Multibillionaire Eli Broad has long been a sort-of eminence grise in the Los Angeles art scene — as grise as you can get, anyway, while spearheading the founding of MOCA, the imminent supersizing of UCLA‘s art-department facilities and the reanimation of Walt Disney Hall. But his collecting has been kept at a relatively low profile. With the encouragement and participation of his wife, Edythe, Broad (pronounced “brode”) began buying art in the mid-’70s. Since then, between their personal collection and the holdings of the Broad Art Foundation (and not counting the exclusively Californian art holdings of Broad‘s twin empires, SunAmerica and KB Home), the couple has amassed more than 1,000 works.

The foundation’s mandate is the primary reason the collection isn‘t as well-known as its staggering scope merits. Whereas many big-time collectors (c.f. Hammer, Getty, Norton Simon) open or acquire museums to show (and show off) their collections, Broad conceived his foundation in 1984 for the explicit purpose of loaning works to needy museums and university galleries at no charge. The collection has been housed in a beautiful brick-and-glass former telephone switching station in Santa Monica since 1988, with ample space for displaying the work, but is open only to art professionals and students. So while individual works may have drawn notice in shows such as “Sunshine & Noir” or Charles Ray’s MOCA retrospective, most Angelenos have been kept in the dark regarding the breadth and depth of the Broads‘ passion for collecting. Until now.

Opening this Sunday at the L.A. County Museum of Art, “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections” has the slightly stuffy title typical of some welterweight provincial’s collection of second-rate work by first-rate artists. But make no mistake: This show is probably the single most powerhouse collection of major late-20th-century paintings and sculptures that Los Angeles is likely to see in one space at one time in the near future. Bona fide masterpieces include Johns‘ Flag (1967), Warhol’s Two Marilyns (1962), Rauschenberg‘s Untitled (Red Painting) (1954), Lichtenstein’s Live Ammo (Blang!) (1962), Baldessari‘s Tips for Artists (1967-68) and Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988).

Some may find my claim for this last piece a little hard to swallow, but one of the most surprising aspects of the show is the reassessment it affords the much-maligned orphans of the ‘80s art boom — those sad neo-Expressionist millionaires whose works make up a major chunk of the exhibit. Bracketed by the powerful Pop Art sampler and the token contemporary work by Sharon Lockhart and Charlie Ray, the central section of ’80s art — divvied up between the New Imagists of Germany and New York — functions both as a gauntlet thrown to the dismissive post-crash canon of the ‘90s, and as the fulcrum of a subtle argument delineating a sort of pop-figurative-political continuity throughout the show and, by extension, throughout the last quarter-century of art history.

In a bewildering array of simultaneous ironies, the ’80s section kicks off with a powerful installation by German thorn-in-the-capitalist-art-world‘s-side Hans Haacke. Created for the landmark 1982 Dokumenta exhibit, Oelgemaelde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers (Oil Painting: Homage to Marcel Broodthaers) consists of an unflatteringly arrogant-looking portrait of then-President Reagan hung opposite a blown-up photograph of New York’s 42nd Street clogged with thousands of no-nuke protesters, with a long red carpet and velvet rope defining the unbridgeable gulf between their respective understandings of democracy. Apart from its serendipitous topical currency and the added postmodern mind-fuck of the work‘s acquisition (and donation to LACMA) by one of the world’s richest men, the placing of the Haacke work as the entree to the subsequent Reagan-era artwork debunks its easy equation with the cartoonish two-dimensional politics of the time.

One of the already-rehabilitated ‘80s artists in the Broad collection is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose cartoonish two-dimensional works went from being hot-ticket investments to can’t-give-away white elephants to blue-chip mainstays — all in the space of a decade. Basquiat is presented on equal footing with Johns et al., as are less fortunate once-weres Anselm Kiefer, Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, Susan Rothenberg and David Salle. While there is an appreciable amount of coin and verbiage invested in these artists‘ careers, their historical positions are deliciously far from secure, giving “Johns to Koons” an unforeseen edge. These paintings continue to be more challenging than the pale glut of third-generation, ironied-out imitators that clog today’s galleries. And that‘s even without the historical context.

Painting in the early ’80s was a sort of “fuck you” to the increasingly claustrophobic strictures about what constituted art and who got to say so. Remember, painting had been declared dead, and in spite of critical attempts to rationalize its re-emergence as “ironic” or “postmodern,” it was really just a case of regular artists holding the anarchistic underpinnings of leftist academic cant to the letter of its word and embracing the hard-wired human need to smoosh colored goop around on a flat (or broken-crockery-encrusted) surface. The floodgates were suddenly open for all manner of sensuality and humor in art, and even archly conceptual artists such as Koons and Cindy Sherman clothed their high conceits in visually arresting raiment.

Koons and Sherman are among the artists whom the Broads have collected in depth. Many collectors are fashion-driven and want only a single representative work by whoever‘s on the cover of this month’s Art issues. Many museums are insufficiently funded to acquire a cross section of a given artist‘s output, and most curators have to pander to a highfalutin lowest common denominator to pay their dues. In contrast, the Broad Foundation has been able to maintain an active interest in the careers of its artists over years, even decades, creating a private collection of diverse miniature retrospectives that has few rivals in the world. The Broads own one of the largest collections of Sherman photographs anywhere, and the selection included in the LACMA show charts her progression from Alfred Hitchcock to Alejandro Jodorowski admirably. In spite of their sometime endorsement by chilly academics, Sherman and Koons are artists whose work seems both funnier and more formally engaged in retrospect than it did at first glance.

An even more generous selection of Cindy’s work will be on display at the Broad Art Foundation itself, to art professionals, artists, academics and graduate students. (But we also have to look at alleged paintings by Christopher Wool, so pity us.) Those who qualify can also peruse the Robert Therrien sculptures that will be included in the version of “Johns to Koons” that travels to Washington and Boston, and check out the just-acquired discombobulating photo-realist photo-murals of Andreas Gursky. But the main show at LACMA contains more than enough to chew on, with over 100 works ranging from the underrated late canvases of Johns to the unjustly despised straw, tar and burlap conglomerations of Angstmeister Kiefer. Much of this work is familiar only through reproduction or by reputation, and, though it only skims the surface of the wealth of material accumulated by the Broad collections over the last quarter-century, it offers the public a rare opportunity to actually confront these works and make up our own minds.

LA Weekly