Welcome to L.A., Mr. Price : An Oklahoma Millionaire Follows His Japanese Art Collection West--and Southern California Gets a Major New Art Patron

Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer

Joe D. Price is posing for pictures in front of a 17th-Century Japanese screen before which feudal warlords once sat to receive their subjects.

A latter-day ruler of Edo art treasures from Japan, Price seems about as pleased as an ornery samurai. His chin juts forward, his gray hair swirls like an unruly wreath around his balding pate, and his sometimes venomous tongue darts out of his mouth.

"I don't know what you need so many pictures for," he chides the photographer. "I've never had so many pictures taken in my life. Before," he adds, "nobody knew I existed."

That changed in 1983, when the Oklahoma millionaire gave his collection of 300 Japanese masterpieces, worth an estimated $30 million to $40 million, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with $5 million in seed money to build a pavilion to house the art. The gift, as well as construction of the pavilion, now under way, have thrust Price, 57, into the public eye.

He is greeting the attention with a mixture of truculence, ingenuousness and delight. He laughs, lobs caustic barbs, and speaks with a stammer. He likes to call himself a country boy--an Okie from the prairies--yet the way he says it reminds you that Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln and other fellows were just country boys too.

His knowledge of the long-neglected paintings of the Edo period has been widely recognized by scholars of Japanese art. Says Earl A. (Rusty) Powell, director of the County Museum: "He can spot an Edo-period screen going 90 miles an hour in a Tokyo taxicab." Price insists, however, that at the start he didn't even know he was collecting Japanese, much less Edo, art. "I just liked it. I don't know why," he says, blinking behind clear-rimmed glasses.

Price's wife, Etsuko, is Japanese, and long before he met her, he was taking off his shoes before entering his bachelor pad. "I already had a Japanese feeling, but I did not know it," he says.

But if his original attraction to Japanese art was instinctive, his collecting grew to be single-minded, surpassing the devotion of many connoisseurs.

Now his collection--which he named Shin'enkan, or "the house of the faraway heart," for the art studio of Edo artist Ito Jakuchu--is at the County Museum. And, following it, Price, Etsuko and their two young daughters have moved to Los Angeles. "My life is in the art, and I will be with the art. There's no way you can keep me away from it," he says.

After he married Etsuko in 1966 and she joined him in his Bartlesville, Okla., house, they built an adjoining museum. They slept in the museum on a futon, and a Great Dane named Kamikaze guarded the family and their art.

Price hints at a similar watchdog attitude for their lives in Los Angeles. He will not discuss his family and the house being built for them here, he says over lunch one day. "My wife's a classical Japanese person. She's not the young modern style. She likes the privacy of her home for the family. I've decided to give up my privacy, but why should I make her give up hers?"

Price is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and sipping coffee from a mug. He looks like the sort of inconspicuous, amiable chap you might meet in a diner. His trousers are baggy and flop over his loafers, his jacket is of a casual thick-napped stripe, and his tie is nondescript. Nevertheless, his shirt is from Yves Saint Laurent, and he wears a gold watch the size of a handcuff.

When he talks about his role as a tastemaker, an oilman's braggadocio pushes its way to the surface. "I'm very good at not being influenced by things that have been done before," he says. "For some reason, I have absolute confidence in being original."

He says that the pavilion, scheduled to open in 1988, "will really set this town on its ear." Its Japanese-inspired design is by the late architect Bruce Goff, who built Price's home in Bartlesville and whom he unabashedly promotes as "probably the greatest creative genius this nation has ever produced."

Between the Bartlesville-L.A. move, the family lived in Tokyo. Now they are in temporary lodgings in Los Angeles while their permanent home is under construction. This new house, Price boasts, "will be more unique than anything ever built before."

But now Price proposes a trip to Oklahoma, where he will say goodby to his Bartlesville home. He is donating it to the University of Oklahoma for use as a seminar center, and he plans to place Goff's archives there. He is flying back to give a reception for which the house will be opened to the public for the first time.

"It will be a unique experience," he promises. "Few people have ever seen a house like this before. It's one of the greatest places ever built by man."

Set out on the prairie, 40 miles north of Tulsa, Bartlesville sprang up around Jake Bartles' gristmill. But its real name was made as an oil town--specifically as the home of Phillips Petroleum. Before the rich, black liquid gurgled up, Frank Phillips was a barber, and Harold Price, a high school dropout who once sold newspapers to help out his family, ran a one-man welding shop.

By the '50s, Price senior, who had established the H. C. Price Co., welders of pipelines, had become hugely wealthy. "By huge wealth, I mean, you felt out of place," his son now reflects.

With the family money, Joe Price began collecting Edo art, from the 17th through 19th centuries. Brilliantly colored, with a diversity of subject matter and experimental styles, it was the first art patronized by Japan's new merchant class. When Price discovered it, the period was out of favor with the Japanese, who preferred earlier, more aristocratic paintings commissioned by rulers and Buddhist priests.

Picking up the undervalued works, Price began amassing a dazzling array of gold screens and scrolls, scenes painted with infinitely precise brush strokes depicting the rain falling among plum blossoms, tigers, monkeys and vignettes from the book, "The Tale of Genji." All of this was brought out to the vast, changeless prairies, to a place where only three roads lead out of town--one to Kansas City, one to Albuquerque and one to Tulsa.

The road from Tulsa is predictably straight and flat, and as David De Long drives it he cuts through the monotony with conversation about Price and his art. De Long heads the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and is an expert on Goff, who died in 1982 and whose archives are currently in De Long's keeping. Both he and Bart Prince, an Albuquerque architect who is seeing through the pavilion project and building Price's Los Angeles house, are coming to Bartlesville for the reception.

A dapper man with a mellifluous voice, De Long has known Price for 15 years and finds his move to Los Angeles a logical one for a number of reasons. Price likes to talk about the interest in Japan displayed by Los Angeles residents in contrast to New Yorkers' European orientation and San Franciscans' preference for China.

But, says De Long, "I think in the end it comes down to a highly personal reason. I think Joe likes the vitality of Los Angeles and the fact that it lacks the sense of pretension of New York. It's a much more natural place. I think California is used to people like Joe coming out and living there. I've been around Joe in New York, and he gets a bit testy at some of the questions people ask, as if he had to conform to certain stereotypes of prep schools and Ivy League colleges, knowing this and that person and going to the right restaurants. I don't think he feels any of that sort of pressure in Los Angeles."

Price once envisioned building the museum on his Oklahoma property, but, among other constraints to that idea, Etsuko wasn't happy in Bartlesville, De Long says. Price often tells how she was taunted by rednecks and treated like "the local refugee." "I would guess that she pushed for L.A., once the museum was identified as a possibility," De Long says. "I think she felt she was going to be much more at home there and would be much more accepted."

The house the couple will leave behind in Bartlesville is one of Goff's major works, De Long says, and reflects the architect's interest in bizarre geometric shapes, unusual materials and flashy colors. The museum pavilion may also raise eyebrows. "I think a lot of people are going to find it gaudy," says De Long. "Goff's work, some people feel, is. You'll see that in Joe's house too."

Price's attraction to bold art and architecture evolved over the course of years. "He was the younger of two brothers and was thought to be shy," says De Long. "He waited several years after college to get married, and that in the Midwest was unusual. Joe matured, developed his interests and married that sort of thing that interested him most--a Japanese wife. I mean, it was really part of his immersion in Japanese culture."

According to De Long, Price's interest and knowledge of Edo art did not spring spontaneously from the head of Zeus, as Price would have it. "I really believe that Joe Price became interested in Japanese art through Goff, because the first names that Joe began to collect--Jakuchu and the others--are precisely the ones Goff thought were the best."

Price is self-trained, however, and, unlike many monied art patrons, he makes his own choices. "In New York, I know a lot of people who help collect for wealthy families because they don't have confidence in their own taste," De Long says. "I don't think Joe has ever done that."

As De Long drives and talks, the countryside begins to rise and dip in a rolling terrain, and trees appear in shady clumps. South of Bartlesville, he turns into the 240-acre Price compound, which is skirted by a white rail fence that borders Price Road. On the land are three houses--one by Frank Lloyd Wright, a ranch house designed by L.A. architect Cliff May and the house built by Goff--as well as the stables where Price's mother raised saddle horses. The sign at the gate says Starview Farms, a name taken from the starry nights when the family, then living in town, would camp out in the country.

This evening, as his guests arrive, Price is working on a scheme to turn the compound into an architectural park. He is alone in his parents' former house--low-slung and bare of furniture except for the flagstoned room he uses as an office. Here there is a large desk, a group of Frank Lloyd Wright chairs and nubby hotel-style curtains drawn against the plate-glass windows and the overwhelming prairies.

The adjoining room has a red comma-shaped bar on which sit Goff's old TV, now used to receive financial broadcasts, and a collection of airline whiskey bottles. Under the glare of a single light, Price pours a round of drinks. Dinner, he announces, will be at Maria's, which he says is the best restaurant in town.

Country music plays over the speakers at Maria's; a singer croons "I'm savin' my love for you" as the waitress leads Price and his party to a table set with blue paper mats and a candle that dimly flickers in a colored glass holder. Price has always come back to Maria's after his business travels and his sailing trips to Tahiti.

He says he doesn't like to talk about these past adventures. "I never really think backwards. I never remember names, because I never think about yesterday. I hate memory. I've got friends who, when we get together, all they want to talk about is the past. I don't want to talk about the past. Where I have fun is talking about things we can do in the future."

Tonight, however, he orders fried chicken and begins recollecting old times, starting with the bad years on the pipelines. "Oh, boy, these stories go back," he says, laughing. For instance, there's the story of his first job, in the summer of 1947, cleaning stringer beans (the first weld that's put on a pipe, he explains) with an ice pick and a hacksaw blade on the Biggest Inch, then the largest pipeline ever laid, across the California desert between Blythe and Riverside. "If you ask me why I don't like building pipelines, I learned on my first job," he says.

Price preferred a later job making the company's promotional film--"a ballet of the work and the dust and the sweat and the muck and the fighting to get through," he says. "It would only run seven minutes, but the client would be exhausted and feeling, by God, this company can do anything."

On a shoot in West Virginia, he took a Choctaw Indian as a swamper, or helper, and stayed in a dive run by "a religious nut," adjoining a whorehouse. There was carousing, dirty jokes and drinking. During one spree, he says, "my Indian friend was pouring shaving lotion on me as I was crawling, slipping all over everything, and my father was coming in that day."

Price went from job to job in the company. He traveled, helped bid on jobs and developed automatic welding machines. "They were always making up titles for me. Nobody could ever find a place for me," he says. When his older brother, Harold Jr., took over as the company's chief executive officer, Price had a business card made with the title son crossed out and brother printed alongside.

At 31, Price announced to his father that he was abandoning the pipeline business to sail the South Seas. "His words, I'll never forget," says Price, "were 'What took you so damn long?' "

Price bought a 134-foot schooner, hired a San Francisco sea captain and, after recruiting hands, sailed from Sausalito to Tahiti. Becalmed en route, the boat took 36 days to reach Papeete; it was during this time that Price discovered the love of nature that fueled his passion for Japanese art. "Every wave had a different personality," he remembers. "I found I could recognize a bird flying over me--whether that was the same bird as yesterday."

On a week's trip from Tahiti to Tokyo, Price met his wife, a dental assistant. He presented her with a business card that said "Tahiti Joe, son of the beach, no money, no morals, no phone, no address." Later, she wrote to him in Bartlesville, saying, "I wish I were a little bird and I could fly all the way to Oklahoma." Soon after, they were married.

Six years ago, first Joe, then his brother, sold their interests in the company. Harold moved to Los Angeles, and Joe, who kept a partnership in offshore oil-drilling companies, began hunting for a spot for his art collection and Goff's museum.

New York's Metropolitan Museum could not offer him the football-field-size chunk of Central Park that he required; Princeton and Stanford universities could not assure him the continued care of his art. The L.A. County Museum guaranteed both.

Price licks his fingers and orders a doggie bag for the rest of his fried chicken. Back at his house, he bows, laughing, under a persimmon tree and calls, " Sayonara ," as his guests turn and drive away.

The following day Price sits on the lawn and watches a gaggle of geese waddle, honking, down to the lake. A nearby swing hangs lopsided and broken; the swimming pool is glutted with leaves, and grass pushes up through the patio. A rusted chair on the dock is placed near an ideal fishing spot. "When the scholars would come," he says, "I'd go down and within an hour I'd have enough fish for them all.

"But basically our life here was very private. We only had maybe two or three friends in town. The townspeople had no interest in the art. They'd just want to talk about local gossip. My brother was the social one. He was always having parties and was on the hospital board. I'd never go out, because everything I wanted was here--the vegetable garden, the orchards and the chickens."

As he talks, a small cavalcade of cars, the vanguard of 400 visitors, winds along the road and heads up from the lake. Someone calls from the house, and Price hollers, "We saw 'em coming."

"The fishing's the only part I'll really miss," he continues, slowly heading back up the lawn. "But the way I look at it is, I've had this for 53 years. You're gonna leave it sometime, and you might as well leave it when you can go to something better."

If it had not been for Joe's mother, two of the Price houses would not have existed at all. Mary Lou Price read about Frank Lloyd Wright one day in Fortune magazine and persuaded her husband to contact the famous architect. Joe Price mediated between Wright and his father during construction of the Price Tower, the company headquarters designed by Wright and now owned by Phillips Petroleum.

A collector of Japanese woodblock prints, Wright taught Joe how nature could be improved on, its essence evoked through artificial, man-made creations. "It's nature made better," says Price. "I'm sure when I saw those Japanese paintings I saw the same thing."

Walking up to his house, now crowded with visitors, Price plucks a wildflower and demonstrates. "Mr. Wright was showing how the central life of the flower comes up through the stem--the same thing as in the tower--the air conditioning, everything, comes up through the central core. The petals all cantilever out the same as the floor."

His own house is dazzling with its copper roof and high windows studded with ornate patterns of colored glass, like the beads of a sultan.

Price avoids the well-wishers, ducking through an almost imperceptible gate that leads to a quiet Japanese garden. He spies a patch of stray asparagus shoots. "Some bird must have brought the seed over here," he muses. "I used to come out and pick them and we'd have them for lunch." At the pond he stoops and claps his hands for the goldfish to come to feed. "We'd clap and they'd come," he says. "I guess they've forgotten."

On a terrace overlooking the garden, a group has gathered, drinks in hand, and, out of sight, somebody calls, "Joe, where are you?"

"Nobody has ever seen the house except for my close friends," Price says, heading reluctantly toward the front door. "I've been trying to keep from it, but I guess. . . ." He leaves the sentence unfinished as he walks in to do the thing he dislikes most: confront his ghosts.

In the main room, a blue-aproned guide is beginning her tour: "Welcome to the Joe Price House. We'd like to tell you a little bit about it."

"Hi," a woman says, introducing herself to Price. "I hope this doesn't mean you'll never come back to Bartlesville." A man hustles up asking why the bedroom doorknob is so low. A reporter from the Tulsa World stops him: "I'd just like to ask a few questions." Gov. George Nigh and Frank Horton, president of the University of Oklahoma, stride up for handshakes.

"The town's not the same without you and Harold," an acquaintance says. "That's not my fault," Price says, laughing nervously at his bluntness.

Moving away, Price begins his own tour of a triangular room with carpeted floor and walls, pillows, a conversation pit and a disappearing James Bond-style bar. It was once his bachelor pad.

"You leave your shoes at the door," he instructs, "come in and flop on the floor, lean back, mix a drink, turn on the music. Just relax.

"The whole purpose of this room was to be natural. I've always noticed at cocktail parties if you took your shoes off and sat on the floor you'd talk about all kinds of interesting things. If you stood up you talked about the weather.

"I hated falseness," he explains. "I found a paradise down in Tahiti. That's making a life out of being natural. I wanted that feeling here--that complete be-yourself feeling."

Price leads the way down a hallway, through the museum, a Japanese bath, and, via a secret passageway, up to a tower room, his private retreat. The space is shaped like a faceted diamond, the floor and counters are made of translucent onyx, brought from Turkey, and the windows sparkle with sequins of multicolored glass.

A projector emerges from the wall, and a screen drops from the ceiling. On a raised platform are two television sets for simultaneously viewing football games, and before them are two large black leather chairs that fold down into beds.

"It's a house for grown-up kids," Price says, taking a seat in one of the chairs. A crowd begins to pour up the stairs, and soon a semicircle forms around him. "How things goin' out in L.A.?" "Hey, what you doing here?" "Tell Etsuko hi," the greetings come.

"It looks like I'm holding court," Price says, grinning. "I just found a soft seat."

Outside, beyond the twinkling window sequins, dusk has fallen over the prairie, and car headlights can be seen shuttling back and forth along Price Road. Price's nightmare of boredom is being a bus driver on the road from Bartlesville to Tulsa, and one understands, amid the flat monotony, a need for entertaining architecture and art that renders nature exotic.

Downstairs Price retrieves his shoes from the K Mart bag where they were stored and for the last time leaves his former home. A childhood friend who had not seen the house since it was built gives Price a ride to his sister-in-law's, where a dinner party is being held.

'That was kind of grueling for you," his wife says sympathetically.

"No," Price stutters. "No-no, no, no."

Later, Andrew Price, Joe's 25-year-old nephew, is asked to comment on his uncle's character.

"What you see is what you get," he says. "That's the way he's always been."

He doesn't care what people think? "Never has. If he did, he never would have built that house. He had everybody around here saying he was nuts.

"He's always done exactly what he wanted. The only reason he collected Japanese art is because he liked it.

"His whole life is really the art and architecture. Some people would say he's an eccentric--depending on where they come from, of course."

At the Tulsa Airport the next afternoon, Price says he wants to talk and he waves toward a seat overlooking the Tarmac.

"You never mentioned my stammer," he says abruptly, "and I never thought about it until we were sitting in the yard yesterday, talking about what it was like growing up.

"I've never thought backwards, back to my childhood, because at times today I can't talk. I remember so-some-somebody saying-saying God-God, man, can't you even talk? So my childhood isn't something I really like to bring up. Looking back on it I remember nothing but terror--the terror of being forced to talk and

what happened when I did. I was always happy to be inconspicuous.

"Now whether that has any bearing on Japanese art and building the museum and doing this architecture that is new and different, it may not. Or it may be the one thing that drives me to it."

In the plane, Price orders a Bloody Mary and two mini-bottles of Beefeaters. "Sometimes they come with a whole throw-up bag of bottles for me," he says jovially. Price is traveling with all of his worldly belongings for the trip--some dirty shirts--stuffed in a red shopping bag. He is flying first class on a lifetime pass bought for $60,000 and grumbles that he cannot accumulate mileage for a free flight.

This trip he will stop for the night in Los Angeles, look in on the new house, and continue to Tokyo. The L.A. house is still off limits for publicity, he says.

Back in Los Angeles two weeks later, Price relents and shows the house, but with a few all-encompassing restrictions--that its general vicinity, style and building materials not be revealed.

"It's a fortress," says Bart Prince, the architect. "Nobody penetrates farther than Joe wants them to."

There are secret passages and hidden doors, evasive stairways and deceptive turns. Visitors, Price says, will not be able to orient themselves. "I have complete privacy," he declares.

The house should be completed by Christmas. But when it is suggested that Price throw a house-warming party, he surveys this newest expression of his life, laughs and says, "Don't hold your breath!"

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