Langson IMCA to Present New Exhibition "The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making"

  • IRVINE, California
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  • December 07, 2022

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Imogen Cunningham, The Bruton Sisters, Artists, 1930, 1930, Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in. © 2022 Imogen Cunningham Trust

UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art (Langson IMCA) is presenting The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making, a new exhibition organized by guest curator Wendy Van Wyck Good. An author, librarian, archivist, and historian, Good is the leading expert on Margaret, Esther, and Helen Bruton—pioneering artists who propelled the advancement of modern art in California. The presentation, which includes related works by several of their contemporaries, reveals the Bruton sisters’ innovative use of materials, creative approach to design, and fruitful collaborative process. This is the first group exhibition of the Bruton sisters’ work in more than 50 years.

The exhibition will be on view February 4 through May 6, 2023 in Langson IMCA’s interim museum space at 18881 Von Karman Avenue. It features 18 works from Langson IMCA’s permanent collection as well as several loans from private collections and the Monterey Museum of Art. A trove of archival materials—much of which is on public display for the first time—also reveals how the Bruton sisters integrated art, craft, and design into their everyday lives.

Active from the 1920s through the 1960s, the prolific Brutons embraced a modernist aesthetic that moved toward abstraction and experimented with new techniques and styles. Highly regarded by their contemporaries in the California art scene, the siblings also engaged with prominent luminaries of their generation, including Ansel Adams, Maynard Dixon, Armin Hansen, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, and Diego Rivera. They were also lifelong friends with renowned California photographer Imogen Cunningham whose work captures intimate moments in the sisters’ homes and studios, as seen in the exhibition.     

Each sister forged a distinctive artistic path by pushing the boundaries of her chosen medium. Margaret (1894-1983) achieved success as a modernist painter and watercolorist but pivoted to creating abstraction in terrazzo in the 1940s. Esther (1896-1992), who originally trained as a commercial artist at the Parsons School of Design in New York, focused on decorative arts. She was also in high demand for murals commissioned for commercial and civic buildings. Initially schooled as a sculptor, Helen (1898-1985) created mosaics for the Works Progress Administration and explored the medium using different styles, methods, and materials for the rest of her career.

While developing their individual practices, the sisters assisted one another with their respective projects. In 1935, for example, Esther designed a series of circus-themed murals for the Cirque Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and executed the work’s laborious application of gold leaf with the help of Margaret. One of Esther’s most widely acclaimed projects, the murals are still on view at the hotel today. The Brutons also collaborated on large-scale public art commissions, most notably, their monumental mural, The Peacemakers, for San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, which was demolished after the fair closed.

Good said, “These rarely exhibited paintings, prints, mosaics, and terrazzos—displayed alongside works by several of their Californian contemporaries—vibrantly demonstrate the sisters’ impact on the development of California Modernism. A culmination of my research resulting in Sisters in Art, the first biography of the trio published by West Margin Press last year, The Bruton Sisters will tell their stories through the objects they created, their artistic investigations, and aesthetic intersections.” 

Langson IMCA Museum Director Kim Kanatani said, “We are honored to be working with Wendy Van Wyck Good on this important exhibition of work by three dynamic artists. Thanks to Wendy’s extensive research and deep interest in these previously overlooked women artists, we continue to fulfill key aspects of Langson IMCA’s mission—to meaningfully engage with our visitors and contribute new scholarship on California Art to the larger community.”

The exhibition also features a digitized family album of photographs that follow the Brutons’ travels throughout Europe and the western U.S. from 1923 to 1933. The locations they visited inspired many of the works on view, such as Margaret’s painting Virginia City (ca. 1932), Esther’s folding screen Rabbit Hunt (1929), and Helen’s etching The Party (ca. 1925). The Bruton Sisters: Their Lives and Careers, an eight-minute film developed for the exhibition, will be shown in the gallery to provide insight into the artists’ biographies and site-specific public works. 

Related public programs will be announced in early 2023. 

After its presentation at Langson IMCA, The Bruton Sisters will be on view at the Monterey Museum of Art in spring/summer 2023.

About UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art

UCI Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art (Langson IMCA) is home to two foundational gifts of California Art—The Irvine Museum Collection of California Impressionist, plein air and other paintings, and The Buck Collection of California modern and contemporary art. In addition, the permanent collection of more than 4,500 works continues to grow, augmented by acquisitions and gifts. The university is planning to construct a permanent museum and research institute to serve as a global magnet for the presentation and study of California Art within its social, historical, environmental, and cultural frameworks. Langson IMCA is located in an interim museum space at 18881 Von Karman Avenue, Suite 100 in Irvine, CA. It is open to all, and admission is free. For more information, visit imca.uci.edu.

About the University of California, Irvine

Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation, and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 222 degree programs. It is located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu. Follow us on Instagram @uciimca.

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