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A rare look at beauty's spoils

Hair-care magnate Myron Kunin built a coveted art collection along with his business. In a museum coup, 75 works stop at OCMA.

June 05, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"I'M a truth teller," said Myron Kunin, strolling into the Orange County Museum of Art and laying the ground rules for an interview. He can't help speaking his mind, even with a tape recorder rolling, but he doesn't want to embarrass himself or his family with some blurted-out indiscretion that ends up in the newspaper. "Be kind," he pleaded as he edged into his story.

It could be the tale of a more ordinary 75-year-old entrepreneur who started buying art in his late 40s and accumulated a messy, mixed bag of stuff that fills his home and offices in Minneapolis. But that wouldn't be Kunin, a beauty shop mogul who parlayed a small family business into Regis Corp., the world's largest company in the hair salon industry. Despite his success in business, art is his passion and he's a shrewdly independent collector. In the last 25 years or so he has amassed one of the best private holdings of American Modernist art -- a sampling of which is on view through Oct. 2 at the museum in Newport Beach.

In what amounts to a coup, Elizabeth Armstrong, deputy director for programs and chief curator at the small but enterprising museum, has persuaded Kunin to loan 75 paintings for the exhibition. Museums frequently borrow individual pieces from Kunin, but this is the first show exclusively devoted to his collection. Named "Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950" for American painter Gerald Murphy's "Villa America" residence in southern France -- a Modernist mecca in the early 20th century -- the exhibition reveals Kunin's eye for powerful images with seething emotion, strong color and high contrast. The lineup of portraits, figure studies and American scenes offers haunting faces, muscular hunks of male flesh, voluptuous female nudes, cities built on human ambition and conflict.

"I like a painting that reaches in and grabs your heart and stomps on it," he said, "a painting that you cannot not have, if you can afford it. So I try to do that. I try to buy the things that grab me. But not everything is 100%. Sometimes you have a 50% reaction, and sometimes it's the technique or some other message that comes across. With some of these early Modernist things, the attraction was simply that the artists were early Modernists. I liked the fact that they were there. Morton Schamberg, for example. Some of his stuff to me is just wonderful, but nobody knows who he is."

Schamberg's 1911 "Self-Portrait" and "Geometrical Patterns 1913," a chunky, abstract back view of a figure, are in the show. So are paintings by other obscure artists, including Alexander Brook, Jared French, Bernard Perlin and Niles Spencer. But there are plenty of big names as well: Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Grant Wood.

"You can't use this," Kunin said each time he digressed into an unprintable anecdote. But losing the censored material doesn't dilute the narrative of a collector who never tiptoes around aesthetic fine points or indulges in the opaque language-to-the-trade known as artspeak.

"I like nudes," he said of Arthur B. Carles' 1921 "Nude Reclining," a dramatic portrayal of a seductive woman on a swath of red drapery. "It's very comforting to have them around. They are sculptural, like the hills of Arkansas." Bare breasts in other paintings elicit appreciative comments from Kunin; so does the oversized "haunch" of the artistically ill-proportioned woman in Milton Avery's 1940 "Seated Nude." As for the figure depicted in "Weeping Negro," a 1934 painting by Pavel Tchelitchew: "It looks like his head is exploding."

Pictures such as these drew Armstrong to Kunin's collection in 1981, when she was writing her doctoral thesis on Paul Cadmus, a satirical realist represented in the show by a self-portrait and a raucous street scene, "Aspects of Suburban Life: Main Street." She returned frequently over the next 15 years, while she was a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Since moving to California in 1996, Armstrong has kept in touch with Kunin and his wife, Anita, who have a second home in Laguna Beach.

The collection brings a steady stream of other curators, museum directors, scholars and collectors to the corporate offices of Regis Corp., where most of the artworks are installed. But some visitors -- including John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum -- are shocked by what they find.

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