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Reductive Modernist

California Painter and Muralist Lyla Harcoff brought an advanced sensibility to Santa Barbara where she had a studio in El Paseo. Her earliest works reflected her admiration for Art Nouveau and the Secessionist movement while her later works were more structural and reductive. Sullivan Goss is pleased to present the Estate of the Artist.

Table of Contents


Born Lyla Vivian Marshall near Layayette, Indiana on October 6, 1883, she had artistic interests from her earliest years. She attended Purdue University, from which she graduated in 1904, one of eight women in a class of 218. She continued her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and later made three trips to Paris (1905, 1907, 1912), studying a full year at Academie Moderne. Lyla Vivian Marshall married Constantine Harcoff in 1916. She moved from the Midwest to Santa Barbara in 1927. In her later years she recollected that the artists whose work most influenced her were Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and the German Expressionist Karl Hoffer. In the paperwork in her estate there is correspondence between Hoffer and Harcoff. Harcoff passed away in 1956.

Having arrived in Santa Barbara in 1927, Harcoff established a studio in Santa Barbara's famous El Paseo. El Paseo offered studios to several other Santa Barbarans, including Edward Borein, who was at that time fifty-six years old, just ten years older than Harcoff. She kept her studio there until she built her own studio in the late 1940s. While at the El Paseo she established an artists' cooperative called first "The Little Gallery" and later "The Balcony Gallery." The Balcony was established in the early 1930s, and there Depression-era patrons could purchase or "rent" paintings for modest sums. For the remainder of her career Harcoff continued to participate in group and solo exhibitions about once a year.


The only example of her student studies or other early work are in a sketchbook containing pencil studies. There are reports that her early paintings were primarily focused on floral and fruit still lifes. Although there are no known examples of her early painting, it is said that from her days at the Chicago Art Institute she was seen as a colorist, and that her strength of palette marked these developing years. Two of her paintings completed in 1913 are in existing collections. One, Young Man In Arizona, is a large (34" x 22"), subtle and captivating painting of a simple Hopi youth wrapped in a blue blanket which remains in the family collection; the other is a smaller (12" x 18") nocturne of the primary Hopi dwelling on the Second Mesa, which is in the Sullivan Goss Permanent Collection. The surviving mid-career canvases demonstrate that she was a competent landscape painter, portraitist and figurative artist. Most of the paintings from her middle years are in private collections. A major extant piece is a studio portrait of a Drinking Man dated 1932, painted when she was nearly fifty years old. It demonstrates a robust and mature style, and also shows the influence of the masters of her youth. Harcoff's painting of the Drinking Man (which was exhibited at the Faulkner Gallery in Santa Barbara and the Ilsely Gallery in Los Angeles) is a representational depiction of a character who is strong and heroic. The portrait is reminiscent of the wonderful portraits of the American Scene painting school.

STILL LIFE WITH BANANAS: The whereabouts of this painting was unknown for nearly 60 years; it was reproduced in the January 24, 1954 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press and then lost. It was recently unearthed and conserved to get rid of 60 years of grime. Our conservator says it is one of his favorite still lifes....ever.

Lyla Harcoff worked on a number of themes over the course of her artistic career. One of her most sustained and pronounced themes was executed in her series Bathers. This theme was rendered in small sketch, medium format and larger, exhibition-sized pieces. One of the largest of these pieces has been selected for inclusion in Work of Women: The Nicholson Collection. In early 2002 Sullivan Goss assembled twelve of the Bather paintings for exhibition.

BATHERS SERIES:These pieces are distinguished by strong color palettes and figurative features which are both simple and reductive. They range in size from 8" x 10" to 24" x 30."

Arms, legs and torsos are flattened into planes of color depicting multiple figures entwined in a sensual, but not sexually suggestive, grouping. All of these paintings show groups of Bathers standing and reclining on the beach. The models are arranged conversationally; none are in a solitary composition. The simplification of form and palette makes these paintings striking. Most of the figures are draped or covered in part by towels. All appear trim and healthy. In these works Harcoff makes a spartan, bold and open statement about the essential desire for companionship as a requisite for the human tableau. Harcoff repeatedly addressed the Bathers theme throughout her career, painting them from 1913 (see Nos. 11 and 13 in the Catalogue Raisonne below) until the 1950s.

Donald J. Bear, artist, critic and one of the founders of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, wrote about the Bathers series in a review published in 1941:

"...we can feel strongly in some of these figure pieces a certain tension and relationship between the simplified, nearly static, but sculptural essence of the figure in relation to a specially created, sympathetic, and moving space allotment in which these figures exist. The very tempo and cadence with which the backgrounds and setting are controlled imparts added emotional impact and the reason for painting the figure itself."

In the catalogue for the artist's 1949 Solo Exhibiton at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art the writer expands this concept.

Each painting is an organized unit strictly within the picture space. Constant effort is made for more subtle color relations and the elimination of any line, plane or color that does not contribute to the building of an esthetic form conceived as an expression of something universal, not particular. It is the classical point of view in contradistinction to the romantic. The deepest interest lies in the human figures. Organizing them into dynamic and significant forms is the highest goal."

The famous art historian Henry J. Seldis, who wrote the major monographs on Henry Moore and Rico Lebrun, authored a review of Harcoff's 1954 solo exhibition at the Geddis-Martin Studio in Santa Barbara. He noted the influence of Cezenne visible in the Harcoff's still lifes from the 1930s. But he also noted her abandonment of "compositional depths for the almost flat presentation favored by Matisse." He went on to write that this approach "is thoroughly understood and intelligently explored." He wrote about her as having long been recognized as "one of the most competent painters in this area." This was quite a compliment coming from a respected critic and historian who reconized Harcoff's value compared to other nationally acknowledged Central Coast figures like Clarence Hinkle, Douglass Parshall, Rico Lebrun and William Dole.


  • 1913 Chickamina Country Club, Michigan
  • 1914 Purdue University Library, Lafayette, Indiana - Solo Exhibition
  • 1916 "The Independents," Chicago
  • 1917 Independent Society of Artists, Chicago
  • 1918 Chicago Art Institute, Alumni Exhibition, Chicago (???)
  • 1928 Santa Barbara Art League, El Paseo, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1928 Women Artists Exhibit, Santa Barbara Art League, Santa Barbara
  • 1929 Courvoisier Gallery, San Francisco - Solo Exhibition
  • 1930 Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1930 Hoosier Salon, Marshall Field Galleries, Chicago
  • 1931 Hoosier Salon, Marshall Field Galleries, Chicago
  • 1931 Hoosier Salon Art Exhibit, Lafayette, IN
  • 1931 Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara, California
  • 1931 Sixth Annual Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego, CA
  • 1932 Isley Galleries, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1932 Ballcony Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA - Solo Exhibition
  • 1932 Hoosier Salon, Marshall Field Galleries, Chicago
  • 1932 Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1933 Lafayette Art Gallery, Lafeyette, IN
  • 1933 Thayer Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1933 Hoosier Salon, Indianapolis, IN
  • 1933 Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1934 Public Works of Art Project
  • 1934 Balcony Gallery, De La Guerra Studios, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1934 Hoosier Salon, Marshall Field Galleries, Chicago
  • 1934 Purdue Memorial Union Bldg., Lafayette, IN - Solo Exhibition
  • 1935 The Little Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1935 Hoosier Salon, Marshall Field Galleries, Chicago
  • 1937 California State Fair, Sacramento, CA
  • 1939 All California Exhibition - Solo Exhibition
  • 1939 Casa De La Guerra, Santa Barbara, CA - Solo Exhibition
  • 1941 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara - Solo Exhibition
  • 1943 Thayer Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA - Solo Exhibition
  • 1944 Santa Barbara Museum Of Art, Santa Barbara, CA (Prize)
  • 1946 Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
  • 1946 Rotunda Gallery, San Francisco
  • 1949 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara - Solo Exhibition
  • 1954 Geddis-Martin Studio, Santa Barbara - Solo Exhibition
  • 2002 "Lyla Marshall Harcoff: Reductive Modernist", Sullivan Goss, Santa Barbara, CA

    Little is known about the artist's early years except that she was raised at her father's farm, Oak Lawn Farm, near Lafayette in Tippecanoe County, Indiana (photo by Phillips).

    Hair decorated with a string of pearls, tasseled necklaces, pearl earings and boa wrap, Harcoff appears a very studied bohemian. Self-confidence is apparent in her direct gaze. This photo was taken about the time she graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Science degree, in 1904. Her class lists 218 candidates of which seven were women. Occupying less than four percent of the class, she and her female classmates must have faced some unwanted criticism regarding their choices of vocation at this Midwest school.

    Behind her is one of her most famous paintings, Calla Rhythms, which forms a strange halo around the artist's head. The original image is a toned silver gelatin print (photo by M. Kraig). Sullivan Goss is seeking additional photographs and images of the artist for the Photograph Gallery.

    Located at 23 De La Guerra Street. This was where Harcoff completed her first canvases after arriving in Santa Barbara. Sullivan Goss has secured the central painting shown here, Drinking Man, painted in 1932.

    In the 1940s, Harcoff acquired this property, located about one mile from her old De La Guerra Studio in downtown Santa Barbara, California. With the help of Lutah Maria Rigg, the well-known Santa Barbara architect, she remodeled an old horse barn into a comfortable three bedroom home and studio. Over the main entry is the phrase "Adios Caballos," which translates as "Goodbye Horses" (photo by Karl Obert).

    HOME & STUDIO INTERIOR: This sunlit main room served as studio and living room for Lyla Marshall Harcoff and her family. It remains much like this today. Harcoff was also a furniture designer in the 1930s and 1940s and there are several pieces of her furniture still in this home (photo by Shreve Ballard).

    Harcoff signed her work in several ways: Lyla Vivian Marshall, Lyla Marshall, Lyla V. Marshall, LVM, Harcoff, Lyla Harcoff, Lyla M. Harcoff, and Lyla Marshall Harcoff (as pictured to the right).


    In the event that you have works by Lyla Marshall Harcoff which you would like authenticated or included in this site please contact Sullivan Goss for submission requirements. The Catalogue Raisonne, (or The Complete Works of Lyla M. Harcoff) is being assembled as part of this page. The Catalogue will include:

    66" x 48"
    Oil on canvas
    Private Collection
    A fabled peper tree with its spicey fruit gives this garden the feel of a cornucopia. Bright flowers, game and the central tree all form icons of a lost fable.

    38" x 44"
    Oil on canvas
    Private Collection
    This painting is visible in the photo "Harcoff's First Santa Barbara Studio" in the Photo Gallery above.

    Size unknown
    Oil on canvas
    Private collection
    This is one of the artist's most celebrated paintings. It has been exhibited in many museums and galleries over the years and is an excellent example of the aritst working at her best.

    36" x 48"
    Oil on canvas
    Private Collection
    Thought of as one of the artist's most significant paintings, this canvas was shown across the country and is listed first by the artist in all of her correspondence to museums and galleries. At 36" x 48" the sheer size of the work combines with the extraordinary sense of privacy to make this painting one of Harcoff's most powerful.

    Interestingly, Harcoff depicts a Native American in a disposition pose usually reserved for artistic depictions of the removal of Jesus Christ from the cross. The artist's treatment suggests her sympathies and furthers the telling of the Santa Ynez Valley's history. However, stylistically Harcoff remains committed to exploring treatment of solids and spaces in her work through flattening and reductivism.

    This is the second of the three murals which Harcoff painted for the School's Library and Study Hall in 1936. Today the School has grown considerably and the room now serves as the District's Boardroom. While as so many WPA mural buildings have been destroyed and the murals lost, this building has been remodeled and the murals preserved. The artist proudly depicts the Spanish American influence on the Santa Ynez Valley.

    60. Santa Ynez High School Mural III:
    This is the third image of the tryptic completed for the Federal Arts Project in 1936. The work reflects Harcoff's interest in regional subject matter treated in a modernist manner, and shows the influence of other Federal Art Project works.

    The reproduction shown here was taken from a Christmas card made in the 1940s. It is the only reproduction of the original painting which was lent to a retirement home in Santa Barbara, California. The size of the painting is estimated as 60" x 30".


    Harcoff was a true Arts & Crafts artist. In addition to her paintings, etchings and drawings she produced many utilitarian objects for purchase. In the 1910s she worked for Marshall Fields painting fine china and decorative screens which served as room dividers. Later, when Harcoff relocated to Santa Barbara, she produced custom pieces of furniture, jewelery, medallions, pottery and additional decorative screens. In one of the announcements for The Little Gallery the artist presented "Paintings and decorated furniture, and small things--not mere things, but useful things made beautiful." She went on to write that "character, color and design are to form the triangle of principles qualifing all work. The modern in style is to be emphasized because the artist believes thoroughly in the modern." The list of extant pieces is small; however, there is a chest of drawers, a jewelry box, several pieces of jewelry and several medallions. (Photos to follow)


    4.75" x 6"
    Etching and watercolor on paper
    Private Collection
    This depicts the famous Santa Barbara architect George Washington Smith's first home located in Montecito. The undated image shows the remarkably steady hand of the engraver and a subtle use of watercolor to highlight the image.


    There are no drawings which have survived from her student days or early years. There is a beautiful set of conte crayon drawings. The subject of all of these drawings is a female nude and the work appears to have been done from a sitting model. It is estimated that the drawings were done sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They show an accomplished figurative hand, and the drafting was done without repetition. There is a complete sense of the female form even though the artist employed only sparing line. Several of the drawings from the estate are available.

    c. 1933
    14" x 18"

    12" x 9"
    Oil on board

    17" x 21"
    Oil on board

    17" x 21"
    Oil on board

    This small Bathers scene is the only one of the series where the figures are in a floating color field which seems to be superimposed on a beach with waves in the background.


    Harcoff enjoyed the effort of arranging and rearranging these beach figures in ever increasing formats. The scumbling of the yellow forground and blue and purple background presages the complete abandonement of representational foregrounds and backgrounds which the artist achieves late in her career.

    Although these figures appear to be beach bathers like many of her others, Harcoff has labled this on the back with the above title. It may represent some reflection of Harcoff's early years on her father's farm in Indiana.

    This composition is reminiscent of the Spring hills in the Santa Inez Valley, not far from the site of her murals mentioned earlier.