When you think about the most important Los Angeles cultural patrons of the last fifty years –- people who devoted their sizable fortunes and limitless passion to supporting and promoting the arts 0– three names spring immediately to mind: Dorothy Chandler, who gave us the Music Center; Marcia Weisman, the driving force behind the creation of MOCA; and last but not least, Betty Freeman, a legendary patron of avant-garde music as well as a major collector of American post-war art.
With her recent death at age 87, we lost one of the most original and independent voices in American cultural life. Famous composers such as John Cage and Philip Glass received her support at an early, crucial phase of their careers, as did dozens of other lesser-known musicians. She was equally passionate about contemporary art, establishing close friendships with the notoriously difficult Clyfford Still, and a generation of talented younger painters such as Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney, long before they became household names.
Though she zealously guarded her private life, she hosted for almost forty years regular music salons in her Beverly Hills house, which was filled to the brim with a remarkable art collection presented to maximum effect with a delightful bohemian flair. But all good things must come to an end, and today, along with a small group of journalists, I was lucky enough to see this collection intact, in its original setting –- the last day before the artworks are packed up and sent off to New York, to be sold at Christie's auction in May. But before this high profile sale takes place, the highlights of the Betty Freeman Collection will be on display at Christie's showrooms, first here in Beverly Hills for two days only -– this Thursday and Friday -– then in London, and finally at Rockefeller Center in New York.
I chose to talk about this collection because of the sad feeling I have about the potential loss for us in this city of one of the iconic paintings epitomizing the history of Los Angeles, and that is David Hockney's famous Beverly Hills Housewife (1966-1967). The large horizontal canvas depicts Betty Freeman in the courtyard of her mid-century home, and it perfectly captures the unique indoor/outdoor lifestyle of Southern California. It was not a commissioned portrait; originally David Hockney intended to capture the setting around the pool, but later he asked Betty to pose for the composition. When the painting was finished, it went to Landau Alan Gallery, where it was later sold for only $4250 –- at that time a reasonable price for the work of the still young and upcoming David Hockney. Now, 40 years later, the record price for a Hockney painting sold at auction is $6 million. The iconic ‘Beverly Hills Housewife' is estimated to be sold for $7-10 million. The last time it was seen in Los Angeles was at LACMA's exhibition of David Hockney portraits in 2006.
It would be a tremendous boost to this museum's reputation to acquire this extremely important painting for its collection. A similarly iconic canvas by Hockney, American Collectors, depicting Los Angeles collectors Marcia and Fred Weisman, years ago found pride of place at the Art Institute of Chicago. ‘Beverly Hills Housewife' should stay in LA, as a perfect symbol of the way this place is perceived and dreamed about by the rest of the world. I think the acquisition of this masterpiece would be a much wiser choice for LACMA than commissioning Jeff Koons gigantic $25 million sculpture of a locomotive dangling from a crane.
Selection of works from the Collection of Betty Freeman on view at Christie's Los Angeles, March 5-6, 10am-5pm
Banner image: Betty Freeman, pictured with an exhibit of her photographs, made more than 400 grants and commissions over the last four decades to help composers, whom she called “the most important people.” Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times