Jan de Swart’s Bio
The work of Jan de Swart, in its unique interrelationship of art, applied science, and the newest technologies of the mid 20th century, is one of the most fully evolved expressions of modernist aesthetics. De Swart is primarily known for his accomplishments in architectural applications, sculpture and sculptural furniture. His primary mediums were wood, bronze, aluminum, plastics and cast stone. Jan de Swart’s passion for pure research in design, his genius for translating these basic ideas into three dimensional forms, his adventuresome approach working with new materials (he was one of the first artists to cast aluminum and to work in the then-new material of plastic) helped him to be recognized in the post-war era as a truly significant artist of the Modernist movement.
Jan de Swart was born in the small village of Ginneken near Breda in the southern part of the Netherlands close to the Belgian border. Originally named, Joannes Ludovicus Bernardus de Swart, it was not until de Swart immigrated to America in 1928 when his name became Jan de Swart. After several years of prospecting for gold and homesteading in the desert, de Swart eventually settled in Los Angeles.
In the 1930’s Jan de Swart became a part of Lingenbrink’s artist colony, Park Modern in Calabasas. This was an unusual artist colony formed in 1927 at the edge of the then largely pristine San Fernando Valley. The 140-acre colony in Calabasas gathered an inspired community of artists. Lingenbrink commissioned modernist architect Rudolph M. Schindler to design the small, cleanly styled Art Deco cottages and studios at Park Moderne. For three decades Park Moderne was a Mecca for artisans, painters, writers and musicians.
In 1942 the de Swart’s were married and moved to a hillside home in Eagle Rock, they named Allegro. Over the years there home became an ever-changing sculptural environment that attracted many creative people such as Richard Feynman (a close friend), Buckminster Fuller, Sam Francis, and John Huston.
De Swart had developed innovative processes of casting metal and sculpting wood at the time when the Modernist movement was gaining ground in the Southern Californian art community. De Swart’s fascination with organic design was apparent through his experimentations with unique methods, resulting in highly original sculptural forms, which were often biomorphic. He went on to produce countless studies for architectural art with the goal of integrating them directly into the building as columns, screens and panels. As de Swart continued to focus on fundamental principles of organic cell structures, he developed a number of cell-like structural patterns adaptable to plastic wall panels. His explorations of the living forms of nature as modular architectural building blocks that are at once structural and ornate (the forms of cells, the strength of the honeycomb, the elasticity of spider webs, the linking and reinforcing of fibers and plants, the patterns in diatoms and crystals) constitute a conceptual breakthrough of astonishing power and added an important element to the modernist vocabulary.
In 1947 John Entenza, one of the most influential individuals in Jan’s career, entered his life. Entenza was the editor of the avant-garde magazine, Arts & Architecture.
In an article by Elizabeth A. T. Smith, titled “Arts & Architecture & the Los Angeles Vanguard,” she stated,
“In Abstract and Surrealist in America, an important chronicle of contemporary art activity published in New York in 1944, Sidney Janis noted the creative community around Art & Architecture, as well as one particular reason for both its cohesiveness and its cosmopolitan view:
A group of the highest integrity has formed around John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture in Los Angeles, Charles Eames, Architect and designer; Herbert Matter, photographer; Ray Eames, [Harry] Bertoia, and Mercedes Carles, artists; and others have pooled their talents and efforts in a co-operative venture…”
She goes on to say,
“The new Arts and Architecture provided rich visual arts coverage, both local and national, with a decided orientation toward modernist abstraction. Photography by Herbert Matter, and prints, sculpture, and jewelry, and later furniture by Harry Bertoia appeared frequently in the magazine, as did illustrations or articles about the work of other modern artists. Among those Californians treated most consistently over time in its pages were Peter Krasnow, Knud Merrild, Claire Falkenstein, Tony Rosenthal, Jan de Swart, Ruth Asawa, Ynez Johnston, and June Wayne. These artists’ generally nonobjective vision, their use of biomorphic or geometric forms, and their affinity to (or actual use of) technological processes represent a cohesive link to the modern architecture embraced in the magazine. Falkenstein, Asawa, and de Swart each incorporated industrial materials -X- ray film, metal wire, and plastic or aluminum respectively – into their paintings and sculptures, experimenting with the potential of these materials to amplify the language of nonobjective form. Through the use of these techniques they sought an essential simplicity of expression and communication as well as a profound engagement with contemporary processes.” (Blueprints for Modern Living: History & Legacy of the Case Study Houses, 1989, p. 145-149).
Jan de Swart’s work was featured in at least seven issues of Arts and Architecture. His art was displayed on the covers and in extensive articles.
Jan de Swart’s artwork has been exhibited in a number of both group and solo exhibitions.
A large exhibition on Modern Architecture, which included important pieces, by Jan de Swart was the Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, which was presented at MOCA- The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA. between Oct. 17,1989 – Feb. 18, 1990. The exhibition was curated by, Elizabeth Smith and included exhibited works of art, architectural and furniture designs by Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Craig Elwood, Alvar Aalto, Ralph Rapson, Ruth Asawa, Harry Bertoia, Claire Falkenstein, Walter Gropious, Peter Krasnow, among other great names.
In 1961 some of de Swart’s most profound and modern sculptures which he had created from cast aluminum were displayed in an exhibition held at the American Business and the Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Following this exhibition, Jan de Swart’s innovative Aluminum Sculpture gained achievements and recognition among the art community.
In 1965, at the University of California at Santa Barbara an exhibition titled, “62 Works of Art from Santa Barbara and Vicinity,” displayed Jan de Swart’s aluminum sculpture, Construction. This exhibition included a selection of paintings, sculpture, and drawings from an impressive group of artists, including; Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Rufino Tamayo, Jean Arp, Robert Cremean, and Henry Moore, along with many others.
De Swart’s work was exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum; the Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills; Los Angeles County Art Institute; Baxter Art Gallery, CalTech; Lang Gallery, Scripps College; Fisher Gallery, USC; Pasadena College Art Gallery, CSUN Art Gallery; Palos Verdes Art Center and in 1986 the Laguna Art Museum held a extensive solo retrospective exhibition of Jan of de Swart’s works.
In 1964, Jan de Swart was awarded a gold medal by the “AIA” (The American Institute of Architects). Jan de Swart was awarded this medal for recognition of his innovative architectural sculptures and contributions to the field of architecture. According to the AIA: “The gold ‘Craftsmanship Medal’ shall be awarded to an individual craftsman for distinguished creative design and execution, where design and handcraftsmanship are inextricable.” “He (Jan de Swart) has completed commissions – sculptures, murals — for buildings designed by such architects as Victor Gruen FAIA, Welton Becket FAIA, Smith and Williams, and Buff, Straub and Hensman.” Other great artists who have been awarded a gold medal from the AIA include, George Nakashima, Harry Betroia, Paolo Soleri, Diego Rivera, Mark Tobey, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, and Richard Lippold.
One of the most extensive publications of Jan de Swart’s work was in an issue on “Plastics for the Arts” in Craft Horizons magazine, January, Vol. XVII No. 1. The de Swart cover story was the longest article the magazine had ever run.
De Swart also lectured at Collages and Universities including: USC, CSUN, CSULB, Art Center Collage of Design, and Caltech, where he taught and demonstrated his techniques and his views of the creative process. Art schools from all over Southern California regularly brought their students to Jan’s home and studio “Allegro” to experience Jan’s creations and listen to him talk about “The Creative Life”. Some of the most regular were Sister Mary Corita Kent, chairman of the art department of the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, and Tom Trammel chairman of the art department of the University of California at Northridge.
Biography provided by Dennis and Erica Clark of D.C.F.A.
Representing the Jan de Swart Estate