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Framing an Art World Merger

July 08, 1998|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A photo self-portrait of Catherine Opie shows the artist ornately tattooed and dressed in leather, with a nipple ring, multiple needles piercing the length of bare arms and a leather mask pulled down over her face.

Los Angeles businessman and art collector Clyde Beswick bought the artwork sight unseen, then hung it over the sofa in his Mt. Washington home, where others might place a landscape or a bowl of fruit.

Those in L.A.'s art world call Beswick a daring collector, who during his art-buying heyday in the 1980s and '90s made choices based not on blue-chip value, but on his own unfettered tastes and love of new artists, particularly young Southern Californians.

This former New York advertising executive is the kind of guy who would not only buy Opie's self-portrait--he also traveled with the artist for a week in Japan. "She's the nicest, sweetest person you could ever know," he said. "She photographed me. . . . She brought out her needles and threatened to stick me with them." (For the record, she never did.)

Through some unusual circumstances--and not by Beswick's choice--all of the artwork in Beswick's cutting-edge collection no longer belongs to Beswick, and most of the pieces are soon to become part of the public domain.

When Beswick's 700-piece collection was purchased for a reported $1.5 million by Santa Monica collectors and philanthropists Peter and Eileen Norton, the Nortons delighted the contemporary art world by vowing to donate parcels of the overlapping Beswick-Norton holdings to regional museums and institutions.

Peter Norton says donations will not be made for at least two years, but the Norton Family Foundation recently hired former Los Angeles art gallery owner Thomas Solomon to begin documenting the Beswick and Norton artworks--a total of more than 2,000--as the first step in the process of deciding what to keep, what to sell and what to give away.

The Beswick collection--which includes works by about 300 artists, including Opie, Lari Pittman, Nayland Blake, Karen Carson, Mike Kelley and Gillian Wearing--has been tied up in court since March 1997, when Brody Smythe Direct Inc., a Pasadena-based direct mail company co-founded by Clyde Beswick, charged him with embezzling company funds to buy artworks. Beswick was convicted of embezzlement in 1997, served 11 months in prison and now resides in a halfway house in Los Angeles.

Beswick's wife, Karen, sued for divorce May 31, 1996. Some proceeds from the art sale will go toward the settlement. Beswick called the arrangement amicable.

He also calls the past year "the best year and the worst year of my life"--and the sale to the Nortons is one of the things that made it the best. "When I was told [of the Nortons' donation plan], I literally started to cry," Beswick said in a recent interview. "It was the most touching thing that could have happened."

Solomon, whose now-defunct Thomas Solomon's Garage on Fairfax was once one of the more adventurous galleries in town, said a major challenge is deciding how best to package the artworks. In addition to the obvious option of grouping works by media--painting, sculpture, video--Solomon said such considerations as gender issues (both collections feature prominent gay artists), relationships and other psychological themes may shape the donation packages.

In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit that built his fortune (Peter Norton Computing Inc., which merged with Symantec Corp. in 1990), Peter Norton said the artworks will be donated without restrictions as to their use. Norton also said he will not donate everything, and says that artworks "of significant value" will probably be put up for sale or kept.

Trevor Fairbrother, director for art and chief curator of the Seattle Art Museum (in Peter Norton's hometown), called the decision to donate from Beswick's and the Nortons' collections "another example of the Norton ingenuity . . . for some museums, as much as you want the art, the restrictions can be so tight that it can be a burden."

Other museum officials hailed the Nortons' plan to donate as a chance to acquire daring work without being impeded by cautious boards of trustees, hesitant to take risks with dwindling acquisition funds.

"It's not traditional, it makes incredibly good sense, it's maverick and it's brilliant--that's Peter Norton," said Madeleine Grynsztejn, curator of contemporary art at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art. Grynsztejn has been a recipient of a grant from the Norton Family Foundation's Curator's Grant Program, which provides funds to museum curators to purchase artworks for their museums.

Meg Linton, curator of exhibitions at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, said: "It would be great if we could get something. . . . [At our museum] students can study original works of art and request art from the vaults. To have contemporary Los Angeles artists among that group would be fabulous for research."

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