the cloistered treasures of a mad collector…
The Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster Willem de Kooning show presents Pink Angels (c. 1945) as the launchpad for the artist’s career. After dabbling in naturalistic and abstract styles, de Kooning created his first series of “women” paintings in the early 1940s. Pink Angels is the last and most abstract of that group. The toothy-grin on the pink proboscis at upper right is not just a blend of Picasso, Gorky, and H.R. Giger; it’s the cartoon signature of all the later, more famous de Kooning women. Pink Angels was no less a jumping-off point to pure abstraction. Palette notwithstanding, it prefigures the black-and-white abstractions that made de Kooning’s reputation.
This pivotal painting is owned by a more-or-less public Los Angeles collection, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation. The Weisman collection of 2000 modern and contemporary pieces by Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi, Dalí, Miró, Ernst, Magritte, Giacometti, Dubuffet, Still, Motherwell, Bacon, Stella, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and the whole L.A. Cool School is installed in Weisman’s former Holmby Hills home. (Pink Angels is normally just to the right of the fireplace.) The home is open to the public for free, though only by appointment. Never heard of it? The Weisman Art Foundation doesn’t advertise, aside from a website and a Facebook page. Even the home’s street address is on a need-to-know basis.
Who is Frederick Weisman? A generation ago, he was Eli Broad—the most famous and ego-driven collector of contemporary art in L.A. He was himself related to two great collectors, Marcia Simon Weisman (his first wife) and Norton Simon (his brother-in-law). Weisman worked for his brother-in-law’s ketchup company, then struck out on his own with a chain of Toyota dealerships. With Marcia, he became an avid collector of contemporary art and, through a corporation, traditional Japanese painting. The marriage is commemorated in one of the most brilliant of David Hockney’s L.A. paintings, American Collectors (1968, now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago). Fred Weisman may not have been the most discerning of L.A. collectors, but he got the most publicity and made the best copy. There was the time that Weisman got into a fight with Frank Sinatra in the Polo Lounge. Sinatra punched Weisman so hard he had amnesia for several days. Marcia sparked his memory by bringing a prized drawing to the hospital. Snapping out of it, Fred said, “Jackson Pollock, I remember when we bought that.”
Hockney showed Fred and Marcia in their own separate spaces. A decade later, the couple divorced, splitting the art collection. Fred promptly embarked on a new life as a swinging bachelor art collector. In search of fresh masterpieces, he jetted from city to city in his Ed Ruscha-painted Lockheed jet (below), accompanied by nubile young art groupies and a ten-ton checkbook. Weisman began lending and donating works to museums, leading to hopeful speculation that his collection might one day land at one of the city’s museums. Some important Japanese paintings and prints were given to LACMA (including its flawless impression of Red Fuji). At times Weisman seemed to bask in the attention, but it ended as such things often do, in mutual disappointment. Weisman decided he had to have his own museum.
In 1986, he sought permission to use Beverly Hills’ Greystone Mansion to display his collection. An ever-present phantom in the L.A. museum world, the mansion had also been proposed for housing the Joseph Hirshhorn art collection—it of course went to Washington D.C.—and the stuffed bird collection of the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Neighbors went ballistic over the Weisman proposal, and a local newspaper editorialized that Old Masters would be more Beverly Hills’ style. This led Ellen Byrens of the Greystone Foundation to ask: “Where in the hell are all these Old Masters going to come from? Are we going to bring back Rembrandt?”
Weisman backed out. He talked with UCLA about a museum—as did Norton Simon, in fact—but no deal resulted.
Instead Weisman funded a Frank Gehry museum building for his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. This is now called the Weisman Art Museum, and its namesake promised to supply it with art. Weisman also spoke of constructing a sculpture garden for L.A.’s Barnsdall Park. That never happened. In 1990 he donated 33 mid-range works by California artists to the San Diego Museum of Art. Weisman had felt out LACMA with a laundry list of demands. He wanted all the pieces to be on display at all times, in a separate gallery. “We don’t do that,” LACMA director Earl Powell told the L.A. Times. “We integrate our collections, so we encouraged the foundation to give the works to a museum that could really benefit from the collection. I think it’s great for San Diego.”
It must have been an easy call. The 33 pieces were nice, nothing more. Meanwhile, Pepperdine University in Malibu opened a small and underfunded art gallery. In 1992 Weisman donated a relatively modest $1.5 million towards the gallery’s red ink, and put works from his collection on long-term loan, in exchange for the university renaming the gallery the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The move was as generous as it was odd, for Weisman, of Jewish heritage, had no previous connection with the Churches of Christ-affiliated liberal arts school. At the time of the gift, Weisman explained that “young people should have the opportunity to live with art… so they don’t just become bookworms”—one of the lesser-known hazards of going to school in Malibu.
Between the two Weisman museums and San Diego, it was easy to imagine that the collection had been spoken for. But then as now, the cream of Weisman’s collection filled to overflowing his Holmby Hills home and a Frank Israel-designed gallery annex. Great art hangs next to comfy sofas and crystal chandeliers. Every room is a Louise Lawler waiting to happen.
It’s not all big names. Weisman was the type of collector who liked to “discover” artists. That was a very good thing for the artists involved, though few of Weisman’s discoveries have been discovered by anyone else. Weisman also had a thing for trompe l’oeil, 2D and 3D. One room is peopled with Duane Hanson simulacra of Weisman’s mother and father. Elsewhere, a nude couple frolic in bed, a donkey peers out a doorway, and a disembodied derriere protrudes from a wall. Weisman spoke of converting the place into a Frick Collection-type house museum—referring to a New York institution that doesn’t have a derriere sticking out of the wall.
Weisman died at home in 1994. Since then, not much has changed. The art is owned by the Weisman Art Foundation, run by the collector’s second wife, Billie Weisman. Tours are available by appointment, Monday through Friday, 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM. Despite the friendliest possible price (free), the schedule rules out anyone with a 9 to 5 job, unless that job is scoping out art. The home attracts a steady trickle of curators and scholars from all over world. Billie sometimes greets them. But despite Fred’s talk of creating a house-museum, he didn’t manage to do that. His art resides in a private home that’s not zoned for a museum, surrounded by wealthy, tetchy, and politically connected neighbors. The Weisman Art Foundation is a bit like a Valley home-turned-porn studio—tolerated only as long as it keeps things on the DL. And that’s why the the Weisman collection is the best in L.A. that practically no one’s ever seen.