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A BROAD PERSPECTIVE ON ART AN EXCLUSIVE WALK-THROUGH OF LACMA'S CROWN JEWEL SHOWS ITS VISION FOR THE FUTURE.

Byline: Jim Farber

Staff Writer

The massive steel arcs of Richard Serra's sculpture, "Sequence," tower over Eli Broad.

Dressed impeccably in his signature blue Armani suit, blazing white shirt and Hermes tie, the 74-year-old billionaire businessman, philanthropist and art collector seems simultaneously at home and oddly out of place in this curving metal labyrinth. Perplexed by the twists and turns of Serra's creation, he asks quizzically, "How do we get out of here?"

This humorous "Alice in Wonderland" moment came at the end of a personally guided tour of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum conducted by the man most responsible for its existence.

It was a tour laced with stories about the passion of art collecting -- both manic and skillfully developed. And it revealed a lesser-known side of Broad as a super successful businessman who discovered in the realm of art and artists a striking alternative to the calculated reality of the corporate board room. At the same time, it offered Broad the opportunity to show off the new building that was constructed with $56 million of his own money, and the 160 pieces of art from his collection it contains.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, BCAM (which opens to the public today) represents the crown jewel of phase one of a planned three-phase transformation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Clad in travertine marble and accentuated by exposed girders, an outside escalator and stairways painted "Renzo Red," BCAM represents a significant new addition to the growing mosaic of Los Angeles museums.

To begin our tour, Broad rides up the escalator with its panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills that whisks visitors to the museum's third floor entrance galleries.

"When I met Renzo, and he finally agreed to the project, I said, I want you to do a building that will have the best galleries for contemporary art in the world," Broad says as we entered a vast, sunlit gallery devoted to works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and John Baldessari.

"The light in this building is without peer anywhere in the world. It's a complex roof system that allows the light to be very pure."

Broad says he wanted 80 percent of the building to be public spaces to see art, not for other purposes, noting that Piano accomplished that in many ways, including not having an interior stairway.

As he moves from piece to piece, Broad proclaims, "In this gallery, I think we're looking at the best exhibition ever of Jeff Koons' work. There's his iconic (chromium) 'Rabbit' (from 1966), 'The Balloon Dog' (1994), 'Cracked Egg' (2006) and his (ceramic) 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles' (from 1988)."

Most people don't realize it, but it was actually Broad's wife of 53 years, Edythe (or Edye, as he prefers to call her), who launched their art collection more than 30 years ago. But like many affluent beginning collectors, the Broads were initially conservative in their purchases.

"We started with a Van Gogh drawing," says Broad. "Then we bought an ink drawing by Matisse, a Picasso, a Miro -- we still have some of these things," he adds off-handedly.

It was the decision to begin collecting contemporary art that unalterably changed their lives.

"As time went on, I realized the really great collections have been made within 10 to 20years of when the work was done," he says, standing in front of Andy Warhol's pistol- packin' "Elvis."

"Plus, we discovered the joy of knowing the people involved -- the artists, going to their studios, meeting museum curators and directors that can interpret the work. It was a great learning experience."

For a corporate being like Broad, learning about trends in contemporary art and meeting such artists as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and the late Jean-Michel Basquiat proved a heady experience.

"Artists have a different view of society, of what life's about and what's important," says Broad, pointing to Rauschenberg's "Red Painting," which was the first piece of contemporary art the Broads acquired.

Then a humorous moment happens in the gallery devoted to Jasper Johns, including his American patriotic pop-art classic, "Flag."

"We didn't select what's gone into this building," explains Broad. "We just told (LACMA director) Michael Govan, 'Take what you want from the foundation and our home.' Of course, he cleaned out the house. That one" -- Broad points to "Flag" -- "was over the fireplace.

"That one was in the living room. That one was in our bedroom," he says, pointing out other works.

Moving to a gallery devoted to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Broad explains, "When we first met Jean-Michel, he was working and living in a basement. I was attracted to his work not because he was a graffiti artist (he resented being called that, by the way), but because he was really intelligent. His paintings were $5,000 to 8,000. Now they're selling for $13 million."

Ironically, $13 million is just about what Broad paid recently to acquire Warhol's 1962 "Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can," a decision Edye questioned.

"We came to Warhol late. We weren't there at the beginning," says Broad. "I kept looking at 'Soup Can.' It's iconic. I just went for it. People say I'm disciplined. Well, there are a few things I haven't been disciplined about. That's one."

As we ride down BCAM's massive elevator (with its central shaft decorated by signage artist Barbara Kruger) Broad comments, "I bet you've never seen an elevator like this before!" Then on the second floor he leads me proudly to a gallery hung salon-style with photographs by Cindy Sherman.

"We like to collect an artist's work in-depth because, as you follow their career, a good artist does not keep repeating the same thing again and again," he says. "We bought Cindy Sherman's first photo stills in the 1980s, and we've been collecting her work ever since. We have one of the largest collections of her work anywhere. She designed this installation herself."

Walking through the galleries of the second floor, Broad walks under Robert Therrien's massive oversize dinning table and chairs, through a multimedia installation by Mike Kelley, and comes to a fascinating construction, "The Collector," by Damien Hirst, that features blooming orchids and live butterflies.

Asked why he likes "The Collector," Broad suddenly finds himself at a loss for words. "It's. It's. It's ... I'm not sure I can explain it. There's no one like Damien. I cannot tell you I collected his work from the first time I saw it. I had to think about it long and hard."

From there, we go down the stairs to the ground floor, which is dominated by two Richard Serra sculptures, "Sequence" and "Band," the latter purchased by Broad for LACMA's permanent collection.

In January, when it became known that Broad intended to lend, rather than give, the 160 pieces from his collection to LACMA, it provoked a heated response, much of it negative. Broad, however, sincerely believes the decision will ultimately be good for LACMA as well as other museums and institutions around the world.

"We're trying to create a new paradigm. There are 2,000 works of art in our collection. If I gave it all to LACMA, here's what would happen. Right now, there are 160 of our works here. That would mean about 8 percent would be seen and 92 percent wouldn't. What we're saying is: LACMA, as long as you want the work, here it is. If you want to take it down, we'd just as soon lend it elsewhere. Our purpose is to show it to the widest possible public."

Jim Farber, (310) 540-5511 Ext. 416

jim.farber@dailybreeze.com

Broad Contemporary Art Museum

>What: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

>Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

>When: Free opening celebration, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today through Monday.

>Cost and info: Visitors (today-Monday) will need advance reservation tickets which can be obtained by calling the LACMA box office at (323) 857-6010 or online at www.lacma.org. Regular hours: noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission: $12, $8 for seniors and students, under 17 free.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Eli Broad: "When I met (architect) Renzo (Piano), and he finally agreed to the project, I said, 'I want you to do a building that will have the best galleries for contemporary art in the world.' "

(2 -- color) "Our purpose is to show it to the widest possible public," Eli Broad says of his collection, 160 pieces of which are at the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.

(3 -- color) Sculpture by Chris Burden greets visitors to BCAM. The new facility was built with $56 million from Eli and Edythe Broad.

David Crane/Staff Photographer

(4 -- color) "Cracked Egg (Red)" by Jeff Koons is among Broad's pieces that are on display at BCAM.

Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer

(5 -- color) Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled" (1981)

"When we started buying work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, he was working and living in a basement. I was attracted to his work not because he was a graffiti artist but because this guy was really smart. This is one of his toughest works. It's kind of scary."

(6 -- color) Jasper Johns, "Flags" (1967)

"For years, it's been over our fireplace."

(7 -- color) Robert Rauschenberg "Untitled (Red Painting)" 1954.

"I'm embarrassed. I'm trying to think who we got first. I think it was the 'Red Painting.'"
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 16, 2008
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