Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Chavez Ravine" (1929)

Anyone who has driven around Los Angeles in the last 50 years knows Millard Sheets' art, even if they don't know his name.

For Home Savings of America, he designed the distinctive white marble branch banks and their artistic decorations, sometimes collaborating with others, starting in 1952. (Many of those buildings became branches of Washington Mutual and now Chase bank.) The stripped classicism of the architecture is enlivened by Sheets' specialty: stylized mosaic murals and wall reliefs.

The d├ęcor has a certain period charm, even if the already shaky conceit of a prosperous, postwar American equivalent of Renaissance-era Medici bankers as art patrons has inescapably curdled in our era of too-big-to-fail banking scandals. But there was never any doubt that Sheets, who died in 1989, believed in the notion. He was by most accounts as conservative in his political outlook as he was in his art.

At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a useful if rather uninspiring exhibition of 23 oil paintings and 60 watercolors looks at the roots of Sheets' undeniably prolific career.

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