Santa Barbara

June Gloom in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a ninety minute drive north of Los Angeles up US-101. Fog takes on a certain personality along the Californian coast. It creeps in from the ocean, clinging like a wet blanket to the freeway and the neighboring Santa Ynez Mountains. It subsumes all daylight, lending the desert scenery a foreign chill. This feeling is known as June Gloom here, a misnomer if there ever was one. It seems to happen year-round and certainly whenever I’m in town.

Santa Barbara is a white upper middle-class town with an Hispanic flavor and a famous Spanish mission. ‘I bit [Edward’s] heels to get him to the [mission] at Santa Barbara,’ wrote Jo Hopper on their 1941 trip, ‘and he fell heavily. It is so beautiful – so real, so moving.’

Today, tanned mothers on roller skates push prams down Santa Barbara’s boardwalk, which follows the still harbor. There are skateboarding kids, jogging executives and white-haired couples on the boardwalk. Their ears are all attached to cell phones. On the beach, a volleyball player digs a ball from the sand. A homeless lady stares west into the Pacific.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is set back from the main boulevard of State Street. Its foyer, which has a small fountain in the middle and is lined by Greek busts, was the old Santa Barbara Post Office. The museum now rents its land from Santa Barbara County for the token sum of $1 a year.

Cheech and Chong

The museum has always been a community affair. Its benefactors include East Coast business moguls who retire to Santa Barbara and Hollywood stars. Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, is a current Trustee. Like Steve Martin, Cheech is remarkably serious in real life, according to Cherie Summers, Chief Registrar of the Museum, and has an impressive collection of Chicano artwork.

Ninety-seven percent of Santa Barbara’s art is in storage. This is common for museums around the world. The Louvre has over a million pieces in its permanent collection. Its storage area is so big staff use roller skates to get around it. Recently, large art museums have started pulling their art into the light. The Louvre is farming out hidden masterpieces to branded sub-branches in the US and the Middle East. Some American museums, including a few we’ll visit, have developed open storage areas which allow the general public to see otherwise inaccessible works of art. With most museums, however, the public still sees only the very tip of a large artistic iceberg.

The Museum’s Hopper picture, ‘November, Washington Square’ (1932 & 1959), is currently in Santa Barbara’s basement storage area. I am escorted there in a freight elevator by Summers, a friendly, casually dressed woman. I catch a delicious glimpse of the painting when she opens the elevator door. It is hung on a sliding metal rack between an abstract painting and two female portraits, almost at floor level. I squat down in the dark basement to have a good look at it.

November, Washington Square (1932 & 1959)
November, Washington Square (1932 & 1959)

‘November, Washington Square’ was Hopper’s attempt to paint the view from his home at 3 Washington Square North in New York City. As familiar as the outlook was, Hopper couldn’t find the right sky for the painting. ‘It must have been 15 or 20 years ago,’ he told a reporter in 1956. ‘I didn’t finish it. Maybe I will some day.’ Three years later, Hopper finally put in a shockingly blue sky, a stark juxtaposition to the colors of autumn beneath.

The finished picture caught the eye of Preston Morton, wife of Chicago businessman Sterling Morton. It became part of the Preston Morton Collection during a spending spree at New York’s art galleries in the late 1950’s. The Mortons accumulated over two hundred and fifty pictures, including ‘November, Washington Square’, which was bought from the Frank Rehn Gallery, Hopper’s lifelong dealer. The sole intention of these purchases was to augment the permanent collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Mortons had established a second residence in Santa Barbara in the late 1930’s and wanted to give something back to the local community to ‘reflect the good life and happiness we have had in the eighteen years we have been coming out here.’

Summers lived in Washington Square herself for many years and she admires this portrait of it. As we examine the picture together, Summers captures a thought which has no doubt occurred to many Hopper fans. ‘He makes you see things,’ she says. ‘With other painters, you don’t.’

Does Hopper make you see things differently? If so, please share this post.

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