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The GRAND QUEST : Frederick Weisman's Decade-Long Dream of Finding an L.A. Home for His Celebrated Modern Art Collection

December 20, 1987|DEBORAH SOLOMON | Deborah Solomon is the author of "Jackson Pollock: A Biography" (Simon and Schuster).

IT'S A SWELTERING MORNING in San Antonio, with the mercury nearing a hundred. But heat doesn't stop Frederick Weisman. By 10 a.m., the 75-year-old Los Angeles art collector has arrived by limousine at the Blue Star Art Complex, a strip of galleries occupying former warehouses on the fringes of downtown. The whole city knows he's here. His arrival in Texas the night before was reported on the evening news, accompanied by footage of Weisman and his entourage of eight stepping off his private plane at the city's Million Air International Airport.

Weisman, a short, genial, energetic man whose fortune is based on distributing Toyotas, has come to Texas for a special occasion--an exhibition at the San Antonio Art Institute of works from his collection. A round of parties has been organized in his honor, and his next two days will be spent hobnobbing with prominent San Antonians who can't wait to tell him, "Ah juss luuuuv your collection!" Weisman isn't here, however, merely to be complimented. His plan is to comb the local galleries and scout new talent. He's on a shopping spree, he's got millions to spend, and the town is jumping to please him.

One of his first stops is the Film Haus Gallery, a small, whitewashed loft on South Alamo Street that is exhibiting works by a Texas artist named Mike Pogue. The proprietors are expecting him and have set out some sodas and a bucket of ice. Weisman, dressed in his customary outfit of a monogrammed shirt, custom-made slacks and Gucci loafers, doesn't bother to pause for a drink as he hops around the gallery and admires each work. "It's great to see what Texas artists are doing," he says enthusiastically, as he dabs sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

Suddenly he stops before a work he particularly likes. Pogue's "Moosolini" is a brash, jokey sculpture consisting of a giant moose nose topped by bright green antlers. Beside it hangs a sign: "$229.95 Cheap." It's not high art, there's nothing serious about it, and that Weisman seems to be considering buying it causes consternation among his entourage. Would he actually add this preposterous moose by an unknown artist to a collection that consists of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art, of Picassos and Pollocks?

"Someone put handcuffs on him," murmurs Charles Arnoldi, a Venice artist who has come along on the trip with his wife, Katie. Weisman has been collecting Arnoldi's work for years, and one of his sculptures is featured in the show at the San Antonio Art Institute.

Standing nearby is Henry T. Hopkins, a seasoned art historian and former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who now oversees Weisman's collection. "It may be the best joke in the show," he says of the moose, "but the least interesting work of art."

Weisman, however, isn't dissuaded. "I think I know where I'll put it," he says. "I have a place in the board of directors room." He asks his curator to take care of the billing instructions, and then he's off to the next gallery.

FOR MORE THAN three decades, Frederick R. Weisman has been buying art, and the results are impressive. He is widely regarded as one of the country's leading collectors of 20th-Century art, and his name is familiar to virtually everyone in the art world. Such a reputation obviously wasn't built on Moosolinis alone. Since 1952, when Weisman and his former wife, Marcia, began their collection with the purchase of Jean Arp's sculpture "Self-Absorbed," he has steadily been acquiring important works by important artists, from Cezanne to Giacometti to Arshile Gorky. The value of his collection is conservatively estimated at $60 million.

But unlike most collectors specializing in blue-chip art, Weisman isn't interested merely in amassing masterpieces by certain name artists. An easygoing, open-minded man, he buys whatever grabs his eye. He sees himself as a kind of art ambassador, jetting off in his private plane (painted midnight blue with a galaxy of stars by artist Ed Ruscha) to cities as distant as Lisbon or Jerusalem to show his collection, discover new artists and generate good will. "The art is almost secondary compared to the excitement of supporting artists," says Venice painter Laddie John Dill, who accompanied Weisman to San Antonio. "He thrives on the energy. It keeps him alive."

Still, Weisman's collection, with all its quirks, wouldn't be of interest to many people if his only intention was to support young artists and stock his house in Holmby Hills with their creations. Weisman's ambitions are far grander in scope. Like the artists he collects, he wants to be remembered. His plan is to start his own art museum, one that could eventually make his name as familiar as those of Frick, Guggenheim, Morgan--and his former brother-in-law, Norton Simon.

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