When Donald L. Bren is in the spotlight, it's usually because he is Orange County's biggest developer. But his tiff with state tax officials Thursday shifted the beam onto his esteemed art collection.
ARTnews magazine has ranked Bren's collection of contemporary art and French and English furniture among the world's top 200 for the last two years.
A trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Bren does not display his pieces in museums; he shows them in his Newport Beach and Los Angeles homes, at Irvine Co. corporate headquarters, where he is chairman, and at the Hyatt Regency Irvine, which he owns.
Those familiar with Bren's collection say it focuses on post-World War II American art, with a particular concentration in Abstract Expressionism.
His Los Angeles house boasts paintings by such luminaries from the New York school as Mark Rothko and Franz Kline, according to gallery owners and ARTnews, while Irvine Co. headquarters features California artists such as Ed Ruscha. Works by Laddie John Dill, Billy Al Bengston and Craig Kauffman grace the walls of the Hyatt Regency.
James Corcoran, owner of Santa Monica's Corcoran Gallery, helped Bren acquire pieces for his collection about 10 years ago and said he has "very good taste."
"If you offered two things, he'd choose the better of the two," Corcoran said.
Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, who has seen pieces at Bren's office and his home, described his taste as "very modern, very eclectic.
"He's an extremely sophisticated collector," Sheridan said.
Henry Hopkins, head of UCLA's art department, said Bren owns "important objects of post-World War II works of art," but added that it is "not a very public collection," since it is not widely shown.
Scott Wade, senior art consultant at the Works Gallery in Costa Mesa, said the Bren pieces he has seen have shared a rather architectural flavor, perhaps reflecting Bren's involvement with building and development. He cited works from Peter Alexander's "city lights" series, which depict cityscapes seen from above, and Craig Kauffman's paintings on silk.
"The ones I saw all felt like landlord art, like looking out over an empire, like everything-I-see-I-own," Wade said.