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“The Arensbergs’s staging of the art in their collection, it’s both playful, but like chess, it is really serious business.”
The 1913 Armory Show of avant-garde European art sparked a life-changing fascination with collecting in Louise and Walter Arensberg. The couple quickly became influential participants in New York’s bohemian art scene. In 1921 the Arensbergs moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the next few decades building a vast and idiosyncratic art collection in their Mediterranean Revival home in the Hollywood Hills. Works by Duchamp, Picasso, and Brancusi lived alongside pre-Columbian sculptures, eclectic antique furnishings, and thousands of rare books by and about the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. The riotous display of art in their home excited and overwhelmed visitors—everyone from members of the public to important artists of the day.
The Arensbergs’ LA story, including their art-filled house, is the focus of the book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury LA, published by Getty Publications. In this episode, coauthors Mark Nelson, partner at McCall Associates and designer of this book; William H. Sherman, director of the Warburg Institute, London; and Ellen Hoobler, associate curator at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, discuss the Arensbergs and their obsessive approach to collecting and displaying art.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
WILLIAM SHERMAN: The Arensbergs’ staging of the art in their collection, it’s both playful, but like chess, it is really serious business.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with authors William Sherman and Ellen Hoobler, and author and book designer Mark Nelson about their new book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A.
Louise and Walter Arensberg built one of the 20th century’s greatest collections of modern art, comprising forty works by Marcel Duchamp, multiple paintings by Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miro, and nearly twenty sculptures by Brancusi, not to mention numerous pre-Hispanic and African sculptures and an extensive library of works by and associated with the Renaissance-era scientist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon. What is less well known is the extent to which the Arensbergs went to install their collections with an artist’s eye to nuanced relations in style, motif, and scale. As a result, each room in their Hollywood house was in effect a work of art in its own right, and the installed collection a sublime cabinet of curiosities.
Joining me to talk about the Arensbergs as collectors are William Sherman, Ellen Hoobler, and Mark Nelson, authors of the new book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A., published by Getty Publications.
It’s my pleasure to introduce Mark Nelson, a partner at McCall Associates New York, co-author and designer of this very beautiful book; Bill Sherman, co-author and director of the Warburg Institute and professor of cultural history at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study; and Ellen Hoobler, co-author and associate curator of art of the Americas at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Welcome, everybody. Thanks for joining me on this podcast.
MAN: Nice to be here.
ELLEN HOOBLER: Very nice to be here.
CUNO: Now Mark, in March 1945, James Thrall Soby, then director of the department of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, asked the collaborators Louise and Walter Arensberg if their house had ever been photographed. Why did he ask that question?
MARK NELSON: Well, thanks so much for having us, Jim. In one sense, Soby asked the question rhetorically, as a jumping-off point for his 1945 essay about the Arensbergs in View magazine. In fact, he answers his own question in that essay straightaway. But I think he can also be seen as posting a genuine call to action. Perhaps he’s asking somebody, anybody really, to take up the charge and get it done. Obviously, he knew the Arensbergs would read his essay, so I suppose in essence, this means he was— he was also asking them to care for their own legacy.
He had visited their Hollywood home, which held somewhere between a thousand and 1500 art objects and a few thousand books, and he had seen works by Picasso and Braque and Duchamp, et cetera, jammed together on the walls. He had seen how those paintings were contrasted against a pre-Columbian sculpture and a strange mix of antique furniture. And he’d seen how that furniture sat on floors covered with multi-colored Asian rugs that were sometimes piled two or three deep.
In the same essay, he wrote that the home was invested with magic. And I think he knew that he was seeing something very special, a completely different mode of display from what a viewer would encounter in a museum. And I think he also knew that it wouldn’t last, that sooner or later, it would be dismantled.
CUNO: So until then, they hadn’t had their collection photographed?
NELSON: They had a little bit. Beatrice Wood, who was a very good friend of theirs, had taken some photographs right away in the late twenties.
You know, people would ask them, “Can you take a picture of such-and-such painting for such-and-such collection?” But really, there weren’t too may of the house itself at that point. A few.
CUNO: Yeah. Who were the Arensbergs?
NELSON: Well, to greatly oversimplify—and I hope this won’t come across as glib—they were trust fund babies. I mean, they were born into high social stations, which came with certain expectations, and they knew they would inherit wealth.
Louise herself was the sister of one of Walter’s Harvard classmates. He had started there in 1896, and they met not long after that. But having laid out this fairly rudimentary biography, I suppose I would add that they were born into a rapidly changing America culturally, socially, artistically. And they would cast aside at least some of those social strictures and reinvent themselves quite thoroughly. They would do that a few times throughout their lives.
CUNO: Well, Bill, I think the Arensbergs name is well known to many of us, and their role as a great collectors of art, obviously, very well known, as well. But I didn’t know that Walter Arensberg had an interest in Francis Bacon, the sixteenth and seventeenth century philosopher. What was that all about?
SHERMAN: Well, it couldn’t be more of an interest. Walter was interested in Francis Bacon from the start. He, like many of us, encountered him at Harvard, as he was an undergraduate. But I think it’s safe to say that he went on to spend more time with Bacon than anyone else in the world, including quite possibly, his wife.
And it’s worth remembering that the Arensbergs not only created, alongside this amazing art collection, the world’s largest library of books by and about Francis Bacon. And indeed, by the time they died, the umbrella under which they put all of their objects, everything including Duchamp, including Brancusi, was called the Francis Bacon Foundation.
Now, that may sound weird for somebody who, again, we associate with adventurous modern art. But it’s to underestimate the importance of Francis Bacon to modernity. I’d say from 1850, for maybe a century, Francis Bacon is the culture hero of the Renaissance period. And for many people—famous people, smart people, not just crazy people—Bacon was the most important writer of the English Renaissance. And in fact, for people like Freud or for Mark Twain, Henry James, Bacon was most likely the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Walter encountered that theory when he was still an undergraduate at Harvard, and like many others, ran with it. But I don’t think anyone else ran with it quite as far as he did. It was just an extraordinary lifelong enterprise, to immerse himself in Bacon’s writings.
One of the things that Bacon gives to the Arensbergs, in terms of their intellectual world, is their interest in multiple times, in bringing together the past and the present. And that is fundamental to the English Renaissance. It’s fundamental to the word renaissance, which itself means rebirth. It brings something from the past to life in the present for the future.
But likewise, Francis Bacon is the first author in English to write about codes and cyphers. And he’s the first major Renaissance author to give us a proper theory of allegory, of multiple meanings. And so if you’re gonna be looking for things behind the surface or things hiding in plain sight, Bacon is your guy. He’s your playbook.
CUNO: Well, Walter Arensberg was a precocious Harvard undergraduate. He was editor of the Harvard Monthly, president of the university’s literary society, and class poet at his graduation in 1900. What was his poetry like?
SHERMAN: Pretty traditional at first. And in fact, he was the great poet of that class, even though one of his best friends was Wallace Stevens. And don’t forget that the people around him thought he was the great mind, the most brilliant or the most creative mind of his class.
Up until 1916, he seems to be on track as a pretty respectable poet. He publishes two volumes with Houghton Mifflin. They’re pretty traditional. They’re very nineteenth century in their feel. In fact, a lot of the reviews pointed out how nostalgic they were.
Nineteen-sixteen, things take a strange and experimental turn, and he becomes radically influenced by experimental poetry. He writes a poem called For Shady Hill, which is named after the great house at Harvard that he lives in. And this poem starts, “As at the end of an equation of two to green, which have the butters of extra broken on badges biting at needles and partners, if only the bridge is fluent, let it not nice.” And that is really different. And it’s actually easy to imagine him looking at this Cubist exploded-view work that’s all around him on the walls, and trying to do the same with language.
CUNO: What was his friendship like with the poets Wallace Stevens, whom we’ve mentioned, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams? Did he meet them while he was a student at Harvard?
SHERMAN: Stevens actually was his close friend at Harvard. The rest of them, he met quite a bit later, when he was in New York.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, Mark, when did the Arensbergs move to New York? And what was their social scene like once they got there?
NELSON: As Bill mentioned, Walter started as a poet. So in some ways, the Arensbergs started their married life together really as they might have been expected to. They purchased the, Shady Hill, as Bill has just said. Walter worked on his writing. And then in 1913, something absolutely seismic occurred. And that was the international exhibition of modern art at the Armory, what we now call the Armory show.
It just exploded into the American consciousness. And it brought Modernism really to the forefront of a new cultural conversation. Causing the biggest stir, of course, was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2. Louise, like many people, was initially repulsed. But Walter just went bananas for the stuff. William Carlos Williams, in fact, would later say that the show had hit him between wind and water. It’s a great phrase, isn’t it?
Soon enough, Louis was converted and even thought they bought very little from that show, oh, you know, they just completely upended their lives. They sold Shady Hill to Paul Sachs, who many of your listeners might know went on to become the director of the Fogg Art Museum, and they just started a new bohemian chapter in their lives in New York. They just threw themselves wildly into everything avant-garde.
CUNO: Quite quickly, I guess, they had their apartment in New York on West 67th Street photographed by Charles Sheeler, so a notable photographer. And describe that relationship for us. But also describe the apartment for us and the collection as it was at that point.
NELSON: I’ve been really lucky to have visited the actual apartment, so I can say from experience that it is very dramatic. The walls in the main living room, which is the room that you see in the Sheeler pictures, are at least, if I had to guess, twenty-five feet tall, with a massive set of windows on the north wall. The photos don’t quite communicate how massive the room is.
And it’s just down the block from another notable New York hangout, the Hotel des Artistes. Soon after they move there, they began hosting an artistic and literary salon. And these wild sort of all-night parties are really the stuff of art historical lore. You see that written up in— quite frequently in art history books.
And the list of attendees there was really staggering. Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, Louise Norton, Robert Allerton Parker, and of course, Duchamp. The list goes on and on, and there’re just too many remarkable names to recount. But that salon was really only in full swing for a couple of years. Maybe from late 1914, I think, to early 1916.
It’s clear that the Arensbergs really, really loved shocking their guests with their artworks. We know that from multiple letters and other details. Sheeler’s photographs, though, they date from about 1919. And we know this because the Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 is, in fact, pictured in them. They had bought it, I think, in maybe February or March of that year. That’s a little late. The party energy was waning by then.
But the breathless descriptions of what was seen there comes from Henry McBride. This is from, I think, The Dial magazine. Correct me if I’m wrong, Bill. “Things by Gris, Braque, and Metzinger, in vivid colors, pull the eye of him who enters the door. Furthermore, there is one of Picasso’s reasoned arrangements in paint, some particularly dynamic African fetish carvings, and plenty of the latest local outpourings in Cubism. Some of the works individually verge towards violence. But they have been so carefully placed by the mad owners of the establishment that not only a perfect balance, but a genuine if hitherto unheard of harmony has been attained.”
CUNO: Well, Ellen, what brought them to Los Angeles from New York then, in 1921? They seemed to have such a vital life in New York.
HOOBLER: There were several causes of the move to Los Angeles. On the one hand, as Mark has mentioned, the Arensbergs had been having this wild salon in their home since, you know, about 1915, hosting these Dada artists, avant-garde writers, and sort of major people of the day. There’s this amazing story about Isadora Duncan wildly embracing Mr. Arensberg and knocking out his front teeth accidentally, as she comes in the door.
So it was sort of this mix of all of these amazing people, an clearly, lubricated quite well with copious amounts of alcohol. But of course, after a couple of years, it could get very exhausting for them.
And then as well, and probably more importantly, there are serious financial issues and reverses that necessitate the Arensbergs needing to rethink their lifestyle at this point. So on the one hand, Walter was always a soft touch with a lot of the people in his circle, lending them money, even when it was clear that they would have no way to pay him back. But in this case, he had really gotten in deep.
So around the end of the decade, Walter had become very close with Marius de Zayas, an artist, art critic, and dealer, who’s part of Alfred Stieglitz’s circle in New York. So de Zayas has been written about before in the context of his crucial role in promoting African art to the few buyers in New York at this time who are interested in that kind of material; but not much really has been said about his selling pre-Columbian art as well. And he is, although of Spanish descent, he’s born and raised in Mexico. So some of what he’s offering, we assume, are pieces that he and his family took out of Mexico when they left the country.
Well, so de Zayas has a fantastic eye for art and design, but absolutely no head for business. And so when his first art gallery pretty much fails and collapses around 1918, Walter is very foolish to decide that de Zayas’ eye is so great that he needs to stake him in a second gallery, the de Zayas Gallery, which opens in 1919. But as I said, de Zayas is a terrible businessman, and gets cheated by his partner in France. And so he and Walter end up holding the bag, and Arensberg, in the end, has to sue de Zayas in 1921, for the sum of $118,000, which would be—
HOOBLER: Yes. Which would be equivalent to about one-and-a-half million dollars today.
So that amount, that enormous amount, shows that Walter has spent a significant portion, maybe even almost all, of his trust fund in this venture, which leaves Louise and Walter in quite a precarious position. Although it means that essentially, she’s going to need to take the reins financially. And that is the reason that it is always the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, because it’s really her money that ends up funding their whole collection.
So in large part, the move to Los Angeles, and to these rented houses that they move to, is a way to cut expenses, as well. They even try and sell some of their collection in 1922. But unfortunately for them, although very fortunately for everybody who sees their collection, the market is kind of saturated at that time, and the works find few buyers.
All of their friends were surprised at how easily they adjusted to the new California way of life. It was the land of sunshine and the movie industry and sort of a fantasy life and certainly, it’s a space that allows them a freedom, a new freedom that they maybe hadn’t felt for quite some time.
CUNO: Well, Mark, what was the art scene like in Los Angeles when they arrived? Or even when they were at their peak, from the 1920s until the 1950s. And they were at the time when they were opening to their house to a constant stream of visitors, as you put it in the book.
NELSON: Okay, so four decades in two minutes.
CUNO: Take your time.
NELSON: Let’s see.
Well, the L.A. County Museum opened in 1913, and perhaps still had a little sheen of newness in 1921, when the Arensbergs arrive. But it was quite a conservative place. They didn’t find a home really there. There was no museum of modern art. In fact, there wouldn’t me a modern art museum in Los Angeles for about a decade after the Arensbergs died. So let’s say from the turn of the century until the end of the twenties at least, Impressionist-inspired plein air painting was the predominant idea. And I don’t think this ever really goes away, even as it falls from fashion. It must have something to do with the weather, of course.
The Arensbergs didn’t have much interest in those pictures. And at any rate, as Ellen has just said, they weren’t in great financial condition during those years, so it really wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
It’s really in the thirties, I think, around the time of the 1929 crash, when Louise inheritance kicks in and then that’s when they go on a buying frenzy, because now stuff is really cheap.
Modernism is taking more hold, certainly, in California at that time in the camera clubs, certainly influenced by Edward Weston, their friend Edward Weston, and others. And it’s really during these years, the early thirties through the mid to late 1940s, I think, that they’re robustly allowing visitors into their home.
In the 1940s, as many people know, Surrealism lands with Dali and Man Ray, who both live in California for a time. Modernism across all disciplines, especially architecture, is really changing the landscape, as emigrees are fleeing Hitler.
I think you could also just say that there’s a last effort initiated in the forties, in the late forties, by Vincent Price to keep the Arensberg Collection in Los Angeles. And he forms a museum called the Modern Institute of Art. And from a audience and membership standpoint, it is a massive success. Those exhibitions were well attended and enthusiasm was really high. But the develop dollars that need to keep it running just couldn’t be found, and it closes after two years and the Arensbergs have to cajole their movie industry friends like Eddie G. Robinson to help Price pay the $1400 he owes on the lease.
CUNO: Well, Bill, who was Aline Louchheim, if I’ve pronounced that correctly? And what role does she play in the story?
SHERMAN: I’ve heard her name pronounced lots of different ways. Let’s go with what you said. But actually, she was better known by a different name, which was Aline Saarinen, which she became after she married the great Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen. And it was under that name of Aline Saarinen that she published maybe her most famous book, which is called The Proud Possessors. It’s a famous series of portraits of America’s most important art collectors.
But before she became Aline Saarinen, as Aline Louchheim or [changes pronunciation] Louchheim, she published some really great pieces of art criticism for the New York Times. And she wrote an incredibly account of a visit of the Arensbergs’ house in Hollywood that was so good that we actually used it to open the book.
And it takes us literally to the front door of the house, and she describes what she saw. So she has been through this country-wide research trip, looking at all of these more or less traditional, extremely expensive, very predictable collections, and suddenly she comes to this house in California. And she knocks on the door and she gets let in and she says, “Paintings were jammed and crowded on every available space, from floor to ceiling. They filled the porch, trembled on backs of doors, and lined the bathrooms. There were a mass of other objects, ex-votos, bits of Americana, Indian sculpture, and African and pre-Columbian carvings.” And then she says, “How astounding,” she reports. “These gentle, gracious, past-middle-aged people who are my hosts are as at home with this art as unself-conscious and unpretentious about it as one’s grandmother was about Victorian chromos or doodabs.”
CUNO: What about Cheris Wilson?
SHERMAN: Again, you know, not sure if it’s Charis or [changes pronunciation] Charis. I think it’s Charis Wilson. Charis Wilson, too, is important for the same reasons. She has a famous husband, Edward Weston. The Weston couple is extremely close to the Arensbergs. But also, like Louchheim, Charis Wilson leaves behind really vivid accounts of what it was like to visit the house.
But Louchheim only visited once, and it was very late in the couple’s lives. It was really just before the whole house gets packed up. Charis Wilson is there from the start, really within a year or two. She’s a student at nearby Hollywood High, and she is allowed access to the house. And not only is she allowed access to the house, but she is shown around personally by Walter. And here’s here account in her autobiography.
She says, “Walter Arensberg took me on a brief tour. There on the walls throughout the home were famous paintings I’d heard about but never seen. I knew from the moment I entered that exotic living room, where Rousseau’s apes peered out of their jungle at Matisse’s Woman in Blue, and Picasso’s Guitar Player fraternized with Miró’s primary-colored geometrical creatures, that I would return as often as possible.”
And then she came regularly, and describes Walter asking her questions about the placement of work or unpacking the symbolism in the different works in the collection. And she finishes the section by saying, “My delight in his wordplay, puns, conundrums, and cryptic meanings behind cryptic meanings were so stimulating I felt buoyed up for days after a visit.”
CUNO: Was he still writing poetry at that time, or is that all in the past?
SHERMAN: So he pretty much gives up writing poetry, and he ends up, I would say, rearranging the words of other writers. That is literally what he does day after day and hour after hour, with Francis Bacon or with William Shakespeare’s language, trying to produce the right combination of words, where the secret message testifying to Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works would emerge.
But he’s also doing poetry with the collection. I think this is a really important point, is that Bacon had this theory of allusive or parabolic poetry, where basically, the real truths are indirect. You never say what you mean right up front. You always have to dig deeper. You always go around to find a deeper meaning. And in a very rare statement about what he was doing as a collector very late in his life, Walter said that Bacon’s method for interpreting the world, this allusive or parabolic method, was the best way he knew to interpret the work of Paul Klee or Marcel Duchamp.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, in 1927, Ellen, the Arensbergs settle into their house in the hills, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, which over the years would include additions by the famed Modernist architect Richard Neutra. And one of their neighbors was Earl Stendahl. Who was he, and what role did he play in their life?
HOOBLER: Yeah. Definitely Stendahl would play a major role in the Arensbergs’ lives. So Earl Stendahl moved to Los Angeles in the early years of the twentieth century, from Menomonie, Wisconsin. And I think he shares with the Arensbergs that idea of falling in love with the promise and possibilities of Hollywood.
He started out in Los Angeles, actually, selling chocolates, which is a trade that he’d learned from his parents in Wisconsin. But by 1913, he is already selling art. And this is what he will— he will do for the rest of his life, in that he will found— what would become a multigenerational art dealing enterprise in Los Angeles.
So while Stendahl sold all kinds of art, from plein air paintings that Mark was mentioning, local artists; but he also welcomes in the Mexican muralists, and is also selling European Modernists. He’s well recognized for having brought Picasso’s Guernica and shown it in Los Angeles in 1939, as part of this broader tour in the United States.
But I would say that in the mid to late thirties, Stendahl starts selling ancient Mexican art, or what we would call often pre-Columbian art, and becomes incredibly successful and well known in this particular area.
Stendahl is not the neighbor of the Arensbergs until 1941, the moment when he’s gotten the Arensbergs so hooked on pre-Columbian art that they have quite a few outstanding invoices for these sculptures. And they decide to trade Stendahl the deed for the property next door, rather than paying cash for what they had bought. So they do become neighbors. And it’s actually a really Machiavellian arrangement for Stendahl, because Arensberg has a constant supply of new art coming in.
But also, the other significance of the Stendahls is in preserving the Arensberg house. So after the death of the Arensbergs, the Stendahl family acquires the Arensberg house and all of Earl Stendahl’s descendants will live and sell art there until about 2016, when his grandson, Ron Dammann, retires.
CUNO: I’m trying to get a sense of their social life and the people around them, the people who advised them in building their collections and so forth. And one of them, is of course—we’ve already mentioned, but—Duchamp. Tell me about, Mark, his relationship with the Arensbergs, and when he came to Los Angeles in 1936, it was the first time he’d seen them in ten years. So why had it taken him so long to cross the continent and rejoin his good friends from New York?
NELSON: Well, because of the splash of the Armory show, Duchamp was already a celebrity when he traveled to New York for the first time in 1915. Walter Pach, one of the organizers of the exhibition, brought Duchamp over to see the Arensbergs right after he stepped off the boat, literally. And from the moment they met, they were really peas in a pod. Walter and Louise both spoke French, so that made the introductions easy.
The Arensbergs were summering in Connecticut. They arranged for Duchamp to live in another studio apartment in their building, and they exchanged the rent for ownership of one of his most famous works, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Which we often just call the Large Glass. They both loved word games, puns, chess, and of course, art. And two of Duchamp’s artworks, Comb and With Hidden Noise, are actually collaborations with Walter.
So they had a very natural relationship. But like any relationship, it had its ups and downs. There were periods of elation, periods of great communication, periods where the conversation goes quiet. And occasionally, there were feelings of mistrust or betrayal.
So on the cover of our book, for example, you see a picture of Louise and Walter taken by Louise’s great friend Beatrice Wood. And in the photo, Louise is looking straight at the camera. She’s really looking straight at Wood, I think. And she has a slightly unhappy look on her face. And this may be because she was really unhappy with Duchamp at that time.
We know from her letters that she felt that Duchamp and his business partner Henri-Pierre Roché were inflating prices on the Brancusi sculptures they were selling. So Walter seems maybe a little caught in the middle. His gaze is falling to the ground and there’s this this sort of Michelangelo moment, with his fingertip on her knee.
And Duchamp, who was known for his general affectation of indifference, looks—I hate to say to it—a little bit needy. And you know, in the end, though, the Arensbergs considered themselves his protectors, and they called themselves his silent guard. And they wrote that their home was his living memorial. That’s their words, not mine.
You asked about ’36. The simplest explanation is simply that he lived far away. And you know how that goes—a year can disappear in a minute. He might’ve stayed away longer, but in 1936, he was called back to Paris by Katherine Dreier, to repair the Large Glass, which had shattered in its crate, after an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum a few years earlier.
And she had mostly paid his way. So he traveled on to California to see the Arensbergs. He had also, at that time, just gotten the idea to create his Box in a Valise, which was an editioned suitcase holding miniature versions of his artworks. So he had a real reason, a professional reason to revisit them.
But he must’ve been absolutely gobsmacked, I think, to see his life’s work hanging all in one place. I mean, he knew it was all there, but to actually just see it all in one place must’ve been an astounding experience.
CUNO: Yeah. Now Bill, you compare the Arensbergs to two contemporary collectors, Barnes, with his great Matisses and Renoirs, among other paintings; and Peggy Guggenheim and her great Surrealist collection and gallery designed by Frederick Kiesler. Both Barnes and Guggenheim had a high regard for interior design, for the mise en scène in which pictures and sculptures were seen within a room, and its contribution to the experience of how individual works of art are seen. How did the Arensbergs approach the matter of installation design? Was it anything like that, the way they’re mixing, as they did, contemporary art with African art and the art of the ancient Americas?
SHERMAN: Well, there are some comparisons with other collectors. And in particular, those people who set out to create what we might call house museums. Like Barnes, they created ensembles of very unlike material with real precision that freely crossed the unusual boundaries of period or of medium, and even of tone or of register. Like Guggenheim, I think the Arensbergs also found the most avant-garde art entirely at home with old-fashioned furniture, with Persian rugs, with ancient sculptures, and with this Mediterranean shell of a house within which it all sat.
So there are points of contact between them. And in fact, there were personal points of contact. The Barnes Collection, of course, is another great Philadelphia collection. And the two collectors hated each other. They were absolutely scathing about each other, whereas they were much closer to Peggy Guggenheim. And then for a while, it looked like Peggy Guggenheim might try to create a house museum in California herself.
But to answer your question about mise en scène and about interior design, I don’t really think they were all that interested in interior design. I mean, if you look at the pictures, the furniture looks weird. And more important, the images, if you look really carefully, you’ll catch these signs of what you just have to say are really careless or messy presentation. I mean, there’s a water cooler in one; there’s an open packet of paper in another. They’re just not that bothered.
It’s a working collection for them. It’s actually much more important to see it in that way. And I think Marcel Duchamp described Walter’s work on Francis Bacon as being pursued, quote, “with all the seriousness of a man at play.” Like playing with chess. Well, I think the same would be said of the Arensbergs’ staging of the art in their collection. It’s both playful, but like chess, it is really serious business.
CUNO: Now, Mark, you reproduce a photograph of the Arensbergs’ dining room, with paintings by Miró and Mondrian, Klee, Picasso; sculptures by Brancusi, together with sculptures and vessels from China, Costa Rica, Gabon, Mexico. And you quote the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher as writing to the Arensbergs about her experience of an evening in the dining room. And she wrote, “It was one of the most exciting nights of my life for some time. And of course, one of the most disturbing. Undoubtedly, you are used to hearing that reaction from people who see for the first time your fabulous collection. I found it almost unbearable, fatiguing, since I’ve grown unaccustomed to the impact of creation. I hope I shall it again, and be able to stand it longer.”
You were very careful to design the book as the Arensbergs’ collection was installed in their house as visitors would have seen it as they walked through it. Why was that important to you?
NELSON: Yeah, that quote from M.F.K. Fisher is really something, isn’t it? Well, as a visitor for many years to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and as one with a long interest in Duchamp, I was really always aware of the Arensberg Collection, because I would simply read their names on wall labels.
And I can’t describe it exactly. But when I first saw pictures of the Hollywood house—this must’ve been around 2003 or 2004, the feeling was just overwhelming. I just needed to be in that space. I was shocked to find out really, that no book had attempted yet to document the place
So at that time, I think I was very busy on other projects, but I would often stare at the ceiling at night before drifting off to sleep, and I would think to myself, I need to rebuild that house. And then one day in I think it was about 2008, I just woke up with a burst of energy and said, “You know, today’s the day I start.” And I suppose I knew, I just knew inside me, that there was this big black hole in our understanding of California art history.
By profession, I’m a book designer for museums and galleries. So even though it took the three of us twelve years to finish the research and writing, the design of the book looks a lot like it did on day one. It just pretty much formed in my head, how you would go through the house.
CUNO: Did the Arensbergs install their collection by themselves?
NELSON: I think mostly yes. I mean, obviously, the heavy things got moved around by people with muscles. But they frequently changed parts of the installation. I do think they occasionally made decisions based on outside influences.
CUNO: Ellen, did they have advisors helping them with the installation, other than their friends?
HOOBLER: Yeah. I would say they obviously don’t have a designer per se. In fact, the whole book is really about how they are, you know, creating and adjusting and recreating this house to mirror their own preferences and interests, as they change over time. But in terms of their pre-Columbian collection, I would say that they do have two main advisors in the formation and display of the collection. And those people would be Earl Stendahl, who we’ve discussed a little bit, and then on the intellectual or conceptual side of things, the Arensbergs also become very close to the Hollywood producer Kenneth Mcgowan. So today, he’s probably best known as a pioneer in the first sound movies, or perhaps for his work as a professor at UCLA Film School. But he was also interested from his very early age, in all kinds of non-Western art, particularly pre-Columbian. And he really digs into the scholarly side of it.
There’s quite a bit of correspondence between Walter Arensberg and Kenneth Mcgowan, with Walter clearly learning from Mcgowan and being guided by him. And in fact, Mcgowan even gives him a book list of the works he recommends reading, and in order. You know, start with the easiest books and then move on to more complex ones. Which seems so wild as we think about this incredibly cerebral Walter Arensberg getting the, “And here’s the dummy’s guide to pre-Columbian art, and here’s how you should read in order, from easiest to hardest.”
So I’m sure that Walter really learns a great deal about the history and meaning of these works from Mcgowan, of works that Walter had already bought just because he loved their aesthetic qualities.
CUNO: Yeah. Now Mark, what about Duchamp? What role did he play in the house, in the installation of the collection?
NELSON: Occasionally, Duchamp acted as a sales agent. Frequently, I would say. He saw that as a way to operate in the art world and make a little money, without having to actually offer his own work in the gallery system. He definitely recommended, I would say sometimes even pressured, the Arensbergs to buy certain paintings. You can feel his presence in deals that were done with gallerists, for example. And maybe during his visits, he offered a suggestion about what they might do with the installation, but there’s no real record of that.
Other than that, I don’t really think so. They lived very far from each other and they saw each other only a few times in person in the later years. I think Duchamp was flummoxed, absolutely flummoxed on his later visits in 1949 and 1950. I really don’t think he understood their fixation with pre-Columbian sculpture at all.
CUNO: Bill, you describe the Arensberg Collection as installed in the Arensberg house as a cabinet of curiosities. What do you mean by that? And was such a cabinet a model for Arensberg’s installation of the collection?
SHERMAN: Yeah. Of course, anyone who’s a Renaissance scholar like me knows that term, cabinet of curiosities, because it was really one of the great models for domestic collections of diverse but wonderous, or even provocative material. The Wunderkammer, the Wonder Room, or the Kunstkammer, the densely-packed art chamber, those spaces, in fact, in the Renaissance period were created precisely by people like the Arensbergs. The wealthy, the cultured. But also the amateur. But at the same time, deeply committed to owning and displaying mysterious things to friends, followers, or random visitors.
Now, despite his passion for Renaissance culture and his awareness to the Renaissance period’s approach to collecting, I don’t recall Walter ever referring to the cabinet of curiosities as a model for what he’s doing. And in fact, in the James Thrall Soby quotation which serves as the epigraph, and in fact, with which you began our conversation, Soby compares the collection to another art-filled space: the studio. And that also strikes me as a really excellent way to describe a collection that brings together really diverse materials in a way that’s really alive and really has the freshness of discovery, as Soby talks about it.
CUNO: Yeah, well, Mark, eventually, all of this would come to an end, because it was clear that the Arensbergs’ collection would outlive them, so they had to do something with it. And museums all across the country sought after the collection. In 1944, the Arensbergs agreed that it should go to UCLA, and in 1944 they signed a contract, which ultimately broke down in 1947 over a difference with the university’s board of regents. Ultimately, the collection went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as we’ve said, over the interests of many other collections—the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. Why Philadelphia?
NELSON: You know, the Arensbergs loved being courted. And they loved playing museums off one another. The biggest problem them had—and I don’t think they even understood it to be a problem—was that no credible institution would touch Walter’s crazy project. They really actually expected that whoever took the art collection would not just receive the incredible library, but actively continue Walter’s work. And in the end, it was really a battle between Chicago and Philadelphia.
I’ve oversimplified. There’s a long, drawn-out negotiation between all parties. And of course, Duchamp has his fingers in the pie, too. But really, Kimball wins by convincing them that their lives will continue after they’re gone.
CUNO: Did they put restrictions on the installation of the collection? Would it have to all be up at one time and in the same orientation from year to year?
NELSON: Well, not exactly. They agree that the pre-Columbian can be moved. But they like the general idea that he’s gonna put it all there, and he’s gonna put it all there into perpetuity.
CUNO: Yeah. Now Bill, what was the fate of the Francis Bacon Foundation?
SHERMAN: Well, the Francis Bacon Foundation is really important because it keeps the library when that is not, in the end, given to Philadelphia. Philadelphia also, just to finish Mark’s story there, Philadelphia also wins because they persuade the Arensbergs that there will be a home for their book collection, which is the Library Company of Philadelphia. That ends up not happening. The library stays behind. And in fact, it stays quite local in Los Angeles. It’s in Pasadena for a few years, and then it’s given its own custom-built house in Claremont College. And it is there all the way until the mid-nineties.
And in 1995, the librarian, who had been Walter’s original secretary, dies, and the collection is given in its entirety to the Huntington. So it moves back to Pasadena, where it is today and where I found it when I was a fellow at Cal Tech and at the Huntington. And I think what’s important about it is, is it’s not only the library, which is, again, one of the great rare book libraries of the period. No two ways about it. They had more rare books in that field than the Huntington.
So the Huntington has gained an enormous amount of rare book material. But they also got back the Arensbergs’ personal and intellectual archive. A lot of the archival material did not go to Philadelphia. Really, only those things decided to be art-related went to Philadelphia. So if you want to study the Arensbergs, you have to go to the Huntington; you have to look at the Francis Bacon material.
And in fact, Mark and I were lucky enough to go out there for a while, with Francis Bacon Foundation money. So the foundation still exists and still gives the Arensbergs’ money to people like us.
CUNO: Well, Ellen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the fate of the extraordinary pre-Columbia collection, which you’ve described so well. Where did it end up, and why has it not received the attention the Modernist collection has?
HOOBLER: Yes. So all of their works, the over 300 pre-Columbian works, were given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with the rest of their collection and were displayed there after their deaths. But over time, many of the pre-Columbian works have come off view, and today there are only a few works left in the galleries, as a complement to the Arensbergs’ modern works. Although some have moved to a second building of the Philadelphia Museum. But recently, Princeton University Museum of Art and the Penn Museum have borrowed some of these works, and are displaying quite a few of them. And so some works are coming out onto public view.
In terms of why it hasn’t received the same attention as the modern collection, that’s a great question. I think in the 1950s, there was still all of this curiosity about and enthusiasm for ancient art. But over time, I think interest in contemporary art has become so prevalent, and a preference for named artists is so strong today that that is something that has tended to mean that the pre-Columbian kind of gets sidelined. People are so interested in contemporary issues that they feel that there’s less connection to works from centuries ago.
But I guess I would say that what the Arensbergs did in their house was to make this material come alive. And we know that Beatrice Wood, Louise’s closest friends, talked about their house and saying that the conglomeration of the whole collection, what she called Oriental rugs, Mayan princesses, Mayan masks, the whole thing, was so alive and so marvelous that it was cold and dead in a museum. So perhaps with this book, we hope to bring this collection back to life and give it back to people in its entirety.
CUNO: Well, as you know, since 2019, the Getty Research Institute has launched a pre-Hispanic art provenance initiative to document the origin, sales, and acquisitions of pre-Hispanic art all across the US and Europe. We take no small pleasure in that fact, just as Getty Publications takes a very great pleasure in publishing this important and extraordinarily beautiful book of yours, Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-garde Collecting in Mid-Century Los Angeles, for which we have Mark Nelson, Bill Sherman, and Ellen Hoobler much to thank.
It is a fantastic book, and it’s a fantastic story and a great contribution to art history. So thank you.
NELSON: Thank you.
SHERMAN: Thank you.
HOOBLER: Thank you.
CUNO:This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
WILLIAM SHERMAN: The Arensbergs’ staging of the art in their collection, it’s both playful, but...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824