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Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A.

Published on , by Tatsiana Zhurauliova

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.

Bill Sherman, Mark Nelson and Ellen Hoobler, photograph by Matt Carr Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A.
Bill Sherman, Mark Nelson and Ellen Hoobler, photograph by Matt Carr
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 Shoshana Wayne Gallery . 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…
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