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Singular Commitment

Kourosh Larizadeh's interest in art by Mike Kelley is a quintessential L.A. story.


He'd been born in Iran but sent off to English boarding school at 14. His family was, he says, "a big industrial family under the shah"--Muslim, but not overly focused on religion. Everything changed for the Larizadehs during the Islamic revolution in 1979; the entire family fled to England, where Kourosh was already ensconced. For the first time, Kourosh found himself feeling disenfranchised, both from his home and from his religious upbringing. By the time he finished college in 1983, he wanted to make a big break, and in 1985 he moved to Los Angeles to help start up a private commercial bank with an old family friend.

Art soon became Larizadeh's calling card, although he was more the quiet intellectual in his pursuit than the kind of social aspirant that often inhabits the art world. He'd started dabbling at collecting in London, buying a Calder gouache at auction, but in L.A. he got serious.

Soon after landing here, Larizadeh says, he read an article about a group of up-and-coming artists--Lari Pittman, Mike Kelley, Jim Isermann and others--all of whom were pushing the artistic envelope, combining performance, tough psychological explorations with art historical references. All of these artists were living in L.A., and all were beginning to create a new definition for Los Angeles art that has since become an international phenomenon.

In the early '80s, many of these artists were showing at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, and by 1986, Larizadeh was a devotee. Taking a giant step away from that first Calder gouache, Larizadeh began to acquire whatever he could afford by these artists and others, trading up and challenging his taste along the way.

In late 1993, Kelley--just 39 at the time--was celebrated in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that later came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was a watershed moment for Larizadeh, who went to see the retrospective in both cities.

"When I saw that show, I decided that he's a very, very, very important artist," Larizadeh explained as he gave a tour of his house and collection recently. Speaking softly yet emphatically, he takes pains to convey the power of his convictions. "At the time, there was an art world recession, and I had begun questioning a lot of art and what it meant. Because of the market, but also because of the art that was being made in L.A. since the early 1980s, I really thought that these artists represented the end of Modernism, the conclusion of a great era that began in late 19th century France."

Larizadeh stops himself to pull out a copy of a 1993 article in Art and Auction magazine about Kelley by the critic Dan Cameron. "As far as I'm concerned," Cameron wrote, "Kelley isn't just your run-of-the-mill artist who happens to be showing at the Whitney. For me, in a way that I'm not completely comfortable with, he's the only artist that really matters."

"At the time," Larizadeh says now, "I took [Cameron] literally. Now, years later ... " his voice trails off ... "when you ask me how many objects by Mike Kelley I have, I can't even say."

In assembling such a focused and obsessive environment, Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel says, Larizadeh's home recalls other collectors of eras, such as the late 19th century Symbolists, who made it stylish to turn a home into a gallery of devotion.

It is not uncommon for Kelley's work to inspire this kind of devotion, says Patrick Painter, who since 1995 has been the artist's primary representative on the West Coast and who has worked closely with Larizadeh to acquire works. Admired by critics, curators and collectors since the early 1980s, Kelley has a devout following, particularly in Europe. Painter, whose gallery is in Santa Monica, mentions the art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen as another collector who buys Kelley's work in depth. "But Kourosh is doing it with a lot less money," Painter says. "He's collecting periods that a lot of people are overlooking, before the prices get ridiculous."

Ridiculous prices are in the eye of the beholder. A Kelley drawing sells for about $5,000 and a major Kelley sculpture can go for $200,000, Painter says. The most expensive are the works that he is best known for, the "stuffed-animal pieces," which assemble varying arrangements of used and often decrepit children's playthings, often on baby blankets, evoking poignant images of innocence lost.

These well-known pieces are not what Larizadeh collects, however. He has early works from Kelley's student days as well as paintings and assemblages from pivotal but often less famous developments in the artist's career. And he has focused on one major all-encompassing work that could likely keep him connected to Kelley for a lifetime.

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