Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 20, 2021
Mark Nelson, William H. Sherman, and Ellen Hoobler Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2020. 448 pp.; 103 color ills.; 227 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781606066669)

This hefty tome chronicles the decades of freewheeling acquisition that resulted in Louise and Walter Arensberg’s collections of modernist painting and sculpture and of art of the preconquest Americas. The Arensbergs also amassed the world’s largest collection of books by and about empiricist philosopher Francis Bacon, whom Walter (a Harvard-educated poet and literary sleuth) believed to have written Shakespeare’s plays and encrypted them with clues to his authorship. In this book’s coauthored essay, designer Mark Nelson and cultural historian William H. Sherman speculate that Arensberg’s lifelong interest in codes, conundrums, and what Bacon called the “parabolical” (402) underlay the evocative positioning of artworks within the 5,600-square-foot Hollywood home that Walter and Louise filled to bursting with the products of varied cultures and eras, displayed in often unlikely juxtapositions.

Despite their onetime plan to preserve that quirky assemblage, the Arensbergs ultimately bequeathed their modern and pre-Columbian collections to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Hollywood Arensberg aims to reconstruct the couple’s art-laden home in its heyday via a 260-page photo-essay; Nelson has amassed, arranged, and assiduously researched dozens of images made there by several photographers to serve a range of projects (from inventorying the collection to lifestyle magazine spreads). Grouped by location rather than maker or date, these photos give a room-by-room sense of the home’s layout and sight lines and the ways art was displayed and periodically rearranged there. Each image is accompanied by a floor plan marked to indicate the vantage point from which the photo was shot, as well as a numbered drawing of the artworks it records. Unlike onetime visitors—who would have been hard pressed to identify every object in a chockablock, wide-ranging display—readers are provided with key data for each (maker/producing culture; title/object type; date).

Nelson’s reconstruction is bracketed by two essays. The first, by Nelson and Sherman, focuses on the Arensbergs’ twentieth-century paintings and sculptures and, in light of the couple’s Bacon library, “reopens the dialogue between Renaissance literature and modern art” (67). The second, by curator Ellen Hoobler, chronicles the couple’s escalating interest in art that was then labeled “primitive,” most of it made in the Americas. These texts’ positioning on opposite sides of the house (as it were) serves to segregate modern from pre-Columbian—whereas the Arensbergs consistently set them in dialogue—and to privilege the first (as the PMA has always done). They are followed by an unpublished interview Walter gave to arts administrator Kenneth Ross, who served as director of the short-lived Institute of Modern Art, founded in hopes of keeping the Arensbergs’ collection in Los Angeles. After declaring that he and Louise simply “collected what we like” (402), Arensberg acknowledged a preference for “intellectual” and “difficult” works that invited “active interpretation”—citing those produced by Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Paul Klee (404)—and told Ross a sense of “exploring” and “discovering” drew them to pre-Columbian antiquities (405). Brief though it is, this typescript was practically all the book’s essayists had to go on as they pondered the Arensbergs’ choices, and it may have made a better introduction than appendix.

The lead essay begins with backstory that draws heavily on the work of art historian Naomi Sawelson-Gorse. We learn that the Arensbergs’ visit to the 1913 Armory Show in New York provoked their headlong dive into collecting; digging into their trust funds, the couple acquired some of the period’s most eyebrow-raising art, along with specimens of the “primitivism” modernists admired. Their Manhattan apartment became a hangout for edgy émigrés, bohemian artists, and literary avant-gardists, and the Arensbergs became Duchamp’s preeminent patrons. (Walter, who shared Duchamp’s love of chess and puns, collaborated with him on two readymades.) But in 1921 the world-weary Arensbergs—finances and marriage strained—put their art in storage and sought respite in Los Angeles, where the cultural landscape was dominated by the fledgling movie industry. The city’s sole museum, devoted to history, science, and art (and heavier on the former two than the last), had been founded less than a decade before. The Arensbergs must have felt both like fish out of water and rather big fish in a pretty small pond. When deaths in their families occasioned bequests that returned them to the ranks of the wealthy, they bought a house in Hollywood, had their art sent west, and—taking advantage of the art market’s post-1929 slide—purchased lots more. From the late 1930s onward they mainly bought pre-Columbian antiquities, which were increasingly trendy and plentiful in LA.

Without pretentions to one, the Arensbergs created a house museum of sorts at a time when art-filled private residences were anomalous in the West (one local likened it to an oasis in an arts desert). Its closest counterpart was the house-cum-museum built by Albert Barnes in Merion, Pennsylvania, where modern paintings were flanked by African and Native American art and US furniture and metalwork. But while Barnes’s endeavor was driven by his will to educate, the Arensbergs’ agenda was seemingly open-ended; lacking Barnes’s didacticism (and megalomania), they encouraged young visitors (including Philip Guston and Walter Hopps) to wander and muse. They also lacked Barnes’s foresight and resources and, even with help from art-loving Angelenos, were unable to secure a purpose-built home for their art. On seeing it installed at the PMA, Louise’s friend Beatrice Wood declared the Arensberg Collection—once “so alive and so marvelous”—“cold and dead” (389).

Without subscribing explicitly to Wood’s dislike of museum spaces’ neutrality—which arguably lets art breathe more freely (witness the Frick Collection’s reinstallation at the Met Breuer)—Nelson and Sherman are intrigued by the ways works are “perceived differently when they occupy a domestic space rather than an institutional one” (45), and they are keen to “find traces of the intellectual and biographical associations that brought the collection to life for the couple who created it” (22). Using chess as an overarching metaphor, they envision the Arensbergs’ ongoing rearrangements of works as a sophisticated game played out “on a chessboard of walls and floors” (27) and assert that (thanks to photos) “we can even become players in the game ourselves” (22). Clearly, the Arensbergs sought to highlight formal and iconographic harmonies (placing Constantin Brancusi’s cylindrical Torso of a Young Man near the quasi-mechanical anatomy of Duchamp’s Bride, a snarling Aztec jaguar before the imaginary jungle of Henri Rousseau’s Merry Jesters) and to engineer piquant dissonance (the fractured planarity of Cubist nudes versus the organic bulbousness of a Nayarit effigy). They also were attentive to interactions of pictorial and architectural space: the arches in Giorgio De Chirico’s Soothsayer’s Recompense echoed the arches through which it was glimpsed from the Arensbergs’ dining room, as well as the arched niche in the foyer beyond; the stylized trees in Juan Gris’s Open Window found counterparts in those seen through the actual window nearby; the foreground figure in Diego Rivera’s Flowered Canoe, who casts her gaze upon the water, appeared to look into the depths of the stairwell atop which the painting hung. Moving from obvious to opaque, Nelson and Sherman posit more complicated relationships among works and collectors in imaginative speculations that promote deeper looking but occasionally strain credulity.

Hoobler’s approach to the Arensbergs’ acquisition of pre-Columbian art is more straightforward. She chronicles the evolution of their appreciation, from its nurturing in New York by artist/critic Walter Pach and artist/gallerist Marius de Zayas to the relationships and events that gave it wings in LA. While acknowledging the primacy of dealer Earl Stendahl, who sold the Arensbergs “nearly all” their pre-Columbian works (367), Hoobler points up the enthusiasm for things Mexican generated by multiple exhibitions (most importantly the Museum of Modern Art’s American Sources of Modern Art, 1933, and Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, 1940) and stresses the impact of mentors including artist Roberto Montenegro, film producer Kenneth Macgowan, and fellow collectors Robert Bliss and Vincent Price. Stendahl comes off as the consummate entrepreneur, hyping works’ putative eroticism and gory pasts and portraying his involvement in looting and desecration as cloak-and-dagger derring-do. Walter sometimes seems more pawn than player, blinded by desire to Stendahl’s fabrications.

Hoobler’s account casts both Arensbergs as contrarians who enjoyed collecting “art that did not have broad acceptance” (345) and suggests that an “aesthetic of the nonbeautiful” attracted them to both avant-garde and pre-Columbian art (346). Citing Stendahl’s simplistic assertion that Arensberg was a “rough stone man” who liked “rugged, nonpretty things” (354), Hoobler seems to endorse it when she describes the Arensbergs’ ancient American art as “rugged” and “powerful,” “but not always beautiful” (389).

“Beauty” is a term more normative than descriptive, and the Arenbergs’ determined acquisition of hundreds of pre-Columbian works demands more thoughtful parsing. This book’s photos show the variability of those objects’ aesthetics and degrees of polish, and in documenting the ways their owners arranged them they evidence visual sensitivities beyond Stendahl’s ken. Pairings and groupings drew attention to parallels between Cubist gambits and Teotihuacanos’ geometric abstractions of human forms and faces, as well as to counterparts to Brancusi in both the streamlined silhouettes of Veracruzano palmas (frond-shaped sculptures associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame) and the simple massings of Aztec stone carvings. In this instance, a picture is truly worth a thousand words, and the trove Hollywood Arensberg brings to light not only resurrects the bygone but also spurs further reflection on the enigmatic Arensbergs and the LA art world in which they collected.

Judy Sund
Professor of Art History, Queens College & The Graduate Center, City University of New York