Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene

porch.jpgPacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 -- that Getty-supported initiative documenting the origins of the area's contemporary art scene currently on display at various cultural institutions across the Southland -- provides Angelenos with unprecedented opportunities to peep into hitherto hidden private collections and galleries all over town. One such treasure is the Stendahl Galleries in the Hollywood Hills. It is the legacy of legendary art dealer, Earl Stendahl, who played an important role in incubating a market for Modern art in Southern California in the early 20th century.

Usually accessible only by appointment, Stendahl Galleries will be open to the public under the auspices of the "Pacific Standard Time" umbrella. Visitors can also learn more about Earl Stendahl and his legacy in the recently released book, Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer As Impresario, authored by April Dammann, who is married to Stendahl's grandson.

Earl Stendahl and his wife Enid were colorful and influential personalities who had strong ties to Los Angeles arts communities, associating with notables such as Millard Sheets, David Alfaro Siqueiros, William Randolph Hearst, Clifford Odetts, David O. Selznick, Igor Stravinsky, Guy Rose, Maynard Dixon, the Wachtels, Beatrice Wood, the Walter Arensbergs, Nelson Rockefeller, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.

Stendahl was an innovator who persuaded collectors to buy avant-garde work and genres. Diego Rivera's growing Pre-Columbian art collection in Mexico inspired Stendahl to collect Pre-Columbian art and artifacts for his galleries in 1935. Stendahl's gallery hosted one of only two non-museum exhibitions of Pablo Picasso's masterwork, "Guernica," to benefit Spanish [Civil War] refugees, in 1939. Moreover, he was instrumental in obtaining Federal Public Works of Art Project commissions for Millard Sheets and other artists in the region.damman book launch.jpg On Saturday, October 29, 2011, April will host a fundraiser-garden party in her historic home and art gallery in support of Hedgebrook, a free writers' retreat for women on an island in the Puget Sound. You can learn more about the fundraiser here.

I first met April three years ago when she hosted a reception for Hedgebrook alums based in Los Angeles. Her historic home and its contents gave me such a contact high that I was left speechless. When our hostess revealed that she had written a large portion of her Stendahl manuscript at Hedgebrook, I was eager to learn more about her home's special legacy and followed up to interview her via email after Angel City Press released the biography this spring.

What prompted you to write this book? Did you personally know Earl and Enid Stendahl? What were their personalities like?

For some years students and art collectors were calling our gallery with questions about Earl Stendahl's early escapades in Los Angeles. It seemed that there was an untold story which might advance interest in and knowledge about the early art history of Southern California. In the Preface of my book, I tell a tale about Stendahl hiring a prominent portrait artist to paint his (Stendahl's) picture over a valuable Guy Rose painting in 1932, thereby hiding the beautiful Carmel scene for decades, until I discovered the cover-up in 2004. Stendahl was Rose's dealer. They had a successful relationship. How to explain? That mystery was like an inciting incident for me. With my background in fiction/screenwriting, I was hooked! I wanted to discover who, exactly, Earl Stendahl was and how he pioneered a family art gallery business that is still in operation 100 years after its inception.

I knew Enid and Earl as a teenager, when I was dating my husband Ron Dammann at Hollywood High. Personalities? They seemed like ordinary grandparents to me. I had NO idea of Stendahl's import or visionary influence on the art world, at that time. His grandson Ron didn't, either. I had access to such rich and original source materials--letters, photographs, catalogs, inventory and price lists--that to NOT have written the book would have bordered on being irresponsible.

What discovery about your grandfather-in-law's story surprised you? What did you learn that even the family did not know about?
Stendahl came from a humble Wisconsin background with no formal training in art. Yet he developed a remarkable eye for quality and for talent. He promoted unknown artists in provincial San Diego and Los Angeles as early as 1911. In the early days of his business, he represented many California Impressionists, often dealing from his gallery in the Ambassador Hotel.

Our family didn't appreciate the significance of Stendahl's courage (not too strong a word) when he invested in artists of the avant-garde, which no L.A. museum or other gallery would touch. He promoted abstract art coming in from New York and Europe in the late 1920s and bravely gave exhibitions to Modern artists whom the local press called "cuckoo" and "dangerous."

The family [also] didn't know that Stendahl took great care of some of his struggling artists, providing studio space for a pittance [in his gallery at 3006 Wilshire Blvd, a block east of Bullocks Wilshire] and bringing his "waifs" (Enid's term) home to dinner almost every night.

What is it like living in a historic-cultural monument. Any restrictions or benefits?
The designation was granted in January, so it's still pretty new. One is not as restricted in remodeling/improving as people think. We are now assured that the house will remain, even after Ron and I move on. I would like to see an institution buy it eventually for artists or writers to work or as a research annex for scholars in the arts...maybe a Hedgebrook south-west, Adrienne!

What pioneering efforts did Stendahl Galleries undertake to bring important artworks to the public's attention?
I learned that Stendahl had made heroic efforts to lure the Guggenheim Museum of NYC to Los Angeles as a West Coast satellite. It's a fascinating story of persistence and canny strategies involving HUGE and famous personalities that, ultimately, failed. The book recounts how Stendahl [organized shows] for David Alfaro Siqueiros and other "revolutionary" painters, acting more like a museum than an art gallery. Additionally, Stendahl displayed Picasso's mural, "Guernica," in his second gallery on Wilshire Blvd. The book shows the painting and an invitation to opening night with a long, impressive list of attendees.

Did your husband grow up in the house owned by [famed art collectors] Louise and Walter Arensberg? What was it like to grow up in the Hollywood Outpost Estates?
Ron grew up next door to the Arensberg house, which operated as an informal salon for the intellectuals of the day--many of them European émigré artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. The Dada art movement actually was born and shaped in this milieu. Initially, Walter Arensberg helped finance the Stendahl family's move to the house next door. Stendahl took advantage of the proximity to the art crowd attending Arenberg's salons. People would hop over a fence between the houses for pineapple juice at Walter's party and a stiff drink over at Earl's abode.

So our family complex includes both houses, one historic (ours) and one with Lloyd Wright interiors where Ron's cousin lives. Architects Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, John Lautner and William Woollett contributed to our house. It's a pastiche of the very best of So. Cal architecture. Ron had a happy childhood in The Outpost Estates. He had lots of pals in the neighborhood, and all the kids went to Gardner Street Elementary (where Michael Jackson went) and then Le Conte Jr. High and Hollywood High.

You also grew up in Hollywood. Where did you live and what are your memories of going to Hollywood High School? What's one of your favorite memories about growing up in the area? What's changed that you miss or makes you sad.
I was born in Hollywood and spent a few years as a child in Chicago, where my father had jobs in radio and early TV (both L.A. and Chicago). We lived in apartments in Hollywood until my parents bought a home in the Laurel Estates of Studio City.

Hollywood High was a blast. Harvard's freshman class of 1964 welcomed its top student (full scholarship) from my HHS class. We had some brainy, fun kids, and Ron and I were going steady, by our senior year. I've contributed a lot of time and money over the years toward the re-vitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and surroundings, but it just doesn't seem to "take." I won't use the word "hopeless," but - how to bring Hollywood back to some measure of former glory? Maybe the answer is that it never was glorious. That's hard to admit.

What is one of your favorite pieces in the Stendahl Galleries inventory?
At the moment I feel blessed to gaze upon "Rising Mists" by Guy Rose. This is the picture uncovered by removing the portrait of Grandpa (Earl Stendahl). It has been put up at auction, but, so far, no sale. It might be that the story of over-painting is the deal-breaker for buyers. Personally, I think the fact that the gorgeous canvas was covered up for 75+ years makes it a fascinating object! But I have come to understand that art collectors can be an insecure bunch. (Should I say that??) Let's say SOME collectors are like that.

  • April Dammann will be signing her copies of her book in the Angel City Press booth (B 22) at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sunday, October 2nd.
  • Visit April's historic house on Saturday, October 29th at the garden-party fundraiser for Hedgebrook Writers Residency program.

Look for this week's Angeleno Datebook on Saturday, September 24th.

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