We spoke with Mark Nelson, William H. Sherman, and Ellen Hoobler, the authors of the recent book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A., published by the Getty Research Institute.
Published by the Getty Research Institute, Hollywood Arensberg is a 430-page tome that reconstructs the Los Angeles home of the prominent collecting couple Louise and Walter Arensberg, offering an intimate portrait of their famous collection of modern and pre-Columbian art.
How did this project start? How did you become interested in the Arensbergs’ Hollywood house?
Mark Nelson: I read a book called West Coast Duchamp which was put together by the . An essay in it, written by scholar Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, is accompanied by about five pictures of the Arensberg home. Her vivid description blew my mind. I could not fathom that no one had ever written a book about this, that no one had ever fully explored what the house might have looked like. I became obsessed. A few years later, the art dealer Francis Naumann, another Arensberg scholar, suggested that I should meet this fellow Bill (William H. Sherman). I had already started working on the layout for this book, but I hadn’t really grappled with the intellectual ideas yet. At that point, I was mostly concerned with the physical rebuilding of the space. Bill came to see me in New York, and he showed me his own photographs—he had been out to see the house and had visited the current owners—and it was a remarkable moment because his tour through the house with his own camera almost exactly matched my layout. We had this incredible moment of saying to each other, “This really works. This is, indeed, how a visitor would have traveled through this space!”
And how did it become a collaborative work?
Nelson: We decided we would do it together. We both were fortunate enough to travel frequently for work, so we would meet up for a week here or a week there and we began piecing it together. We traveled out to the Huntington Library and Bill began to show me how much more there was to the story than I knew. We realized that the library and the archives in both Philadelphia and in California were massive: the Arensbergs seem to have saved almost every piece of paper that ever came into their house. I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but I think if another scholar wrote a book about the couple, they could tell a completely different story, focusing on entirely different people or things. As Bill and I were working on this, however, it always bothered me that neither of us knew what to say about the pre-Columbian material in the collection. Thankfully, as we were getting closer to being finished, Ellen (Ellen Hoobler) appeared in our lives and expressed her interest in revisiting the Arensbergs’ collection, the topic of her undergraduate thesis many years earlier. I knew immediately that we needed her to come on board and tell us what we didn’t know. So, the three of us have worked side by side, in twos. We’ve only all been together in the same place maybe three times over the dozen years that it took to finish the book, but we managed to make the process work. That’s in large part because collaborative software became so much more advanced that we were able to do almost everything together without needing to be in the same physical location. I remain amazed that we were able to shape this story from very different perspectives and come out with something so remarkably cohesive.
Professor Sherman, as a scholar of the Renaissance, what brought you to the Arensbergs?
Bill Sherman: In the book, we included a diagram that attempts to map the relevant places where the Arensbergs’ collections and archives reside. Everybody knows the modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, some know that the pre-Columbian material is also there, but almost nobody knows that they had the biggest private library of works by and about Sir Francis Bacon in the world. It is in California, at the Huntington library. I was a fellow at the Huntington many times, and in 2008 I was a visiting professor at Caltech, which is in Pasadena, and spending a lot of time at the Huntington. I was looking at the Arensbergs’ book collection and their personal archive and I thought, “Hang on, are these the same Arensbergs as the people in Philadelphia with all of that amazing modern art that I love so much?” That's really when it started for me and that's when I went to the house. I was introduced to the owners of the house and it was later that year, I think, that I was introduced to Mark. I came at it from a different period though, the Renaissance rather than modern, and from a different coast, the West Coast rather than the East Coast. Ultimately, as Mark said, we agreed that we completely lacked knowledge in a number of areas, but the biggest by far was pre-Columbian art, and so thankfully we were able to rope Ellen into this project.
Why is it so important to discuss the Arensbergs’ pre-Columbian collection? What are the stakes of this intervention, especially now?
Ellen Hoobler. Having an essay on pre-Columbian art adds something important because the book now equally addresses all three passions of the Arensbergs: Francis Bacon, modern art, and pre-Columbian art. The couple had started collecting examples of the latter years earlier in New York, but it became an almost obsessive pursuit after they moved to California. The Arensbergs are a very rich subject for research because they were immersed in, and engaged with, several types of art in a very thoughtful way. An additional essay could easily have been written about their Native American collection, or their African works, which were shown at MoMA in the early 1930s. Or we could have looked at their early collecting of tin retablos from Mexico. I think that, as many parts of the world are grappling with their colonial pasts, understanding the contexts in which non-European art has been collected and prized and displayed is becoming increasingly important. We were very fortunate to have institutional support from the Getty because they are undertaking the Pre-Hispanic Art Provenance Initiative (PHAPI). The Getty Research Institute had just acquired the Stendahl Galleries archives (Stendahl was a neighbor of the Arensbergs and their principal dealer for pre-Columbian art), and they very kindly allowed me early access to the records, which they are in the process of fully digitizing.
If you had to summarize the Arensbergs’ approach to collecting in a few words, how would you describe it?
Sherman: There are two things that come to mind immediately. First, they not only collected very different types of material, but were also putting phenomenally, shockingly diverse things into a single frame. Second, they were unusually active, rather than passive, as collectors. I would say that, in a way, they are co-creators of this display with the artists. They didn’t just take the finished products and put them within a neutral, white-cube setting. The Arensbergs were very interested in process and they tended to collect multiple versions of things, or studies, as well as finished artworks. For me, as a historian of books, it is striking that they were very interested in expressions across different media—their passions ran from the visual arts to poetry, and also to music in Louise’s case. They had an unusually open approach to the ways different kinds of expressions speak to each other.
What are some of the things that you found to be particularly striking in the way that they approached displaying their collection?
Nelson: One of the things that we would like people to see right away in the book is how much the Arensbergs loved playing with the works in their collection. This is most readily apparent in their use of simple—even obvious—visual puns. For example, Juan Gris’s Lamp hangs next to a lamp that is nearly identical to the one in the painting, and they placed his Open Window beside an outwardly opening window. They hung Jean Metzinger’s Landscape with Roofs up above their living room door frame, at the highest point on the wall. Of course, they placed Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (#3) where one might expect to find it—at the top of the stairs.
As we read more deeply into what we were seeing in photographs of the home, we realized that there was so much more to discover. In 1933, for instance, the Arensbergs commissioned Richard Neutra to build a glass-paned sunroom onto the back of the house. In and of itself this is interesting, but when we saw that they had not only framed another of Duchamp’s works on glass, Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals, inside of one of the Neutra-designed panes, but also configured the display so that Glider could be seen in relation to Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder paintings, we were astounded by how serious their play really was. We realized they were, in effect, recreating Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (often known as The Large Glass, the loss of which they still grieved after having begrudgingly sold it to Katherine Dreier). We are inviting our readers to see the home through this lens, to explore the sightlines and the organization of space and to find associations we may not have thought of.
Can you speak to their motivation as collectors?
Sherman: I would say that their interest is more intellectual than financial and that’s somewhat unusual in that moment in time. They were certainly canny, not innocent, about the financial component—sometimes they complained about prices and sought to strike a bargain. But I would say, they were much more interested in ideas than money as a motivation.
Hoobler: I would agree with Bill that their primary motivation was not financial. In 1945, there was an article published in Vogue on “Great Art…in Four California Houses.” The other featured collections included those of their friends, the actors Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson. Though those collectors also showed an interest in juxtaposing art from different times, they played it much more safely in how they presented their collections. The Arensbergs had many more unusual or difficult pieces, works in rough stone, large ceramics which lent themselves to these visual puns and interesting visual placement. For example, the couple would put their pre-Columbian palmas, which are carved stones with curving lines, right next to Brancusis that have a similar shape. Here, you get the sense that the Arensbergs’ are implying something about eternal questions and issues across time and space in art. But the tricky thing and the reason why I think this book represents such an important project, is that the couple said so little during their lives about why they were collecting this art. They would talk for hours about specific works in their collection with the many visitors who came to their house, but not to interviewers, apparently! So, I think a big part of what this project has been about is reconstructing the hows and whys of this collection’s formation.
What was the most expensive purchase they have ever made?
Hoobler: It seems that the object that they spent the most on throughout their entire career is an Aztec calendar stone that they bought very close to the end of their lives, in 1950. They agreed to pay $20,000 (over $210,000 adjusted for inflation), in $5,000 installments. The interesting thing is that by then, they had already agreed to donate their collection to the PMA, so Louise was buying this object all on her own and I see her signature as almost defiant in this invoice. She’s staking her claim as the responsible party for this purchase.
What is the legacy of the Arensbergs’ collection for Los Angeles and the West Coast?
Sherman: The Francis Bacon Foundation, which was the original umbrella under which the Arensbergs put all of their collections (art and books), actually remains in California and with it, its archives and library. It first went to Claremont College, where a separate building was made for it, and, in 1995, it moved to the Huntington Library in Pasadena. But the art collection was lost to the East Coast and I think, in a way, it is still a very present absence—it still haunts the Los Angeles community to this day. I think that is partially why the Getty as an institution was interested in this project, which in our internal discussions we sometimes called “L.A.’s lost modern art museum.”
Nelson: Speaking of legacy, the Arensbergs’ New York years are frequently written about; they are discussed in nearly every compendium on Dada. But what happened during their thirty years in Los Angeles? That's what this book is attempting to repair. The cliché about L.A. is that it is a cultural backwater, but in fact, I sort of think of it as a boiling cauldron of energy, that has a hard time congealing into something. It tends to unwrite its own history before that history is even settled. The Arensbergs played a crucial role in the history of California and we are laying that history down at least a little more concretely.
Hoobler: I don’t directly make this argument in the book, but I am pretty convinced that the Arensbergs were instrumental in setting a pattern for the broader collecting public, in juxtaposing pre-Columbian works with modern art. By the late 1950s, many people across the United States owned and displayed at least one or two West Mexican ceramic figurines, which then also became popular in advertising and movies of the time. But well before then, the Arensbergs had moved on from ceramics, and were largely buying much more difficult pieces, including their calendar stone and other elaborate works.
How do you see the Arensbergs’ story to fit with other histories of art and collecting in the U.S.?
Nelson: For me, one of the significant questions that our book raises and maybe attempts to answer (or at least hopes that other scholars will take on board), is: how does Marcel Duchamp do it? How does an artist—who by that point had supposedly given up art making and largely gone underground to work on his secret Étant donnés project—move his work directly into his own room in one of the most important museums in the United States? How does he bypass, in the most audacious way, the gallery system on which most of the commercial art world is built? It is absolutely astounding to consider. Part of the answer we provide is that Duchamp got the right people to know precisely as much as he wanted them to know about what he was doing. And they, in turn, cared for his legacy, protecting it in a fairly bland Mediterranean shell of a home in California for more than 25 years. It is a big gamble to put all your stuff in one place and then hope that it gets to where you wanted it to go.
Sherman: I would also draw attention to a number of other figures, who are very much present in the book. People like Walter Hopps, who was a teenager when he first went to the Arensbergs’ house and went on to become such an influential curator. Or Beatrice Wood, who followed Louise and Walter from New York and became the center of an arts scene in Ojai, outside of L.A. These figures continue the Arensbergs’ legacy in various ways.
Were there any particularly thrilling surprises that you came across while working on this book?
Nelson: There were so many, that I think we’ve just started to find them. There were moments when specific pieces of archival material helped us put a new lens on an iconic image. For example, one day I showed Bill a conservator’s list that I had found in the PMA archives. It noted that, in addition to the two magnificent Brancusi sculptures seen in photographs of the Arensberg foyer, there were two more Brancusi works hanging on the opposite wall. Bill said, “Hang on, let’s check!” He pulled up on his screen a photograph of Brancusi’s Princess X that the photographer Clarence John Laughlin had taken, and we studied the reflection in the work’s bronze surface. Sure enough, there they were! We realized that the Arensbergs had, in effect, built a shrine to an artist they loved; an antechamber to their museum-in-a-home. All three of us experienced this kind of shared discovery many times. It epitomizes the profound joy of collaborative work. There is a lot more to the Arensberg collection than meets the eye, so we definitely feel that we've only begun to see the extra layers of meaning and of play.
Mark Nelson is an author as well as design director and partner at the book design firm McCall Associates in New York.
William H. Sherman is director of the Warburg Institute in London and professor of cultural history at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.
Ellen Hoobler is the William B. Ziff, Jr., Associate Curator of the Art of the Americas at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.