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REX SLINKARD

(1887-1918)

SYMBOLIST; REGIONAL PAINTER

By Alisha Patrick

Though his life was tragically cut short, Rex Slinkard was a standout amongst his peers. Elected Director of the Los Angeles Art Students League at twenty-three, Slinkard is credited with bringing the tenants of the Ash Can School to the West Coast. He became particularly well known for his Symbolist images of the California landscape.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Rex Slinkard was born in 1887 in Bicknell, Indiana. He studied at Judson Art School and at the College of Fine Arts of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1908, Slinkard won a scholarship that allowed him to continue his studies in New York City, specifically under William Merritt Chase’s school. For the following two years he studied with Robert Henri (1865-1929) at the Broadway Arcade on Lincoln Street. While in New York City, Slinkard shared a studio with fellow artist George Bellows (1882-1925), who shared a common interest in boxing. Bellows would become famous for his paintings of the sport and Slinkard’s portrait is often included amongst the audience featured in these paintings.

Though he valued the time he spent studying with the Ash Can School, Slinkard ultimately rejected Henri’s philosophy of “art for life’s sake” in favor of symbolist tendencies. In 1910, Slinkard’s family insisted that he return to Los Angeles.

Upon his return to the west coast, Slinkard was elected Director of Los Angeles Art Students League from 1910 to 1913. He immensely liked by both students and colleagues and it was said that even Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) who was known as the “supreme egotist” of the League “never said anything disparaging about his former colleague” (Armstrong-Totten 11). Slinkard was the first instructor at the League to introduce Asian art into the curriculum, thus building the students’ knowledge of art history as well as physical technique. Macdonald-Wright would eagerly further this method of teaching with his own students.

Slinkard’s life drawing classes were the first in Los Angeles to incorporate the Henri school’s drawing principles and he insisted upon teaching this methodology instead of his own experimental, mythical style that would fully emerge only after parting ways with the League.

In 1913, Slinkard gave up his position as Director to begin working on the Slinkard ranch at Saugus, in the hills of Tehachapi. Many sources site family necessity as the reason for this sudden transition, but the pages of the Los Angeles Times reveal the soon scandalized circumstances surrounding the vacant position. In 1913, Slinkard hastily married his model Jessie Augsbury, who was concurrently pregnant with Slinkard’s son. It was reported later the same year that Jessie Slinkard sued her parents-in-law after the artist left her and never returned. His wife later filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Though it is scarcely documented, Slinkard was bisexual and from 1915 to 1917, he was romantically linked with fellow artist Jack Stark (Moure 107).

Slinkard’s father had financially supported the artist throughout his creative endeavors, but openly disapproved of his son’s artistic lifestyle. After relocating to his family’s ranch, Slinkard lived a fairly isolated life. He began painting his major independent works during this time, yet the work he is now considered famous for was never displayed during his life. Slinkard developed an innovative, modern style that was influenced by Chinese art, European modernists, and California landscape and created his works in the cellar of his parents’ home. Slinkard’s major painting, Young Rivers, is a landscape based on irrigation ditches on the family ranch.

In 1917, Slinkard was drafted into the Army where he contracted scarlet fever, but managed to recover. However, the following year, Slinkard was stationed in New York City, awaiting troop transport to Europe when he fell victim to the influenza epidemic. At the age of thirty-one, Slinkard died in New York City’s St. Vincent’s Hospital on October 18, 1918.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“How many are there who know, or could have known, the magic of this unassuming visionary person. Only a few of us who understand the meaning of magic and the meaning of everlasting life.” –Marsden Hartley on Rex Slinkard

Though Rex Slinkard only taught his students the methodology of the Ash Can School, his own artwork was much more experimental. Some qualities of the East Coast school would always remain within Slinkard’s art, including the dark, dramatic palate and painterly technique that characterized many of his paintings.

However, the California landscape, specifically his family’s ranch in Saugus would benefit Slinkard in ways that his technical training was unable to do. In a letter to his friend Carl Sprinchorn, Slinkard spoke of his East Coast background, stating that “Dear Mr. Henri, I like him as well as I used to but his pictures are not for me…I wish he could lie on his back and look into the sky till he became sleepy—and lie there and sleep” (Walker 21).

In this manner, Slinkard’s art evokes a form of Symbolic modernism. His figures, depicted in broad brushstrokes, suggest feeling and set a mood rather than establish specific actions or narrative. The dark intensity of the palate provides his images with a mystical overtone that implies that Slinkard’s art is not merely about the reproduction of landscape, but rather “the clear attainment of a transcendental and meditative state of mind and nature” (Walker 23). These connections to nature and the interiority of Slinkard’s thoughts can be seen as an extension of the Romantic tradition that prevailed throughout nineteenth century Europe.

Fellow artist Marsden Hartley described Slinkard as a “poet-painter” and equated his work with world renown Romantic William Blake because above all else, Slinkard’s work was viewed as “the simple speech of a ranchman of California, a real boy-man who loved everything with a poet’s live because everything that lived, lived for him” (Hartley 93). While Blake was recognized for his art’s connection to nature, he was principally known for the emphasis he placed on the importance of imagination within art. This tradition of producing authentic works that originate from within was also addressed by Slinkard who wrote “It’s wonderful to work. To work with the inside of oneself…Imagination—that’s the one thing I can paint with. I am lost without it” (Moure 106). The similarities drawn between Blake and Slinkard may have been imbued upon the later during his travels to Paris in 1911, which is indicated by the fact that this sensibility is predominantly present in his later works.

While Slinkard holds a strong connection the European Romantics, he also acknowledged that he drew inspiration from a wide rage of sources including Renaissance Masters, European Modernists, and even Asian art. This large variety of sources reveals Slinkard’s exhilarating desire to accumulate art historical knowledge and create an authentic art form that would only tragically become known after his passing. Slinkard did not exhibit his experimental work during his lifetime, but received great praise through institutions such as The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, The Los Angeles County Museum, and the Stanford Art Gallery, who admired Slinkard’s art posthumously.

Though Slinkard’s life was sadly cut short, his art shows that his “sheer exhilaration at being alive and being so close to the nature that he loved with his total being overlapped into whatever medium of expression that was at hand” (Walker 23). Thus, Slinkard’s paintings, drawings, and letters fortunately allow one a view into the mind of a great artist taken tragically before his time.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1887 Born in Bicknell, Indiana
  • 1908 Wins scholarship to study art in New York City
  • 1908-1910 Studies under Robert Henri and the Ash Can School
  • 1909 Begins teaching at Art Students League in Los Angeles, CA
  • 1910 Returns to Los Angeles, CA
  • 1910-13 Becomes Director of the Art Students League
  • 1911 Travels to Paris
  • 1913 Marries and later divorces Jessie Augsbury
  • 1917 Drafted into the United States Army
  • 1918 Dies of influenza in New York City
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1910 Blanchard Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1910 Los Angeles Art Students League, CA
  • 1919 Memorial Exhibition, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
  • 1919 Memorial Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum of Art, CA
  • 1920 Knoedler & Co., New York City, NY
  • 1923 Independent Artists of Los Angeles, Taos Building, CA
  • 1929 Los Angeles Museum of Art, CA
  • 1964 Long Beach Museum of Art, CA
  • 1975 Stanford Art Gallery, Stanford University, CA
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Los Angeles Art Students League
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Armstrong-Totten, Julia. “The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles,” A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953. Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2008.
    2. 2. Hartley, Marsden. “Rex Slinkard,” Adventures in the Arts; Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville and Poets. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1972.
    3. 3. Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall. California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media. Los Angeles: Dustin Publications, 1998.
    4. 4. Walker, John Alan. “Rex Slinkard,” The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art Journal, No. 3 (December 1974), 20-23.

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