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Getting The Hang Of It

Shop For Truth and Beauty in Real Art, and Forget The Color of The Sofa

September 24, 2000|MARY MCNAMARA | Mary McNamara is a staff writer in The Times' Southern California Living section. She last wrote for the magazine about the L.A. look

Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Or at least a bare wall. As any 2-year-old with a crayon will prove in three seconds flat, the urge to decorate is deeply rooted and early blooming. Most of us, however, don't have walls of our own until after college. During those early salad days, when many of us could only afford the salad, we decorated with milk crates and found bureaus, and bookshelves made of two-by-fours and bricks. On our walls we hung flags of all nations, portraits of Mao, the periodic table of elements, framed museum prints.

Surging toward 30, we moved from one apartment to another, maybe to a house. The milk crates were stowed in the basement; we discovered good upholstery and window treatments. The faded Boston Museum Monets gave way to photographs and sketches, maybe a good reproduction or two. Some of us began visiting galleries even when free wine wasn't available; some of us brought our checkbooks.

We surround ourselves with things--shapes and images, colors and textures--that make statements about who we are and what we like, to remind us of experiences and feelings, to make the space we occupy our own. And at a certain age and income, we are faced with the possibility of Real Art. Of owning Real Art. Of having Real Art in our very own homes. Of decorating with Real Art.

Suddenly the line between form and function blurs. Because while it is one thing to buy that Japanese iris print partly because you really like it and partly because the purple matches the border of your throw rug, it's another to invest in an Ed Ruscha (if you could get one) because the size works with that one bare wall in the dining room. Art, especially contemporary art, is not necessarily easy on the eye. It is supposed to make you think and feel, to move you and change you. But some of us may not be up to being moved and changed every time we shuffle into the living room, or slouch over a cup of coffee and the latest Pottery Barn catalog at the dining room table.

There is also the rest of the home to consider. Most artists believe their work exists on its own, impervious to surroundings. Yet a painting does require a wall, and walls so often have other inhabitants--sofas and chairs, bookcases and French demi-lunes. Unless you can devote space in your home solely to art, which some folks do, the art you buy will become part of your decor.

Which explains the eternal popularity of the still life--a few flowers, a few pieces of fruit, a dead pheasant or two, nothing to disrupt the color scheme--hey, it's art, ain't it?

"We used to call them OTC paintings," says Hollywood Hills art consultant and collector Merry Norris. "Because they had to fit Over the Couch and, if possible, blend in with the fabric. That was the way people used to start collecting, and many still do."

It all boils down to one's primary motive: to decorate a room or to build a collection? If the buyer is looking to begin, or fill out, a collection, then the art is chosen for itself. If the room or house is the catalyst, well, then, a variety of things can happen.

"Have I had people pick art to match the sofa? Absolutely," Norris says. About 15 years ago, one couple hired her to help buy art for their house. Norris took them to James Corcoran's now-defunct West Hollywood gallery, where, to her horror, the woman drew out of her bag a bunch of fabric swatches. "Mauve! I was just mortified. I had no idea what to do or say. So we're sitting there and Corcoran disappears, and when he comes back, he has a painting, all wrapped up--I can hear the crinkle of the plastic to this day--and he pulls out a De Kooning. That matches these swatches perfectly.

A De Kooning. I don't think they got it," she adds, "but I thought it was priceless."

Another pair of collectors wanted to buy a painting to go over their fireplace. "They said maybe it could be a landscape," she remembers, "and maybe it could have a couple of cows."

She went on to help them build a very good collection, she says,"but we never did put anything over that fireplace. And there were certainly no cows involved."

At the hotter small galleries in Los Angeles--Acme, Post, Marc Foxx, Karyn Lovegrove--rarely are cows in evidence, at least not cows as we know them. Yet business is booming, so clearly many collectors are putting the art before the room--minimalist and abstract works are mighty hard to work into an interior. You either have to decorate around a Kienholz, or just let it say what it says, regardless of the surroundings. One collector who recently bought a Uta Barth from Acme found this out the hard way. After hanging his acquisition he found he had to take everything else off the walls because, says Acme's Bettina Hubby, "they were distracting him from the picture."

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