March 04, 2016

A Private Estate's Incredible Stash of Contemporary Art

Los Angeles is a pretty modern city, so you'd expect it to have an abundance of contemporary art.

And it does...if you can find it.

Nowadays, probably the first contemporary art destination that comes to mind for locals and visitors alike is The Broad—mostly because it's new and shiny. But many of the pieces in its collection (at least of those that are on display in its inaugural show) had already been on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.

Of course, there's always the Museum of Contemporary Art, across the street from and now standing in the shadow of The Broad on Grand Avenue in Downtown LA. With the exception of their street art show a couple of years ago, it's always seemed like the more exciting scene in contemporary art has been at the galleries in Downtown or Hollywood or Koreatown or Mid-Wilshire.

After all, it's no MoMA. In my experience, you're better off heading to El Segundo or Pasadena to take in some modern art.

But lo and behold, one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the U.S. resides right here in Beverly Hills, at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation.

It's technically a museum run as a non-profit out of a former private home in the Holmby Hills neighborhood, up the road from Michael Jackson's former mansion and within spitting distance of where Walt's Barn used to reside on Carolwood Drive.

Of course, you wouldn't know it when passing by the entrance, which looks like it belongs to any other humble estate in the area. That is, you wouldn't know unless you paid attention to the bronze sculpture stationed by the gate.

A menagerie of sculptures greet visitors along the driveway...

...strategically placed to intermingle both sculptors and styles.

Some are nestled in the hedges, waiting for you to discover them...

...while others stand guard by the door.

Fred Weisman was a Minnesotan industrialist who made his fortune first through Hunt Foods and subsequently as the first stateside distributor of Japanese cars in the 1970s. He bought this 1920s Mediterranean estate—which was designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann (of Greystone MansionSanta Anita Racetrack, and Hoover Dam fame)—in 1982, as a new bachelor looking for somewhere to put all the 20th century art he'd been acquiring with all that money he'd been making.

Photo: Frederick R. Weisman Foundation Facebook page 

His former home is more or less frozen in time at the point at which he and his second wife, Billie, moved into another home a few blocks away. They'd been welcoming lots of visitors to view their art collection (including two Clyfford Stills and a few by Lichtenstein and Rucha); and as a result, they hadn't been getting any privacy. So, when they moved out, they left it "as is," to show what it would be like to live in a home, surrounded by art.

Photo: Frederick R. Weisman Foundation Facebook page 

Not only that, but if anyone were to live here now, they'd be surrounded by a cache of some of the most important contemporary artists and works in the world. I'm talking not only Warhol (who was Fred's close personal friend), but also C├ęzanne, Pollack, Rothko, Calder, Klee, and Kandinsky. You'd wake up to Willem de Kooning's beloved "Pink Angels" painting (paired with his "Dark Pond"), have lunch with Magritte's "The Mysteries of the Horizon," and read a book across from Picasso's "Mother and Child" (from his Blue Period). There would be a Giacometti self portrait (either a painting or a sculpture) at nearly every turn.

If you were to walk onto the patio to take a dip in the pool, you'd be greeted by "Adam" and "Eve," two of several Botero bronzes arranged throughout the property.

The voluptuous figures designed by the Colombian sculptor intermingle with bronze sculptures from Japan, bronze sculptures painted white to look like plaster...

...and some fanciful robots by Tom Otterness.

The house might not look like much from the front...

...but 'round back, it's clear that this is a sprawling (though oddly shaped) property with steep slopes...

...whose outdoor collection above the ravine... just as important as the one indoors.

And the architecture—as lovely and historic as it is—has taken a backseat to the art.

French doors and windows were removed and blocked off to create more space for hanging paintings...

...and patios and porches were closed off to house custom-made furniture and sculptures.

Although it's a permanent collection, with only two pieces having been added (both in 2014) since they moved out, a few pieces are occasionally loaned out to other museums, so it is possible to miss something during a tour. Besides, it's just impossible to take it all in in one visit.

By 1991, Fred had remarried and had amassed so much art and had used up so much free space in the main house (even hanging paintings on the ceiling)...

...that he commissioned a post-modern annex to be built to hold some of his larger sculptural pieces...

Photo: Frederick R. Weisman Foundation Facebook page

...including his collection of Andy Warhol's Marilyns.

At one point during my tour, I rounded the corner of a room and came face-to-face with a "super realistic" sculpture of a naked man and woman in an embrace (the masterful work of Duane Hanson). Without thinking, I said, "Whoa."

My docent laughed. "Fred would've loved that," she said. "That's exactly the reaction he wanted."

It may seem that there's no rhyme or reason to a collection that's so diverse. How can the same collector treat figurative art equally with abstract, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, Post-War, and pop art? How can the works of masters be hung alongside those of unknowns?

Since Fred passed away in 1994, he's not here to  explain it to us. But then again, I don't think he could have even when he was alive.

Somehow, it makes a certain sense to view an Alan Siegel chair next to a Keith Haring, surrounded by chintz, woodblock prints, photo collages, a video installation by Nam June Paik, and an infinity mirror and other optical illusions.

We may not have a Whitney or a Guggenheim or a Tate Modern, but we've got a world-class contemporary art collection stashed away in a villa with hand-painted ceilings, gifted to us by an eccentric philanthropist with eclectic taste and a knack for championing the underdog before the rest of the world catches on.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Broad Museum & Its One Big Draw
Photo Essay: The Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens
Photo Essay: A Fairy Tale World of Sculpture, Tile and Glass
Naturalist Urban Wanderer Seeks Same

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