled with peering mosaic eyes.
Could these be any more adorable? photo via naturallyeducational.com Even the little ones are getting into the act…These DIY coasters employ Scrabble tiles into a heart-melting mosaic gift. What a fun Summer craft activity! See how to make them here.
For more of Lillian Sizemore’s great writing on MAN, go here. You can connect with her to on Twitter http://twitter.com/Musiva, either of her websites: Lillian Sizemore.com and San Francisco Mosaic.com or her blog Lillian Sizemore’s Mind’s Eye
With this article we introduce Ravenna-based art curator, critic, teacher, guide and blogger Luca Maggio who will be a regular contributor here on MAN. In his blog, lucamaggio.wordpress.com, Maggio covers the very center of the emerging Ravenna mosaic scene. His writing is always thought-provoking and we are thrilled to have him aboard. Many thanks to MAN’s Miss Marble, Lillian Sizemore, for the translation. Enjoy – Nancie.
One feature that has always fascinated me about Felice Nittolo’s artistic path is that he is both abstract and essential. Take his youthful and programmatic manifesto of 1984, A-Ritmismo (A-Rhythmism) or the explosive pyrotechnics in his dripping mosaic patterns, or the andamento (flow) of his oblique, mini-cuneiform tesserae (pieces) of Sumerian ancestry which are so neatly ordered and spaced one to the other.
Or even in his choice of three dimensional solids like the sphere and the cone completely covered with mosaic . . .
Or in recent years, the diverse series Vestigia (Remains) in which the work becomes a ghost of itself, memories of the mosaic itself, obscured and almost withheld. These are explorations into lyrical subtleties that – over time – have led to numerous and consistent collaborations with the Japanese world and Zen in particular.
Compare and contrast this work to his forays into the Pop genre. Here, Nittolo’s inherent playfulness is aroused by the symbols of the mainstream Western culture as he experiments with unions of unusual materials. The West’s obsession with designer sneakers and brand name fashion inspired the mosaic coat he created at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle in the 1990s.
Later, Nittolo would summon Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles, Nittolo heating and remolding bottles and arranging them on a wall where they would become a series of tesserae themselves, each in turn containing real glass mosaic smalti pieces, much of them red like the logo of the famous soft drink – a singular transaction of assimilation and conceptual exchange between form-color-identity – at the origins of glass – both container and contained.
So, Nittolo must have said, “Why not?” when he was put to the test to make a mosaic art-car for the “Ravenna 1007″ project. Here was another Pop symbol of the 1900s and our time. And not just any old car, but the legendary Fiat 500.
The result has been exhibited both in Tokyo and Turin during the Fiat 500 50th anniversary celebrations and launch of the new model.
But the story does not end here.
Yes, because Nittolo is an artist who not only likes to plunge down the river of creativity, he also likes to head upstream – maybe aboard his Kayak “Pilchuck 2007″, a work almost completely covered with mosaic.
All this demonstrates once again Nittolo’s inspiration, his passion for mixed media and his experimental approach which is free from preconceived notions. He is fully coherent that his idea is “expanded” by mosaic tesserae: ”What is mosaic?” he told me in an old conversation, “a series of pieces, words or parts, a wide variety, ordered not according to a predetermined pattern, but arhythmic.”
The arhythmia – described in his poetic manifesto of 1984 – focuses Nittolo’s work within the interstices, the intervals altogether varied and constant, the spaces filled with air and light, the pieces individually cut in a manner that is never the same but similar – occupying three-dimensional surfaces or wall pieces, often accompanied by a metallic half-moon, a kind of Zen artist’s signature, echoed in the doors of the Fiat 500 and in his small reinterpretations of the mosaics, applying a lightness to the Pop object that is both Eastern and personal.
Speaking of the East, in more than a few works on paper this Eastern influence is present.
Nitollo uses red ink and a special Japanese calligraphy brush to mark out a symbol that is no longer a paint-letter, but the transformation of an ideogram of the symbol-automobile, further influencing the calligraphic gestures, a product of time and concentration and rapid execution – the metaphoric result of Pop.
Kant said, “Art is a serious game,” and Nittolo enjoys multiplying the subject in question onto painted pottery – some small, some large – a kaleidoscope of Fiat 500 multiples, but they are different every time. The mosaic itself, moreover, the tesserae themselves are in this sense, and by their nature, multiples and the work of the artist is to reveal their hidden spirit and latent possibility.
In any case, a small golden Fiat 500 shows up on one of the black Vestigia on an ectoplasmic fixture of washed out memory and faint imprints, here appears a pop of gold – the mini 500 which, in the end, is a ghost of itself, of a model and an era. Today we can say, at least in the collective memory, it’s happy (felice).
Luca Maggio January 14, 2012
NOTE: The text presented here is included in the book Tessere – Words of Glass and Stone (2011, Angelo Longo, Publisher, Grafical Ltd., Printer) and is a partial rewrite of an article regarding Nitollo’s Fiat which also appeared in Luca’s blog on August 26, 2010.
- Website for Felice Nittolo here.
- Tessere: Words of Glass and Stone available through Tabularasa here
- PDF of Nittolo’s paper A-Ritmismo (A-Rhythmism) from 1984 including English translation here
- Luca Maggio’s blog here
This summer, the West Coast is hot, hot, hot with fine art mosaic exhibits. No sooner does “Cutting Edges” in Oregon close than “Tesserae: The Art of Mosaics” opens in Long Beach at the 2nd City Council Art Gallery + Performance Center (2CC). The exhibit runs from June 27th through August 5th.
This is the first-ever juried all-mosaic exhibition in the Los Angeles area. 122 entries were received, 51 of which were selected for the exhibition. We’ve seen the list of artists represented, and it includes some of the finest from across the US.
An Artist Reception, open to the public is slated for this Saturday, July 11th from 7 – 9 p.m.
Juror Lillian Sizemore (http://www.sfmosaic.com/) tells us that this show has been in the making for over a year. The effort was spear-headed by two Long Beach mosaic artists, Luz Mack-Durini (http://www.l-durini.com/) and Dawn Mendelson (http://www.daybreakmosaics.com/).
Right: “Gelato” Carl and Sandra Bryant.
The grouping above is an example of what juror Sizemore saw as strong “themes” that emerged as she put together the exhibit. “I pushed the images together – POW!! It really spoke to me about the concept of dispersal and ephemera — How time flees in a split second (desire dashed – ice cream cone hits hot pavement!) over centuries or moment by moment. Each of these artists is dealing with this concept in innovative and personal ways.”
But wait! There’s more! (I’ve always wanted to type that.) Just as in Lake Oswego, organizers have created a holistic mosaic experience. Beyond the exhibit, there are workshops that offer great opportunities for gallery-goers to experience making mosaics for themselves.
“Working on a mosaic is at once painstaking and joyful”, says Sizemore. We couldn’t agree more. Here is the workshop schedule. More information can be found through the links below. If you’re interested, hurry. There are deadlines looming.
- July 11/12 and 18/19 “Mosaics from the Mind’s Eye: Mandalas” Instructor: Lillian Sizemore
- July 14 and 21 “Pique Assiette Mosaic” Instructor: Dawn Mendelson
- July 26 and August 2 “Community Mural for 2CC Garden” Bi-lingual English and Spanish workshop facilitated by Dawn Mendelson, Luz Mack-Durini and Lillian Sizemore.
The artist’s statement: “Through the making of this mandala, my perception was changed. Life is like a Ferris wheel – I go up and I come down. I am given the chance to see the world from many points of view.” Materials: Porcelain, millefiori, found rods, stained glass, glass rods, glass marbles, glass beads, found heart stone.”
Logistics and links:
2nd City Council Art Gallery + Performance Space is located at:
435 Alamitos Avenue, Long Beach, CA
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday Noon to 5 p.m.
Cheryl Bennett, Director
For information on workshop dates, costs, and deadlines, click here
Enjoy — Nancie