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Herb Alpert's sculptures, like visual jazz

The famed trumpet player's abstract works are on display in Beverly Hills.

July 25, 2010|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Standing in a forest of sinuous, black totems spiraling into the lofty heights of the main room at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, Herb Alpert is surrounded by an art form he has practiced for the last two decades — sculpture. By his account and that of those who know him, he's a man who lives on the right side of his brain — he percolates on the creative and the intuitive.

"I do something every day, whether sculpting or painting," he says. "It definitely feeds my spirit when I sculpt or paint or blow the horn, that's an essential part of my being."

Herb Alpert: An article about musician-artist Herb Alpert in Sunday's Arts & Books section said that his foundation has given away nearly $100 million over 20 years. The total is more than $100 million, the foundation says. —

He also believes that others should have a chance for self-expression through the arts, as well as positive standards of living, and to that end he has given away nearly $100 million over 20 years.

At 75, his art practice and his arts philanthropy keep him busy. Just this spring, he read an account of the imminent demise of the venerable Harlem School of the Arts because of lack of funding. Since the early 1960s the New York institution has provided training in music, dance, theater and the visual arts to mostly underprivileged kids.

Alpert quickly called Rona Sebastian, the head of his foundation. "Unbelievable," he said, and set her to seeing what they could do about it. She approached New York's Department of Cultural Affairs, and in two weeks the Herb Alpert Foundation was able to offer a half million dollar matching grant — it saved the school.

Yes, he's the man better known for wielding his trumpet, mellifluously leading the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s in such tunes as "A Taste of Honey" and "What Now My Love."

When Alpert was 8, he picked up the trumpet and knew it would be his musical partner for life. The painting came some two decades later. "When I was touring in the '60s with my group, I used to go to museums," he recalls. "It seems like I was always going to the Modern art section." A low-key, soft-spoken man, he sports combed back gray hair and a light beard, and wears a black T-shirt he has hand-painted.

"I had a feeling I might move some paint around and have a good time," he says. "I started with acrylics. I wasn't crazy about the smell of oil paints, and I wanted to work quicker." He was naturally drawn to abstract forms, and he picked up some technique from his friend artist Les Biller. Biller gave him valuable advice — he thought his paintings were too "center-conscious." "And it kind of freed me," he says.

This need to keep moving, ahead or in different directions, seems to pump Alpert's creative juices. As he continued to paint, he also became interested in making three-dimensional work. Twenty years ago he learned from sculptor Kristan Marvell how to handle clay.

"Once I put my hand on the clay, I was hooked," he says. "It's a very sensual feeling, you can work very quickly if the clay is cooperating." First he made small pieces a few inches tall, then he made pieces several feet tall. "I had people help me build the armature," he says, "but I would work the clay myself."

All this began in his kitchen, he says with a laugh, "which my wife wasn't crazy about." Especially when he used a blowtorch to soften wax pieces. His wife is singer Lani Hall, with whom he released an album last year, "Anything Goes: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall Live." He also has an album coming out this fall, "I Feel You."

"When I ran out of space in the kitchen, I realized I needed a studio," he says. They built one on their property in Malibu. "And we're running out of space there. I just rented a storage space where I could put my molds." The works in "Black Totems," the current show, are made of bronze coated with a soft black patina, and reach up to 18 feet high. They are cast at a local foundry and require several molds each.

Alpert has been making these "totems" for a decade. He was inspired by seeing totems created by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, and also by the tall, gnarly "scholar's rocks" prized by traditional Chinese literati, such as those in the Chinese Garden at the Huntington. "There was a progression, I started making them larger and larger," he says. "As they go up, there are parts I change from the original concept. I like to keep that spontaneity — to me it's like jazz."

While his sculptures are abstract, they do suggest organic forms twisting in space, segments piled atop one another. "[E]ach one is an aspiration toward the heavens," critic Peter Clothier recently wrote in the Huffington Post, "an expression of the enduring, deeply human need to be one with nature and our fellow-travelers on this planet, and at the same time to integrate with some power beyond our fragile, temporal existence."

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