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The Rifkind Touch

From his Beverly Hills aerie, the drugstore heir has assembled a world-class collection of German art.

November 01, 2001|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What does a prominent patron of the arts wear when visitors come to see his world-class collection in his Beverly Hills home? Whatever he wants.

On a warm Indian summer day, Robert Gore Rifkind, a 73-year-old retired lawyer who has acquired one of the most extensive and important collections of German Expressionist art in the world, conducts a private tour wearing a royal blue knit polo shirt, loose black shorts, tall tube socks and plastic sandals. He pauses in front of "The Last Judgment" by Walter Jacob, a large oil on canvas that shows a man dragging a woman to her execution by her hair. Any chance Rifkind's very casual costume had of surprising his guests is superseded by the shock the painting delivers.

"This art isn't intended to relax you," Rifkind explains, bluntly stating the obvious.

The fact that much of German Expressionism is so intense and disturbing is precisely what draws Rifkind to it. The movement began in 1906 with five young artists who rebelled against the bourgeois art dominant in late 19th century Germany. Their goal was to change society as well as the prevailing artistic styles. In the next 30 years, their numbers swelled and their work became some of the most powerful social criticism in modern art history. Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner are among the best known of the movement; all of them are well represented in Rifkind's collection.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 1, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Art collector profile--A profile of Robert Gore Rifkind that appeared in Southern California Living on Nov. 1 incorrectly stated that Rifkind's grandfather established a chain of pharmacies that became Thrifty Drugstores. Thrifty Cut Rate Drug Stores was founded in 1929 by two brothers, Harry and Robert Borun, and their brother-in-law, Norman Levin.

When he began buying German Expressionism 30 years ago, the work was not in great demand. He cut an unrivaled swath through the art market, which had other darlings on its mind. Rifkind behaves like a man accustomed to getting his own way, so outbidding German museums--among others--was particularly gratifying.

Inherited and earned wealth and his stature as a collector and major museum donor have given Rifkind license to write his own scripts and command applause. When he introduces his secretary of 19 years as "the new girl," she smiles weakly, as if she hasn't heard the line many, many times. He tells a new acquaintance the tale of how his 94-year-old bachelor uncle died in bed with two 35-year-old women, without any awareness that not everyone would find the story as amusing as he.

Rifkind receives several requests a month from people eager to see the paintings and sculptures that fill his temperature-controlled, heavily secured house in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. Prim antique furniture, formal fabrics and muted colors give the rooms an Old World feel. With art everywhere--from the foyer, whose walls are covered with German Expressionist posters, to the master bedroom--the house looks as if it could belong to a prosperous Berliner.

Unhindered by the crowds that often flock to public exhibitions, art lovers visiting Rifkind's home can stand close enough to a painting to see the anguish in a man's eyes. Although a striking landscape by the German Expressionist Eric Heckle hangs in the library, most of the art is figurative, and torment is everywhere.

It's in the ravaged biblical hero's face in "The Legend of Samson" by Max Oppenheimer, in the body language of hulking sculptures of heavily burdened peasants by Kthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach. If the artists haven't depicted their subjects in the midst of a yowling scream, it's easy to look at most of the works and imagine one is about to be unleashed.

Artists' Work Spoke to Him

How can you live with this art?, Rifkind admits he is often asked. "I love to be stimulated," he replies. To Rifkind, the voices of revolutionary artists creating in a turbulent era spoke louder than the abundance and natural beauty he was surrounded by, growing up privileged in Beverly Hills. His paternal grandfather moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1890 and established a chain of pharmacies that became Thrifty Drugstores. (The family no longer holds an interest in the company, now known as Rite-Aid.) Joseph Rifkind, his father, was a lawyer and later a federal bankruptcy court judge.

The art Rifkind was exposed to as a young man was more decorative than the style that later became his passion. "Like almost everyone in my generation, I was brainwashed into thinking if art was French, it was good," he says. "When I graduated from Harvard Law School in the '50s, I began to collect what everyone else did--Chagall, Matisse, Durand, Dufy, Picasso. I was drawn to Renaissance art, which my parents loved and had a few pieces of, but I knew it would be difficult for me to amass a major collection of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael."

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