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Eli Broad, today's Norton Simon

Los Angeles' two preeminent art collectors developed a generation apart but in surprisingly similar ways.

January 16, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Eli Broad.
Eli Broad. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Usually, Eli Broad's trajectory as an art collector is traced to mentoring by the late Taft Schreiber. Broad himself has talked admiringly of what he learned about art from the MCA Inc. executive (and Ronald Reagan's former Hollywood agent), whose small but extraordinary trove of works by Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti and 10 others was a magnanimous 1989 gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art from the estate of Schreiber's widow, Rita.

Still, another, even more celebrated name in the annals of Los Angeles art collecting ought not to be discounted, even if the influence was perhaps more indirect.

The recent unveiling of the Broad Art Foundation's new building design happens to coincide with the publication of an engrossing new book from Yale University Press. "Collector Without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best" ($65) at times reads like a primer for understanding Broad's vigorous acquisitions, contentious relationships with area museums, philosophy of creating an art-lending library and more.

The similarities between Broad and Simon — both self-made men of vast wealth, savvy business acumen, genuine art passion and an often-remarked penchant for aggressive and controlling dealings — are as vivid as the differences.

On Oct. 25, 1972, Broad bought his first important art, paying $95,000 at a Sotheby's auction for an 1888 Van Gogh drawing. Rhythmic lines and staccato flecks of brown ink show two peasant houses in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a seaside village in the Rhône Delta of Provence, the region where he spent his final years.

Today, the personal art collection assembled by Broad and his wife, Edythe — who first sparked her husband's art interest — looks very different from that Post-Impressionist origin. Ditto their foundation's vast collection. The roughly 2,000 works form a diverse compendium of contemporary art dating from 1960 and after, with a clear — and artistically strong — Pop art tilt.

Three weeks before the Sotheby's hammer fell, sending the drawing off to the Broads' L.A. living room while launching them on their nearly four-decade collecting adventure, Norton Simon was acting on an ambitious plan. Simon, quoted in a Museum of Fine Arts Houston press release for a large exhibition drawn from his personal and foundation collections, explained his concept of a museum without walls. Rather than construct a building to display his art, he expressed his intention to start an art-lending library.

"We hope," he said, "to fill a real gap in the cultural life of this country."

Masterpieces from his collection would be available for long-term museum loans, maximizing their educational potential. As the Houston show was being announced, another Simon show was at the Princeton University Art Museum, complete with a catalog whose cover featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother.

Simon certainly had the wherewithal to establish an art-lending library. He bought his first paintings in late 1954 — two undistinguished works picked up at an art gallery in the old Ambassador Hotel, not far from his Hancock Park home. But soon he was off and running.

By 1962-63 he spent the equivalent in today's currency of more than $22 million on 67 works. The following year he stunned the art world by buying the entire inventory of Duveen Bros., the legendary purveyor of Old Masters to America's first generation of robber-baron art collectors. By the time he was done in 1989, he had made nearly 2,000 acquisitions.

Even many of the works he considered and didn't buy, plus ones he bought and later sold, would together rank as an outstanding collection. Many now reside in important museums, including the Getty and the Hammer in L.A., the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the national galleries in Washington, D.C., and Canberra, Australia.

Simon's holdings blossomed into the greatest art collection assembled from scratch in the post- World War II era. His closest rival for the title was Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss steel magnate whose collection went to Spain, adjacent to the Prado. (It includes some former Simon works.) And Thyssen, who inherited his father's art collection, had a head start.

At 494 pages, "Collector Without Walls" is a thorough, unfailingly fascinating history of Simon's collecting activity, written with great insight by his longtime associate, Sara Campbell, now senior curator at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum. Together with 1998's biography "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture" by former Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic, we now have an exceptional resource for understanding events central to Los Angeles' emergence as a global cultural powerhouse.

Coincidentally, we also gain insight into Broad, a generation younger than Simon, who began to collect art when the nation's most famous and prodigious art collector lived just across town. One obvious connection is the lending library concept.

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