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Wanna Buy a Painting?

Len Aaron of Aaron Bros. fame fancies himself a kind of Jackson Pollock. And he sells his art the way he once sold frames: out of his car.

December 23, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each of the collectible cars parked in the gracious curve of Len Aaron's Beverly Hills driveway is loaded with paintings, ready to go. There are two canvases in the trunk of the blue 1987 Zimmer, and three more in the back of the Jaguar. There are probably a few stashed in the rear of the Testarossa, too.

Eighty-four-year-old Aaron, the co-founder and former president of Aaron Bros.--purveyor of frames, framed art, prints and art supplies to the masses--has returned to his business roots. In the 1930s, he got his start selling frames door-to-door. This time around, he's hawking paintings. His own drippy, spattered, splotchy, canvases.

"They aren't Renoirs," he points out. "I don't kid myself."

No, they are not Renoirs, or Rembrandts. And much as Aaron likes to make the comparison, they are not even Pollocks. But, as so many in this town have proven, if you've got money, a dream and a silver-tongued publicist, you can reinvent yourself as just about anything.

Aaron has never taken an art class in his life and hasn't read much about art, either. He saw the movie "Pollock, " and it seemed to leave a strong impression. "He used to drip paint down, crawling around on his hands and knees," Aaron said. "Personally, I do it from upstairs."

In the backyard of his mansion, the wild-haired former cowboy film extra spends his days creating what he calls "primitive abstract mixed-media" paintings by pouring colors from atop a jungle gym ladder onto canvases below. If the gardener accidentally spews grass clippings on a canvas, or a wayward squirrel skids across a still-moist patch of blue goo, Aaron just incorporates that into the chaotic whorls of the works-in-progress that litter his house, yard and pool area.

Aaron has no highfalutin notions about art. He's not trying to make a statement with the paintings. "What they are is just color," he says.

It's hard to tell if he is making a mockery of the artistic process, celebrating it or just trying to cash in on it. Maybe all three.

Aaron says he sells his paintings, which are churned out at a rate of about 10 a month, for between $150 and $5,000. (More sell in the lower range than the high.) He estimates he's sold about 5,000 pieces in the course of his career. His work is available at select Aaron Bros. Art & Framing stores and through some art wholesalers. But many of his sales are consummated during nightly rounds to his favorite watering holes--places such as Rooke's Restaurant in Santa Monica, the Kibitz Room at Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue and Dan Tana's in West Hollywood.

That is the mission this Monday night. Aaron sits, amid foie gras and french fries, on a barstool at La Brasserie on Wilshire Boulevard, sipping Scotch and peddling paintings to friends, business associates and anyone else who will listen. He is accompanied by Oscar Jimenez, 36, a photographer and friend who works as his assistant two or three times a week.

Looking like a saloon cowboy caught in a time warp, Aaron wears a black 10-gallon hat, a string tie and black pointy boots. On his fingers, he wears huge rings of amber, turquoise, and what appear to be the bones of some wild animal. "I gotta look like an artist," he says.

Aaron got his start during the Depression when he and his older brother, Allmore, a photographer, began selling picture frames out of a Model A Ford in their home state of Wisconsin. Customers usually bought the frames for prints and photographs. Hard to imagine today, but in the 1930s, paintings were a luxury available only to the wealthy.

The brothers opened their first store on La Brea Avenue in 1946. The frame business grew, and eventually they began filling the empty frames, mostly with prints of country scenes that were in vogue at the time.

After a while, they began to sell paintings, too.

Aaron Bros. began working with interior decorators, wholesaling paintings and frames to hotels. Artists would paint to order, fast, and in whatever color scheme was demanded. Some were very good, capable of selling a single painting for $5,000, Aaron said. "But if we needed 100 paintings, we would pay them $10 a painting."

Michaels arts and crafts stores purchased the chain in 1996 and still operates 125 stores under the Aaron Bros. name in seven states. Allmore Aaron died in 1997.

It was after the sale to Michaels that Aaron's "artistic passion bloomed," according to a press release, which also promotes Aaron as the "Jackson Pollock of the blue-haired set." "As much as I occasionally exaggerate for a living, I actually had to rein it in on Len," says Peter Berk of Crier Communications. "He is just a real oddball sweet character. All he ever wanted was to sell his paintings."

Although he was financially set for life, Aaron couldn't believe how much some artists were making. "You go into a great hotel, you walk in and you see a big wall with a little dot in the middle," he says.

And?

"I think it's exciting that someone would buy it."

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