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Metropolis / So SoCal

At Home With the Modern Masters

April 28, 2002|MICHELE BOTWIN

The words "Holmby Hills" and "free" don't usually go hand in hand. But unsuspected by most culture vultures, a treasure trove of modern art is open to the public for free in the same community that shelters the Playboy Mansion and the home of TV magnate Aaron Spelling.

A headless Botero sculpture juts discreetly above the neatly trimmed hedge at the estate where art collector extraordinaire Frederick R. Weisman lived until his death in 1994. An entrepreneur and philanthropist who made his fortune as a Toyota distributor, Weisman purchased the 1920s Mediterranean-style villa in the 1980s to showcase a stunning collection of nearly 500 20th century artworks that reflects his penchant for innovation, eclectism and, often, humor.

Weisman and his wife, Billie Milam, relished living among art pieces spanning the European Modernist to the Super Realist movements. The two were prone to "midnight hanging capers," and each room remains as it stood when Weisman passed away. An Ed Ruscha painting of a globe accented by scallions is displayed on the ceiling in an upstairs den; a Duane Hanson sculpture of an elderly Florida shopper clad in fluorescent polyester top and shorts loiters in a downstairs hallway. In the living room, a painting from Picasso's Blue Period shares space with a dainty dancer sculpture by Robert Graham and a chunky granite Isamu Noguchi table; a bronze by surrealist Rene Magritte adorns the study; and an Yves Klein sculpture sits in the upstairs master bedroom, across from an Andy Warhol painting. "People not used to modern art can relate to it in a homelike setting," says Milam, who curates the collection and runs the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation.

The effect of the works that inundate the villa, grounds and adjoining annex building is breathtaking, even to connoisseurs. As one New York art collector put it, clutching her chest during a recent tour, "I thought I had seen it all. I've never seen anything like this."

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Docent-led tours are available to groups of as many as 15 on weekdays by appointment; (310) 277-5321; www.weismanfoundation.org.

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