Hollywood's Big Art Deal

Every Saturday afternoon, the fledgling contemporary-art dealers at 6150 Wilshire Boulevard--just west of the L.A. County Museum of Art on the old "Miracle Mile"--gather in the courtyard outside their cluster of tailored, track-lighted white boxes to enjoy a casual barbecue. These days too many potential customers come by to leave the galleries in the hands of weekend receptionists. There's a steady stream of hipsters and Saturday strollers, but often the sign-in books read like rosters of Hollywood power. As often as not, the black Mercedes of UPN network head Dean Valentine pulls into the adjacent parking lot, sometimes with power broker Michael Ovitz in tow. This is where the rubber meets the road in L.A.'s burgeoning art scene. It's a fusion of a new crop of weirdly clever young artists who've mustered out from the market-savvy art departments at UCLA, Art Center College of Design and the California Institute of the Arts and the showbiz billionaires and millionaires who are plowing through them like whales through plankton--actually buying. Pioneer "6150" dealer Marc Foxx, one of the hippest-to-Hollywood young gallerists around, says, "Out here one powerful person does something, then another wants to and pretty soon they all want to." He adds with satisfaction, "Every major studio is represented in my client base."

What that clientele is after these days is a loosely cohesive young L.A. art that seems to revel in the cacophony of garishly disposable images and ideas offered up by popular culture. It's part pop, part slacker and almost all irony. Among the hot work favored by collectors with clout: Monique Prieto's Teletubbyish abstract paintings, Amy Adler's drawings of herself as a melancholy kid, Kim Dingle's brushy paintings of combative little girls, Laura Owens's parodies of abstraction and Kevin Appel's fey, pastel renderings of blandly modern architectural interiors.

The last big L.A. art moment was about 30 years ago, when Ed Ruscha's sunny pop art and the clean, cool "empty room" installations of Robert Irwin suddenly put southern California on the art-world map big-time with what became known as the "L.A. look." Back then, the scene was also heavily school-based, and many of the '60s stars taught. Some of their students, such as the Young Turk performance-and-installation artists Chris Burden and Mike Kelley and elegantly complex painter Lari Pittman, hit it big and stuck around L.A. instead of moving to New York. Eventually they, too, became professors, and it's their students who are being glommed for the walls of L.A.'s new Medicis.

Valentine is the lead patron (250 works and counting), followed by the corporate program at Creative Artists Agency (about 150 works) and Ovitz, who used to run CAA and collect blue-chip artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. If you stray outside showbiz circles, there's retired software magnate Peter Norton, whose foundation is avidly collecting young L.A. art.

UPN's faux-Floridian headquarters in West L.A. is filled to the brim with Valentine's art. Valentine, who has overseen the network's new flow of cheesy programming, says, "I put wrestling on television; that's what I do." But, he says, "esthetic appreciation is a minor part of my job. Art is an escape, into a different community of people who care about different things." Says Giovanni Intra of the cool little downtown gallery China Art Object, "Dean sees a piece he likes and he breaks out in a sweat."

In his spacious Brentwood home, deliciously crammed with modern art and Chinese furniture, fellow collector Ovitz says, "Dean is the father of this L.A. art scene. I'm a new guy. But I'm more conservative. Sometimes I just have to say, 'Dean, this isn't art, this is garbage'." Valentine's friendly retort: "Three years ago I took Mike around and said, 'Buy this and this and this.' Things were only about $2,000 apiece. He didn't buy a one. These are the same artists he's after now, but he can't get them because there are waiting lists." A few days before the installation of Appel's current career-making show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, however, Ovitz paid a visit to the artist's studio, snagged a big painting and loaned it to the exhibition.

Although all serious collectors do like art, other motives can enter into the deal. In fact, a "my art can beat up your art" competitive streak has fueled art scenes for 500 years. Every time CAA head Richard Lovett walks down the halls of the agency's marbled I. M. Pei-designed building, he sees Ovitz's fingerprints on every wall: art by older New York stars like Ellsworth Kelly collected by Ovitz and leased to CAA when Ovitz still ran the place. The lease is up (it reverts to Ovitz, who may auction off the art next year), and Lovett wants a big change. Since the agency sponsors scholarships for public-high-school kids to go on to those L.A. art schools, it's perhaps natural--and not merely unlike the old Ovitz regime--that CAA is focusing on the youngest, hippest artists in L.A. In addition to such newcomers as Adler and Prieto, CAA has bought works by artists (like abstract painter Michael Reafsnyder) only a few years removed from school, and even a few still in class. "This program," says CAA's chief counsel, Michael Rubel, "gives us the opportunity to say that we're not the same company that existed five years ago, but also a chance to do that without taking a match to the building." Hmmm. It also gives us an opportunity to see a little more clearly why Ovitz may be going after many of the same artists.

It's not that Hollywood hasn't collected art before, it's just that it's never looked this young and sassy. In the golden era Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton had troves of impressionist paintings. More recently, Jack Nicholson and Steve Martin have largely focused on safe and sane modern paintings, but the real connoisseur in town is DreamWorks partner David Geffen. His primo examples of Jackson Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns reside on customized walls in a completely renovated former Jack Warner mansion in Beverly Hills. Nothing in Geffen's collection is less than a hall-of-famer, and he clearly intends it that way. At the moment, he's not collecting the youngsters.

Not everyone's as skeptical as Geffen seems to be. Crowded Saturdays at "6150" are still as much culture as carnival, and, while nobody's into collecting the new L.A. art solely for investment, the prices haven't dipped yet. But collectors are also healthily aware of the uncertain turf they've traipsed onto. Few of today's young geniuses will end up making the next century's masterpieces: "I'm not sure there's any retrospective material for the Museum of Modern Art here," says Norton. And in a scene so enamored of artists who are young and restless, nobody's sure who'll even manage to stay trendy. As Valentine says blithely, "Who knows? Maybe in three more years there won't be any waiting lists for anybody." And maybe there's a new truism being born in L.A.: life is long, art is brief.