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A Blue-Chip Collection

Art Review: In Steve Wynn's hands, $300 million has bought a stylish mix of sure-fire favorites and serious-minded fare for his Bellagio Gallery.

October 19, 1998|CHRISTOPHER'K'I'HT | TIMES ART CRITIC

LAS VEGAS — Bellagio, Steve Wynn's newest hotel and casino on Sin City's crowded Strip, is an over-the-top orgy of luxurious excess. And that means the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, with its almost uniformly first-rate paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Van Gogh, Degas, Brancusi, Giacometti, Pollock, De Kooning, Johns and 15 other celebrated Modern and contemporary artists, fits right in.

The idea of having an art gallery inside a Vegas gambling hall is of course unusual on its face, especially as there's not a print by Leroy Neiman anywhere in sight. Like the Armani, Prada, Fred Leighton and other tony boutiques proffering luxury goods in the shopping arcade far across the bustling casino floor, the Bellagio Gallery has a job to do. Wynn, who perfected the concept of casino-as-theme-park that revitalized Las Vegas in the 1980s, now wants to stay ahead of the newest Vegas curve, by positioning Bellagio at the top of a newly emerging heap of high-end resorts. And high art says high end.

The gallery, with its drop-dead examples of classic art by established names, sets a distinctive tone that guarantees notice--especially by gamblers in the coveted Asian market, where Monet and Van Gogh, themselves inspired by Asian art, now represent the pinnacle of Western sophistication and success. Unlike the alluring jewelry and clothing boutiques, which can, after all, be found in other well-heeled cities globally, the Bellagio Gallery is sui generis. You can only find it here.

As a marketing tool this concept can only work if the art collection is good. Wynn has understood, as (for example) the late J. Paul Getty never did, that you can't get a first-rate collection by chasing bargains. The hotelier has spent a lot of money--reportedly $300 million, some of it the corporation's, some his own--and he hasn't been shy about publicizing the extravagant expense. Even that is good for the high-end image.

The gallery's inaugural collection is good, too--very good, sometimes even great.

There are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, like Monet's pristine "Water-Lily Pond With Bridge" (1905), which is as fine an example of this classic Impressionist subject as you will see; Degas' =unbelievably limpid gouache with pastel, "Dancer Taking a Bow" (circa 1877), a knockout that hasn't been displayed in public for nearly 50 years; and Van Gogh's large and imposing 1890 portrait of a peasant woman.

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But there are tough pictures, too, like another Van Gogh that's a gritty landscape showing an anonymous worker at the yawning mouth of a stone quarry. The 1889 painting is as bold and rough-hewn as its subject.

Not just another pretty face, unusual works like this add seriousness and rigor to the collection. If the building were on fire, in fact, the pictures I'd tuck under each arm on the way out the door would be Joan Miro's "Dialogue of Insects" (1924-25), a dazzling transitional work with one foot in the decorative manner of Catalan folk art and the other in the Parisian dream-world of Surrealism; and Cezanne's "Portrait of a Woman" (circa 1900), thought by some to be his housekeeper, who is rendered with the stolid grandeur of Mont Ste.-Victoire.

The gallery, located off the flower-filled conservatory adjacent to the hotel lobby, is small--just 1,700 square feet--and the hanging in the first of its two rooms is somewhat crowded. (Plans are already afoot for a move to larger quarters.) The style is clubby country house--wood paneling, beige marble floors, bronze guard-rails, green mohair walls--except for the 34 security cameras in the coffered ceiling.

The smaller rear gallery is a veritable jewel box, the only less-than-ravishing work among its 10 Impressionist and Post-impressionist canvases a fussy Renoir of two girls sitting by a river. (Note to Renoir junkies: Content yourselves instead with the lovely little oil sketch of his 1874 masterpiece "The Loge.") The front room, featuring 14 paintings and three sculptures, all from the 20th century, is a bit more uneven, but overall the level of quality amazes.

A terrific--and apparently authentic!--portrait by the much-forged Modigliani hangs next to Brancusi's similarly stylized bronze bust of Mlle. Pogany, and near Picasso's haunted final portrait of his downtrodden lover, photographer Dora Maar. The soulful, poetic Picasso is well on its way to becoming a legendary picture.

(And note to Picasso fans: Check out the hotel's sumptuous restaurant, named Picasso, which is adorned with about a dozen of the Spaniard's pictures, including a sweet little portrait of Marie-Therese Walter, a spiky wartime still life and a Lear-like late self-portrait. In all, it's a more provocative, satisfying display than the tired Picasso show currently at the L.A. County Museum of Art.)

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