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"Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920-1950", 1990.

Jules Engel

Susan Ehrlich

Painter, filmmaker, sculptor, and teacher. Jules Engel has achieved success in varied artistic fields. A native of Budapest. Hungary, he immigrated to the United Slates with his family as a youngster in 1930. At Evanston High School in Illinois, he excelled in his art class where he delved precociously into geometric abstraction.

Upon his graduation in '57, he ventured lo Hollywood, hoping to work as an animator in the industry.(1) Within two years he had secured a position at the Disney studios on the film Fantasia. Assigned to the Russian and Chinese dance sequences of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Engel, inspired by Kandinsky and Klee, inventively placed his dancing sprites against a stark black ground. By means of his boldly simplified settings, Engel heightened contrasts of figure and ground. Engel spotlit movement and developed an abstract ambience for the balletic flowers and fairies.

While working on Fantasia, Engel met and befriended avant-garde filmmaker Oskar Fischinger who shared his respect for Klee and other European moderns and encouraged his work in abstract animation. Although Fischinger’s tenure at Disney was brief, Engel's lasted three-and-a-half years, during which time he also created color work for the feature film Bambi.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Engel resigned from Disney and enlisted in the Motion Picture Unit of the Air Force. After his tour of duty, he joined three members of this filmmaking corps — John Hubley, Bill Hurtz, and Herb Klynn — in 1947 to develop the United Productions of America (UPA) studio. Beginning as a filmic designer, Engel served as an art director during the 1950s, and in this capacity supervised the studio's entire production. At the same time, he helped create such UPA films as Gerald McBoing-Boing, Madeleine, and Mr. Magoo. Legendary in the annals of filmic animation, UPA is credited with bringing concepts of abstract art into commercial film. With Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, and Duly as their models, UA artists conveyed to a broad audience the tenets of formal abstraction via flat figuration placed within a simplified mise-en-scene.

While supporting himself as an animator, Engel devoted weekends and evenings to his easel paintings. In these abstractions of the 1940s, to which Interior, Untitled, and Outdoor Sculpture belong, he reveals his strong feeling for tectonic design. The way that he structures his compositions with flat shapes pressed to the plane reveals his roots in Synthetic Cubism. Within his constructivist mode, he lends his works an architectural air. In Interior, for example, he conjures up a vestibule with windows, doors, stairways, and halls. Comparably, in the untitled gouache he evokes an abstract cityscape seen through fractured glass. Reminiscent of the Windows series by French Orphist painter Robert Delaunay, it suggests a panoramic view of a town through fragmented panes.

Curiously, however, these works relate less to the poised, cubistic structures of Neutra, Schindler, Soriano, and Aiti which then dotted the local terrain and more to the brash, asymmetric constructions of latter-day architect Frank Gehry. Indeed, their tilting conjunctions of angular planes seem to portend the Deconstructivist ethos of the 1980s.

These planes which shift in vision reflect a cinematic sensibility. More often than not, Engel's paintings suggest a camera tracking through movie sets, as in Brilliant Moves. Specifically, they bear a strong relation to the then-contemporary film noir. Their labyrinthine structures compare with noir's complicated plots, while their fractured scenes recall flashbacks in movies which intercut linear time. Passages slant and convolute, ending, as they do in noir, in detours and cul-de-sacs. Nowhere is the territory simple and clear, the turf easily read. Vision is fraught with digressions, proceeding as characters do in noir movies, with frustration and confusion.

The affinities that these works bear to noir films seem to stem from allied responses to Existentialism. Thus, both art forms suggest entrapment through a claustrophobic compression of space, with images squeezed within the frame, and through angled vectors that race toward the distance but find no release. In Interior, tilted panels jostle and crowd, while checkerboard patterns and free-floating wedges in Brilliant Moves engender anxiety. Chess, to which the latter piece refers, serves as a frequent leitmotif in noir narratives. Its tactical ploys are enacted by characters who usually become victimized pawns when they try to circumvent fate. Connoting survival strategies, chess functions in this painting, as it does in noir films, as a metaphor for existence.

Brilliant Moves was included in the Art Institute of Chicago's Abstract and Surrealist Art in America of 1947-1948, two years after Engel had made his Los Angeles debut in a duo show at Fred Kanns Circle Gallery on Sunset Boulevard.(2) Subsequently, Engel participated in numerous group exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, including its California Centennials of 1949 and Contemporary Painting in the United States of 1951. During the 1950s he contributed to major national surveys — at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco and at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — and to the international Pacific Coast Art: United States' Representation at the Third Biennial of Sao Paolo. At the same time he earned a succession of one-man shows at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Beverly Hills.

As the years progressed, Engel enjoyed critical acclaim from numerous retrospectives in painting and film, both in the United States and abroad. His awards include first prizes from film festivals in Venice, Edinburgh, Mannheim, and Atlanta, and grants from the American Film Institute and from the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford foundations. Under his guidance as art director, UPA films earned three Academy Awards and eleven nominations. Meanwhile, his paintings and drawings entered many private and public collections including the Chicago Art Institute, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Since 1969, Engel has served as founding chair of the Department of Animation and Experimental Film at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia where he continues to produce abstract paintings and films of distinction.

1. Jules Engel, interviews with author, 9 March 1985, 3 June 1985, 30 March 1986, and 7 February 1988. Also Lawrence Weschler and Milton Zolotow. Interviews conducted with the artist from 1975 to 1978 for Los Angeles Art Community: Group Portrait. Oral History Program. University of California at Los Angeles, California, 1985.

2."Jules Engel, George Barrows." Arts and Architecture. 62. No. 9 (September 1945). 40.

Ehrlich, Susan. "Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920s-1950s." Exhibition catalog. Santa Barbara Museum of Art. 1990.
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