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Ben Cunningham

Ben Cunningham (1904-1975) arrived in San Francisco in 1925 and worked for the Federal Arts Project as a muralist. He developed a significant reputation on the East Coast with his hard-edge geometric paintings during the 1940s and 50s. The artist spent his formative years in Reno, and upon his death two large Nevada-inspired paintings were donated to the University of Nevada, Reno Department of Art.

Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Ingrid Evans

BEN CUNNINGHAM (1904-1975)

Writing about an artist is much like painting a series of portraits at various stages of his life. Not only the face changes, but the work-even the reasons for making art in the first place.

By all accounts, Ben Cunningham did not plan on a career in art until he was about twenty. He was more interested in music and is reported to have played the trumpet with proficiency. In fact, music appeared as a theme in several of his paintings.

Cunningham was born in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1904; his family moved to Reno in 1907, and one of his lifelong friends, Oliver Kistler, remembers being shown the house the Cunninghams were building on Cheney Street in 1910. (When the Kistler family later moved to Reno in 1922, Ben lived with them for a year and a half and apparently considered them his extended family, remarking that he felt more like a Kistler than a Cunningham.) [1] He was graduated from Reno High School and briefly attended the University of Nevada in Reno during the fall of 1922. In sum, Nevada was the place of his formative years, and he often returned after moving away.

But Nevada was not the place of his artistic development, even though this special terrain undoubtedly influenced his visual vocabulary, and it also later became the subject of several pieces. It is unlikely that he encountered much pertinent guidance in Nevada that would have led him to the visual arts. "While its setting may have been inspirational, the newly settled and isolated town of Cunningham's youth, with its transient population of miners, ranch hands and railroad men, was hardly a sympathetic environment for a professional career in the arts. Nor was there any tradition in the visual arts in the family." [2]

Cunningham's father was a medical doctor who joined the army during World War I. On a tour of duty he met, and later married, another physician. He never returned home. Cunningham's mother worked in the Washoe County Courthouse for many years, and in 1924 she decided to run for state office on the heels of a scandal that involved three state officials (including the treasurer) who were convicted of playing the stock market with public funds. While campaigning, she was killed in an auto accident.

In 1925 Ben moved to San Francisco where he studied intermittently at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute (now the San Francisco Art Institute) until 1929. He then briefly returned to Reno to work for a mining company before moving back to the Bay Area in 1930. The following decade is arguably the most critical of his art career. In 1930 he participated in his first professional group show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco and started to be recognized among his peers. The 1930s are also the period of his major mural work and of actual employment as artist and arts administrator, beginning with the work at the Coit Tower in San Francisco in 1934.

"Funded by the Public Works of Art Projects (PWAP) this artwork constitutes one of the most innovative pilot federal programs of the New Deal." [3] Twenty-six artists and nineteen assistants worked on 3,691 square feet of murals for wages ranging from $25 to $45 a week. A look at this work today is to glimpse another era through the eyes of artists who responded to the sociopolitical climate of the 1930s. They identified with the worker and the man in the street, and capital and management were overtly and tacitly depicted as the oppressor. This theme prevailed throughout much of the work on the first floor, where Diego Rivera was one of the painters. A sense of unity connects the work of many disparate artists, attributable both to the master plan for the entire project and to the communal spirit among the artists themselves. Even though all were accomplished artists, some had little experience with fresco work (the old Italian tradition interpreted by Mexican artists), and these paintings became a learning experience.

Cunningham's fresco Outdoor Life is located on an upper level and covers an area of nine by twenty-two feet with easily read outdoor recreational scenes. With its mixture of modelled and flat painted surfaces together with repeated areas of patterns, it contains the typical elements of his representational work. "Such intricate patterns as the tree designs are reminders that Cunningham was a weaver and tapestry designer" [4]—a rare allusion to his interest in textiles.

After the work on the Coit Tower was completed, Cunningham became assistant art director for the Northern California Federal Art Project. He executed several other murals himself, including the ceiling for the Reno post office in 1937, painted in oil. To his dismay, it was obliterated shortly afterward. According to several accounts, the old retiring postmaster simply had it painted over, and there was no outcry by civic groups or any other move to save it. "He had stripped Nevada of a great piece of art, the most beautiful ceiling I ever saw," lamented Richard Guy Walton, a local painter who actually saw the mural. [5] In effect, a lone postal official in the hinterland was able to implement the destruction of a work of art that happened to displease him. Could it have contained a shade of red? Could it have appeared un-American to a provincial bureaucrat? Such was the reception of Cunningham's work in Nevada in 1937. When an exhibition of his paintings was at last mounted here, it was the year 1973—by which time he had safely become a footnote.

Finally in 1939 Cunningham met Hilaire Hiler, who was to become a major influence on his thought and work. During the 1920s Hiler had painted abstractions based on extensive explorations in colorimetry, an area of inquiry that was put on a "universally accepted precise quantitative basis" during the 1930s. [6] Hiler sought a bridge between science and art with his visual and theoretical work on structuralism. "Structuralism is asymmetrical in design and employs sequential relationships which resemble those found in nature, and geometrical progression replaces contrast ... While it does not attempt to substitute science for art, it absorbs such studies ... It is made for contemplation." [7] By implication, such work has no intentional political or ideological content. Rather, color is used to transmit forms and sensations in space with the aim to create extra optical perceptions.

Hiler introduced Cunningham to Wilhelm Oswald's color theory, which ultimately played a significant role in Cunningham's analysis of the relationship between pigments and color perception.

In the Oswald color system the color solid is a double cone—that is, two identical cones that have a common base with the central axis oriented vertically. [Oswald] considered that all colors of surfaces viewed under non-isolated conditions—that is, related colors-are mixtures of hypothetical "full colors" (surface colors of maximum possible freedom from perceived blackness and whiteness) with black and white. [8]

This concept was the touchstone for Cunningham's work, which is based on complex investigations of color to create illusions of flat surfaces or volumes, and on intricate interplay of light and shadow established with film colors and metamers, causing viewers to "see" or flesh out imaginary colors or spaces. "Cunningham's interpretation of art history was that Renaissance painting had dematerialized space and that Cubism had dematerialized form. His goal, he believed, was to dematerialize color, that is, to transform inert pigment into shifting patterns of light and shadow." [9] These ideas, first encountered in the 1930s, remained central to Cunningham's work and culminated in incredibly vibrant compositions.

"Cunningham moved from San Francisco to New York in 1944 and discovered that he was alone." [10] At a time when the personal expressive gesture was quickly becoming the raison d'etre for an artist, Cunningham continued his increasingly complex work in hard-edge geometric, emotionally low-key compositions. During the 1940s in New York he also began a long career as lecturer in several prestigious institutions where he passed on his color theories to students.

He had worked his way through, existing modernist precepts before arriving at his mature style, of which Corner Painting (1948-50) is emblematic. Veils of geometric shapes on two canvases, placed in a corner, create the illusion that space extends beyond the walls. This effect was achieved again in a larger work, Six Dimensions of Orange (1965). In 1968 he took this concept a step further by painting the three panels of Jewels of the Medici, to be installed on a projecting corner.

With the advent of op art in the sixties he was invited to major shows, where it now became apparent that there was a similarity between his style and Victor Vasarely's. But according to his biographer, Cindy Nemser, Cunningham was unaware of Vasarely's work when he developed his own color compositions. "It was coincidental that he and Vasarely developed interest in similar problems in painting at the same time. Their paths crossed during this particular period but took quite different directions before and after this short interlude." [11]

This view was also expressed by Lawrence Campbell in Art News:

In 1960, Cunningham saw a painting by Vasarely for the first time. In 1965, he was invited to exhibit a work—"Equivocation," now in the Modern Museum's collection—in "The Responsive Eye" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and for the first time he began to attract some attention. He realized that he was part of a world trend. Artists kept popping up from nowhere. People asked him how he managed to be so stubborn and hang on to his own objectives so long. [12]

Much of what Cunningham thought and said about art comes to us from the notes kept by his wife of thirty years, Patsy—she was his third, and last, wife. Some excerpts from these chronicles follow:

To make a painting luminous is to create the illusion that the color gives off more light than falls on it ... The verbal language is inadequate to a discussion of painting because it forces a choice which leaves out the others ... It is often said that an artist must reflect his time. But if he simply comments on it, he adds nothing—a case of deja vu. His function is to enrich his culture by providing a definition of it. [13]

After Patsy Cunningham's death in 1988 two paintings were donated to the University of Nevada, Reno, both dealing with Nevada in totally different ways. Pyramid Lake (oil on canvas, 29 by 56 inches) was painted in 1941. It has been suggested that its realism was a gesture toward his brother, for whom it was originally painted. This stylized landscape, with its mauve and reddish brown modelled mountain shapes and patterned sagebrush foreground, is typical of Cunningham's attention to design and detail. Nevada 2 (oil on panel, 22 by 28 inches, one of a series of three) was painted in 1971 and is basically an abstraction in orange and green with vibrating squares and ovals. "The Nevada series would be Cunningham's last tribute to the desert country of his youth." [14]

1. Excerpt from taped interview by Richard Guy Walton with Oliver Kistler and Harold Downley, 25 September 1980.
2. Cindy Nemser, Ben Cunningham-A Life with Color (Texas, JPL Art Publishers, 1989), 5.
3. Masha Zakheim Jewett, Coit Tower, San Francisco, Its History And Art (San Francisco: Volcano Press, 1983), 12. (Other statistics cited regarding the Coit Tower are from this source.)
4. Ibid., 4.
5. Richard Guy Walton, interview with author, Virginia City, Nevada, December 1989.
6. George Agoston, Color Theory and Its Application in Art And Design (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1979), 43.
7. Vincent Schmidt, "The Structuralism of Hilaire Hiler and Its Relation to Other Tendencies in Art," in Hilaire Hiler and Structuralism: New Conception of Form-Color, Waldemar George, ed., trans. by Edward Rodit and Anna Elisabeth Leroy (New York: George Wittenborn, Inc.) n.d., n.p.
8. Agoston, Color Theory, 93.
9. Nemser, Ben Cunningham, 17.
10. Lawrence Campbell, "The Well-Tempered Color-Wheel," Art News (April 1969): 71.
11. Nemser, Ben Cunningham, 54.
12. Campbell, Well-Tempered, 72.
13. Art Students League News 22 (March 1969).
14. Nemser, Ben Cunningham, 84.

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