Artist Tony Berlant surveyed the sunken, Spanish-style living room, teary eyed and sparking with memories. A sampling of the Los Angeles art world's elder statesmen — Gemini G.E.L.'s Sidney Felsen, former gallerist Margo Leavin, philanthropist Eli Broad and architect Frank Gehry, to name a few — fanned out around him, nibbling on petite roast beef and chicken salad sandwiches and sipping white wine.
"So many parties here …" Berlant said, his voice trailing off.
Indeed, the art soirees at the home of the late Elyse and Stanley Grinstein in the 1960s and '70s are legendary. The arts patrons and co-founders of Gemini G.E.L., one of the country's foremost publishers of art lithography, threw raucous affairs that brought together artists and entertainers from both coasts — Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Mick Jagger, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Moses, Philip Glass.
The events helped fuse a young and geographically disconnected L.A. art scene. And debauchery unfurled on a grand scale. Guests would stream out to their cars the next day, wincing in the early-morning sunlight; others would stay for weeks on end, until the next party blossomed.
"Go big or don't bother," Elyse Grinstein, the architect of these events, would often say.
Grinstein died last week at 87. Not surprisingly, her private memorial reception on Friday afternoon at the Grinstein family home was no small affair. Nearly 500 people — artists, collectors, curators and museum directors, among them — gathered to celebrate the notable architect's life and to pay one last homage to the storied home itself, to which so many in attendance had intimate ties.
"I met my wife right here," said Berlant, standing by his 1966 sculptural installation "The House." The metal-and-enamel piece, which looks like a child's A-frame playhouse, "has been sitting in that same spot by the stairs for 30 years," joked artist Chuck Arnoldi, passing by. Berlant shrugged, continuing his story. "I was standing here. She came up and said: 'Wow, they must have a pretty big dog!' " "I said: 'This is my sculpture.' "
Land artist Lita Albuquerque and her husband, Carey Peck, were married in the Grinstein home 26 years ago. "It was right here," Albuquerque said heading out to the backyard, where cocktail tables dotted the grassy lawn and bartenders doled out generous pours of champagne. "Super Bowl Sunday 1990, about 200 people," she said, planting herself by the sparkling, kidney-bean-shaped pool. "Why'd we decide to get married here again?" she asked Peck. "Because it was the coolest house in town," he said.
Nearby, guests relaxed on Isamu Noguchi stone chairs, which were flanked by spindly Eucalyptus trees on one side and a 7-foot-long cast-resin sculpture of John Baldessari's foot on the other.
Major artworks, in fact, were casually situated at every turn, from a Wallace Berman stone sculpture painted with Hebrew lettering in the home's entrance way to Warhol's Campbell's Soup can prints embedded in the kitchen cabinets.
In the living room — a spare, cavernous space housing more art work than furniture — artists Peter Alexander, Arnoldi and Laddie John Dill along with Hauser & Wirth's Paul Schimmel clustered around a coffee table, just as Eli and Edythe Broad pulled up their chairs to join them. "Well hello, sweetheart," Alexander said to Edythe Broad, who shot him a warm smile as she settled in. Then Alexander leaned back, dwarfed beneath a wall-length Rauschenberg piece hanging above the sofa, and took in the crowd.
"Wow, this is quite an event," he said. "I remember being here in the '60s – naked, out in the pool, along with everyone else."
"Everyone just got to be so friendly back then," Arnoldi recalled. "The Grinsteins brought all the artists together and pumped up the scene. We were young and kind of poor and needed that."
"And this was the unofficial clubhouse," Alexander added.
On the end table, a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture sat wedged between a Rauschenberg print encased in plexiglass and a Judy Chicago ceramic bowl – all beneath a wall-mounted, early Moses painting on rubber. The works faced others by Baldessari, Donald Judd and Ellsworth Kelly. With LA County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron circling the adjacent buffet along with artist Judy Chicago, who spoke at the memorial service earlier in the day, and with the Broads still sitting a few feet away, the moment felt like something of an art echo chamber, with art world influencers hobnobbing near either their own work or work by artists collected in their museums.
"Ack, mine's upstairs somewhere," Alexander said of his piece.
Elsa Longhauser, director of the former Santa Monica Museum of Art, now the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, called the Grinstein's collection "very personal, highly refined and magnificent," adding, "They were icons in the community because of their generosity toward artists."
It's something that gallerist Michael Kohn said he and his buddies took for granted when they were growing up with the Grinstein daughters.
"They had these Carl Andre bricks," he recalled of being in the house as a teenager. "The work we'd think was kind of silly — oh, look at that weird art — but we never forgot it. It was my first lasting impression of contemporary art."
During the memorial service, friends and family described Grinstein as a 4-foot-10 "lightning bolt of a woman," who would whoosh into a crowded room ensconced in a perfumed breeze, gold polish glinting on her toenails. She was "tough and exacting," "adventurous" and "independent," they said, with myriad edges to her personality like the contemporary-looking buildings she designed. But she also was a quiet intellectual, soulful and deep, a voracious reader. Often, after the party she'd orchestrated had gotten underway, she'd slip upstairs to be alone with her books.
"When you walked in, she may not have been the first person you saw, but you felt her presence deeply," her daughter Nancy Grinstein said.
Gehry, who counts Grinstein as one of his closest lifelong friends, certainly felt her presence Friday. He'd flown in that day from Israel, he said, and when he arrived on the Grinsteins' doorstep from LAX airport, he paused, discombobulated for a split second.
"I haven't digested it yet. I came to the door and said, 'Wait, where's Elyse?' " Gehry said, his eyes welling up. "It's unimaginable what the world would have been like without this family."
"She was the perfect art world hostess," Chicago said of Grinstein at the memorial.
And Grinstein's home, her youngest granddaughter, Dia Rabin, added, was more than a place for parties: "It was a vessel for creativity and love."