Stupefying Prices/Priceless Exhibition

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By my nature I'm not a pessimist but last week, reading about the sale of mid-century paintings--one by Jasper Johns and the other by Willem de Kooning--for $143.5 million made me rather sad; not for David Geffen who sold them for an astonishing profit and definitely not for the two hedge fund billionaires who bought them. It made me sad because of the insanity of this whole transaction. Two years ago, when the sale of an early Picasso painting broke the $100 million mark it felt as if the market had reached its peak, that there was no room to climb higher. Then Ronald Lauder snapped up the mesmerizing portrait of Adele by Gustav Klimt for $135 million. The extremely high prices for these paintings could be partially explained by their absence from the market for 50 years in the case of the Picasso and 70 years for the Klimt. The previous history of the ownership of these paintings is quite remarkable as well: the Picasso belonged to the Whitney family and the Klimt was owned--as it turned out illegally--by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

Meanwhile, the Johns and de Kooning canvases have been bought and sold numerous times in the last fifty years indicating to me that their owners loved and knew good art but they loved money even more. Gone are the days when collectors were expected to live with their art as well as with their spouses until "death do them part." There is speculation that Mr. Geffen might use his windfall to buy the Los Angeles Times which has a troubled relationship with its owner, the Tribune Company. Let's hope that there will be some loose change left for him to donate to his namesake, the Geffen Contemporary, the cavernous space in Little Tokyo that MOCA owns but rarely uses these days; it lacks climate and humidity controls required by today's museums and it would take about five million dollars to bring this space up to museum standards. Mr. Geffen, are you listening?

And while we are talking about museum standards... the small and feisty Santa Monica Museum of Art in Bergamot Station has raised the bar with its ambitious current exhibition juxtaposing figurative paintings by visionary American artist, Philip Guston (1913-1980) and Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the precursor of Surrealism. It took four years to negotiate and obtain all the necessary loans from various museums and private collections for this remarkable exhibition that illustrates a fascinating moment in American cultural history. In the early 1930's, while living in Los Angeles, young Guston for the first time was exposed to European modern art in the house of Louise and Walter Arensberg, one of the most adventurous American collectors of their time.

According to the artist's own words, the paintings by de Chirico profoundly affected the course of Guston's art for the next fifty years. It's intriguing to observe the young and impressionable American artist at first working under the spell of the European master: the same dark palette as well as an emphasis on monumental human figures thrust into a moody atmosphere of elaborately constructed deep spaces. However, the real payoff for Guston happens many years later when in the late-60's and 70's, he startles the public with paintings dominated by hooded Ku Klux Klan figures and severed body parts. This grotesque imagery painted in a cartoonish manner has an uneasy mixture of melancholy and tragedy. But the real miracle is the impossible balance that the artist achieves between the violence of his images and the delicate palette of powdery pinks and blues that lingers with you long after you have turned away. Even now, almost forty years after they were painted, these late works by Philip Guston have the unsettling ability to slap you in the face while caressing you at the same time.

Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico
Santa Monica Museum of Art
Bergamot Station G1
2525 Michigan Ave
Santa Monica, Ca 90404
tel: 310-586-6488
On view until November 25