Lost Murals of L.A.

On October 9, 2012 by Alice Emmons

PartialFreewayLady“Lost Murals of LA,” tells a story about significant works of art that have vanished. Each work has been lost for a different reason: discarded, stolen, erased, or faded. Their loss is deeply felt not just by the artists, but by Los Angeles. This exhibition explores the circumstances behind the loss of four important murals: The Freeway Lady of (1974) by Kent Twitchell, St. Charles Painting of (1979) by Terry Schoonhoven, Backyard of (1984) by Victor Henderson, and Venice in the Snow of (1970) by the LA Fine Arts Squad. Studies, photos, interviews and video document these murals’ former existence, where today shadows and traces are all that is left.

Kent Twitchell is well known in Los Angeles, where he has been creating urban murals (he refers to them as “his giants”) for over forty years. It is important to the artist that his images be rendered so that their humanity is revealed. Peter Frank, curator of a 2009 exhibition featuring Twitchell’s murals, wrote that these giants haunt our freeways and our workplaces. And that, “Twitchell has infused both mural production and the sprawling Los Angeles landscape with a hyper-humanist tone, a constant message that these folks matter, that you matter, that we matter.” (Peter Frank, Thriller: the King of Pop Meets the King of Cool, exhibition catalog (Los Angeles: LOOK Gallery, 2009): 2.) The Freeway Lady was a striking example of this attitude. The mural was an LA icon that greeted travelers as they commuted on the Hollywood Freeway north of downtown. The Freeway Lady’s gaze was consoling while the colorful afghan flowing behind her offered comfort and vibrancy. Kent Twitchell painted her in 1974, as a tribute to his grandmother; he saw this mural as the embodiment of the beauty, wisdom, and mystery found in older women. It was a harsh disappointment when early one Sunday morning in 1986 she was gone-painted over in an effort to generate advertising space by the property owner. The community was stunned. Today, there are efforts to repaint this mural and find The Freeway Lady a suitable home. Studies of this icon (the personal favorite of the artist), will be included in this exhibition, along with a portion of the new Freeway Lady, which is being repainted by Twitchell.


Terry Schoonhoven’s St. Charles Painting suffered a different fate than The Freeway Lady. Rather than being painted over abruptly, it began deteriorating more slowly, due to paint that was unstable and fugitive. This inherent vice would eventually play a central role in the mural’s demise. After years of exposure to intense sunlight, and consequent fading due to ephemeral materials, it was eventually painted over in 2012. Disappointed that the mural was fading, Schoonhoven eventually accepted this reality. Perhaps the impermanent nature was fitting to his concept, however, where the images functioned much like a dream: at first vivid, then gradually becoming vague. As if supporting his concept, the mural’s edges became diffused over time as it eroded. Schoonhoven, in future projects, worked to solve this paint instability issue by utilizing more permanent, lightfast materials. In 1979, after Schoonhoven received a grant from CAC, (California Arts Council) to paint a mural in Venice, St. Charles Painting, was completed. The artist wanted to create an empty stage, without people or cars, where the viewer was invited in to construct his/her own story. Peter Clothier wrote in Art in America that this mural had a quality that totally captured the viewer. No people or cars were depicted and the human race was remembered only selectively, through buildings and roadways. The rest was silence. (Clothier, Peter. “Terry Schoonhoven at ARCO Center” Art in America March 1980:126.) The absence of human life was a somewhat eerie notion that appealed to Schoonhoven conceptually. As the mural faded, it became a shadow of its former self and was barely decipherable. Victor Henderson’s 1982 mural, Backyard, was also a commission from CAC, measuring 43.5 feet in width. On display at LACMA for one night, Backyard, was installed in 1984 in the Van Nuys State Building where it remained for two years. Conceptually, Backyard referenced the interior thought processes of the artist that remain shielded from the viewer. The mural included a psychological tension: Henderson explained that the painting was an act of mourning for him, for he was grieving the loss of a close friend who had died recently of a drug overdose. The work contained a collage self- portrait, made from black and white photos, with a grid of movement via maps, highways and downtown buildings all created using photos taken aerially in a small plane.

This mural could be considered a precursor to graffiti with its bold layers and gestural paint strokes that take on the appearance of lettering. Perhaps due to its street art appearance or possibly because of its disturbing psychological overtones, the employees wanted it removed, so they circulated a petition. Henderson, interviewed during this period of rancor, likened the experience to one that might be expected in the Soviet Union. The mural was eventually removed and sent to storage at Cook’s Crating, in Los Angeles. It has since disappeared and its whereabouts remains a mystery, despite Henderson’s efforts to locate it.

In 1969 Venice artist Victor Henderson, became aware of an outdoor wall painting created by the late Wayne Holwick. In Holwick’s one small act, taking “painting” off the canvas and placing it outside, created for Henderson, a shift which crystallized all of his heretofore impulses. He now saw the potential for creating imagery that was outside the mediation of art world politics. With this in mind, he decided to paint a mural on the back of his Brooks Ave studio. Henderson contacted nearby artist Terry Schoonhoven, and asked him to join his endeavor. Schoonhoven agreed and together they started the ironically named Los Angeles Fine Art Squad. Studies, photos and other artifacts from their group will round out our collection. The Squad viewed their murals as street theater, relishing their immediate effect on the community. The group was interested in illusionistic realism in public locations. For example, Venice in the Snow (1970) was based on a report of snowfall in Venice in 1949. Humor and satire are important elements in this life sized version of the Venice oceanfront covered in a blanket of snow; for it captured the imagination of the community with its ironic and realistic style.

The Squad painted on walls in unconventional places. In this way, the work of art was owned by the community, and it could not be removed from the context in which it had been created. After Venice in the Snow was painted, the adjoining property owner decided to construct an apartment only inches away from the mural, obscuring this important work. The community rallied to preserve the mural by selling bonds and arranging protests, but eventually the property owner prevailed and the mural was lost.

Art history is typically constructed from art that still exists, but these lost works have shaped our history and culture. This exhibition examines the conditions that led up to the disappearance of these murals and explores how that loss has impacted the culture and history of art in Los Angeles.

The exhibition opens Saturday November 10 in the West Gallery at California State University Fullerton from 5-8 and will be available for viewing through the 30th of the month. Follow up information on face book- Lost Murals of LA.


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