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Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Los Angeles flexes its muscle as the new kid on the art block

Few things have a more cleansing effect on wealth than art does, and Los Angeles, with its surfeit of billionaires, seems to be in the right place at the right time


Palming a remote-control wand, Eugenio Lopez slowly rotated a plasma screen television suspended from a bedroom ceiling at his multimillion-dollar house atop the hills of Trousdale Estates.

"Look at this," said a delighted Lopez, as he activated a hydraulic mechanism that lifted a screen scaled for an outdoor drive-in and then tucked it out of sight in some overhead panels.

"It's only the second one they ever made," said Lopez, like a 36-year-old kid with an incomparable new toy.

Angelenos enjoy their contraptions, as is well known. They love their amenities and their accouterments, and they so relish the trappings of the good life that at times one can be forgiven for concluding that the satirists who relentlessly mine cliches about lotus-eaters are actually stating the bare facts.

"I'm just an Indian from Mexico City," said Lopez ingenuously. If so, then this report is being written by Marie of Romania.

In fact, Lopez is the scion of a Mexican juice-bottling fortune, an only child and a hereditary billionaire who is among a select group of people who are, not altogether quietly, reconfiguring the social face of Los Angeles.

That they are employing the same cultural vehicles people have always used to advance themselves socially -- support of museums and collecting, mainly -- is not so surprising. Few things have a more cleansing effect on wealth than art does, and Los Angeles, with its current surfeit of billionaires, seems better positioned than it has in a long time to steal some of the art-world thunder from cities like London and New York.

"Los Angeles has become a complex global city," the artist Barbara Kruger said last week, over sunset-colored cocktails at the Bar Marmont in Hollywood. "You couldn't have said that 25 years ago," added Kruger, who has made a career of diagramming the ever-evolving configurations of power in works that often read like agitprop.

Besides its undisputed dominance of popular entertainment, Los Angeles can also lay claim to a Museum of Contemporary Art with what is widely acknowledged to be among the best contemporary collections in the country. It is a town whose artists have definitively shed the taint of regionalism to become stars on the international scene. No contemporary art collection could be thought complete without Los Angeles artists like Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley or Nancy Rubins. And, after years of neglecting Ed Ruscha, the most emblematic of Los Angeles artists, collectors are now lining up to buy his works.

But perhaps as important to the city's current status is the emergence here of a cadre of super collectors, people like Lopez with pockets deep enough to match their aesthetic appetites. There are currently dozens of such collectors in Los Angeles, people whose preferred mode of transportation is likely to be a private Gulfstream V; whose department-store-sized houses require small armies to staff; whose acquisitive urges are consecrated to the consumption of art.

"Los Angeles isn't the way it was in the past, where people were totally focused on tennis courts and cars," said Jane Nathanson, a collector who was the chairwoman of a US$1,000-a-ticket gala last night to commemorate the 25th anniversary of MOCA. It was one of those unusual events where the diverse vectors of the city's power population were expected to intersect, the producer Brian Glazer rubbing shoulders with the billionaire developer Eli Broad, and the artist Takashi Murakami seated cheek by jowl with Peter Morton or Chloe Sevigny.

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