During the first half of the 20th century, Margaret, Esther and Helen Bruton, also known as the Bruton Sisters, were major multitalented figures who contributed to the advancement of modern art in California. At the time, the Bruton sisters were very well known and professionally trained artists who were constantly working on art commissions on a small and large scale, even rubbing shoulders with other prolific artists of the time, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. 

‘The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making’

When: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through May 6; closed Sundays and Mondays

Where: UCI Langson Institute and Museum of California Art, 18881 Von Karman Avenue, Suite 100, Irvine

Cost: Free

Contact: 949-476-0003, imca.uci.edu

Some of the Bruton sisters’ work can be found at UC Irvine’s Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art as part of its latest exhibition, “The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making,” curated by Wendy Van Wyck Good, the librarian and archivist for Monterey Peninsula College. The exhibition is free and on view through May 6. 

This trio of artist sisters were known for being creative and innovative with their materials, their interest in living art and for pushing boundaries with their artwork as early 20th century modernists. 

The exhibit focuses on these themes and their inseparable bond as they lived together, traveled together and worked together, Good said.

“I think people will be surprised about their careers, how long their careers were, how many different mediums they worked in, how close they were, how well they collaborated together, and how well they supported each other. It’s just a very unusual story,” Good said. 

Although Margaret, Esther and Helen all worked on their own pieces and were each successful in their own respects, the Bruton sisters were known to collaborate frequently as they worked together on large-scale public art projects such as “The Peacemakers” mural that was created for the Court of Pacifica at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The mural covered more than 8,000 square feet, and was made of 270 hand-carved four-by-eight-foot panels, according to Good’s Bruton Sisters blog post

Imogen Cunningham, “The Bruton Sisters, Artists,” 1930, gelatin silver print. Part of “The Bruton Sisters: Modernism in the Making,” through May 6 at UCI Langson IMCA. Credit: Image courtesy of UCI Langson IMCA/Imogen Cunningham Trust

The sisters were commissioned $20,000 for this piece (more than $250,000 in today’s currency), taking nine months to finish the mural. However, the mural was demolished after the fair.  

Aside from paintings, some of the different mediums on display include mosaic, terrazzo, print and archival material. Works from the exhibition are also paired with art from other Californian contemporaries to illustrate the sisters’ impact on the art scene, such as the side-by-side comparison of the landscape of Monterey between Margaret’s “Barns on Cass Street” (1925) and American painter Armin Hansen’s “Before the Storm” (1935). Hansen was another major artist  in the Monterey art scene during the 1920s. The two paintings are on loan from the Monterey Museum of Art.

Hansen was a local teacher in the Bruton sisters’ Monterey hometown, where he was also Margaret’s teacher. While the similarities in the pieces are obvious, it’s the differences that speak volumes. Hansen’s colors are more blended, whereas in Margaret’s painting she uses blocks of color and a simplification of forms, utilizing techniques that demonstrate Margaret’s modernist aesthetic. 

Though the Bruton sisters’ art was monumental after World War II, their fame began to fade and by the time they died in the 1980s, they were largely forgotten about, Good said. 

“I would pull up these articles from newspapers in San Francisco, and there’d be headlines about the Bruton sisters and fantastic reviews about their work, and they were winning prizes,” Good said. “So I was just really surprised, and I was wondering why nobody knew about them today, even in my local community, nobody seemed to know much about them.”

Today, most of their murals have been painted over, damaged or demolished altogether. Then, during the 1991 Oakland fire, significant works by the sisters were destroyed in the homes of private collectors. 

Though much of the Bruton sisters’ work has been lost, Langson IMCA acquired 28 pieces of their art from the Gerald E. Buck collection donated by his daughter Christina Buck in 2017. Langson IMCA now has the largest public institutional holdings of the sisters’ work, said museum director Kim Kanatani. 

These 28 pieces, along with loans from museums such as the Monterey Museum of Art and private collections, as well as donations from the Irvine Museum Collection, make up Langson IMCA’s latest exhibition.

“Attention for their work is really important and it’s long overdue and it is so well deserved,” Kanatani said. “I hope that people gain new insights and appreciation of really undiscovered work and largely undiscovered artists who were major figures in that first half of the 20th century, and for many reasons, went underrecognized.”

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Creating UC Irvine’s New Home for California Art

The Bruton sisters exhibition is currently set up at Langson IMCA’s interim location on Von Karman Avenue (formerly the Irvine Museum), while the permanent location for Langson IMCA on the UC Irvine North Campus is still in the works. 

News of the updated location for Langson IMCA was revealed last year, where it will be situated along Campus Drive near Jamboree Road, adjacent to the San Joaquin Marsh Preserve. The original location was on Campus Drive, adjacent to the Irvine Barclay Theatre. 

But when Kanatani was named museum director of Langson IMCA in 2020, she opted for a different location to make Langson IMCA more accessible, and complement the collections, most of which are focused on art, nature and wellness, Kanatani said. 

“It is the collections that are driving the building design process, as well as its site placement. We’re not trying to chase a building, we’re not trying to fit a function into a form,” Kanatani said.

Although the building process has been launched, the building design process hasn’t yet started.

Abiding by UCI’s design build process, it mandates that a Detailed Project Program (DPP) must be completed prior to moving forward with the building design process. Required for all UCI buildings, the DPP outlines the space program and its functions (e.g., galleries, classrooms, offices, etc. and their square footage), the location of functions for the best operating and space design efficiency, systems and building performance specifications, and massing. 

Separate from the DPP, Langson IMCA is also “commissioning market research and economic forecasting to provide additional data to the DPP” while ensuring that the museum’s internal plans and projections are aimed toward the museum’s mission and to best serve the community.  

After the DPP is completed and approved (expected to be in late spring/early summer), “UCI will issue a call for proposals from pre-qualified progressive design-build teams to select a design architect and contractor by late 2023.” The team will work with UCI Design and Construction and the Langson IMCA team, according to an email from Langson IMCA.

The museum is expected to open in fall 2027, but until then, exhibitions and programs will continue at Langson IMCA’s temporary location on Von Karman Avenue. 

While the museum’s grand opening is still a few years from now, that hasn’t stopped Kanatani from already thinking about the possibilities a larger space can have to tell the story of the Bruton sisters. 

Langson IMCA is currently taking a deep dive into the 18 pallets of archival research that Christina Buck left with the Buck collection. They are hoping to find the stories of how Gerald Buck met the Bruton sisters and how these transactions happened, Kanatani said.

Around late May, the exhibition will travel to Monterey, where the exhibition will be displayed at the Monterey Museum of Art.

“It’s a really interesting story of siblings — of artists — working together and collaborating so equitably, and so self-effacing, it’s just so refreshing. I can’t tell you how important of a story it is that needs to be told,” Kanatani said.

Kristina Garcia is a contributing writer for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.

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