July 17, 2014
The name June Wayne is most recognizable in the world of printmaking, but a visitor won’t find just her prints at the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s exhibit “June Wayne: Paintings, Prints, and Tapestries,” running through Aug. 31. As an artist who explored a vast variety of mediums, Wayne was responsible for reviving printmaking in the 1960s and was a notable figure in the Los Angeles feminist art movement in the 1970s.
“She just was so interested in the world and not just in the world of art,” said exhibit co-curator Jay Belloli, a contemporary art curator and a personal friend of Wayne. “She was special as an artist because her range of themes was rather amazing.”
In the 1940s Wayne was in Southern California working on a series of surrealist paintings. Though she had started off as a painter in her career (which took off when she was very young), she had a hard time depicting movement on a flat medium. Jules Langsner, a friend and an art critic, suggested that she try printmaking.
Thus was launched the most acclaimed period of Wayne’s career. “She basically backed into the medium that she is most famous for, which is lithography, but she didn’t set out to be involved in lithography at all,” Belloli said. Wayne worked closely with a printer in California and created the “Kafka Series” (1948-49), which consisted of paintings, prints and drawings inspired by the stories of author Franz Kafka. The “Justice Series” (1950-56) was inspired by Kafka’s “The Trial,” and the “John Donne Series” (1957-58) dealt with the sensual themes of Donne, an English poet.
While creating lithographs, Wayne discovered that US artists did not have the same support system as European artists, because she had a difficult time finding a printer for her Donne series. After expressing her concerns to Mac Lowry of the Ford Foundation, the Tamarind Lithography Workshop was born. There, artists and printers collaborated to create high-quality prints. Wayne ran the workshop for a decade (1960-70), and today the workshop resides in Albuquerque.
However, Wayne didn’t just revolutionize the careers of printmakers; she made great strides for female artists. “She truly was one of the great mothers of the feminist art movement,” said Betty Ann Brown, co-curator, art historian and a friend of Wayne. In 1972, Wayne invited 20 female artists to attend a workshop she called “Business and Professional Problems of Women Artists,” later titled “Joan of Art.” In this workshop she taught women the ins and outs of the art industry and how to approach and handle it.
“I like that she fought for her rights and was not shy about speaking up social ills,” Brown said. “I really deeply appreciate that she understood so many things about gender roles, both for men and women, and how they all intersect and contradict each other in the art world.”
In turn, Wayne had her participants teach the workshop to other women artists, and so forth. “It was a decentralized educational process so women who worked together were doing consciousness raising and role playing,” Brown said.
Wayne’s passion for feminist politics isn’t surprising, considering her upbringing. Her mother Dorothy, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was divorced and raised Wayne with her grandmother. Before Dorothy succumbed to colon cancer, Wayne visited her at her deathbed and that inspired the first lithograph she made at Tamarind: “Dorothy, the Last Day” (1960). The print, which is displayed at the PMCA alongside a short film narrated by Wayne herself, shows Dorothy, whose profile resembles a skull, her frail hands clasping a loved one’s hand. This vulnerable moment for Dorothy was compromised when the image was printed in Time magazine after her death without Wayne’s permission.
“June realized that thank God Dorothy was gone because she would’ve been horrified,” Brown said. “[Dorothy] was a very private person and wouldn’t want to be known by that last image — balding, emaciated and dying.” Wayne decided to make it up to her mother by creating the “Dorothy Series,” a series of lithographs that recounts Dorothy’s life.
Wayne used elements of Dorothy’s life in the prints, such as pictures and Dorothy’s own words from her diaries and letters. In “The Desire to Write” (1977), Dorothy is a young woman, her smartly dressed profile looking up at a series of words describing her father Nathan Kline as a “quiet, inarticulate man.” An image of Nathan eerily looks on in the background of the print. In this lithograph, and in many others, Wayne incorporated image and text, an art form that would not become popular until the 1980s.
While Wayne touched on literary themes and social issues, she was also fascinated with science. The “Burning Helix Series” (1970s) emerged after Wayne read James Watson’s book on the structure of DNA, which he co-discovered along with Francis Crick. Wayne was concerned that she shouldn’t depict the science too closely in her imagery. “She didn’t want to illustrate science,” Brown said. “She wanted to engage its process in art making.” Wayne continued to produce numerous lithographs with printer Ed Hamilton and created more series inspired by celestial imagery, scientific processes and even tsunamis.
Wayne became fascinated with another art medium and transformed many of her scientifically themed prints into large-scale tapestries. “I can’t think of another major artist who basically explored tapestries the way that she did,” Belloli said.
One of her tapestries, “Col Noir” (1972), shows three beaded loops that represent a DNA helix in a blue sky over a rocky mountain pass. “She’d work very closely with the weavers and so the tapestries are very unusual in their detail,” Belloli said.
After exploring different mediums, Wayne went back to paintings, but made them three-dimensional. “She was very interested in the way light played on the surface of the painting,” Belloli said. The “Quake Series” (1990s) was created when Southern California was hit with a series of earthquakes, most notably the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Wayne arranged styrene packing peanuts on a canvas, where the styrene represented the Earth’s rugged surface, and the patterns were painted over in multiple colors.
Wayne died in 2011. Though her main legacy is with lithography, the exhibit at the PMCA is a testament to her involved and progressive career. “She worried about inspiration, not about consistency,” Belloli said. “That’s a pretty remarkable thing for an artist. I look at complete artists’ careers and the ones that you’re fascinated by are the ones that just basically keep growing and keep taking risks, and not all of them do. And I think that was something that was true of her. The art world likes to categorize people — she wasn’t easy to categorize. She could’ve rested on her laurels the rest of her life. She could’ve played it safe. She didn’t. And I think that’s really an important reason to do the show.”