ART REVIEW : An Exhibit to Encourage Collectors

Times Staff Writer

Ah, the golden years of collecting contemporary art, when all you needed was the courage of your convictions and a little cash.

"We used to bring a bag lunch and sit on the floor of Irving Blum's gallery and figure out how we'd ever get enough money to buy a Protractor (painting)," Santa Barbara architect Barry Berkus says in a videotape made by the Long Beach Museum of Art.

"We talked with Felix (Landau, the dealer)," adds Gail Berkus. "We were prepared to make payments (for a piece by Alexander Calder). He was very patient. Barry handed him a folder.

" 'What's that?,' Landau asked.

" 'Our assets,' Barry said.

" 'Why would I want to look at something like that?' "

Some 20-odd years later, the Berkuses own more than 200 works, many of them on a massive, architectural scale.

Although some of these pieces have been lent anonymously to other exhibitions, the 34 works by 29 artists at the Long Beach Museum of Art (till June 5) mark only the second time the couple's taste has been featured in a "collection of" show. (The first was in 1984, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.)

Because the Long Beach museum's galleries are modestly sized, the works on view are relatively small. There was no room for the Stellas, the Rosenquist, the Di Suvero or many other major pieces.

But the art in this sampling ranges in a casual, unstructured fashion over a fair chunk of territory, encompassing household names and coterie favorites, Californians and New Yorkers, a few Bay Area stalwarts and a core of blue-chip Angelenos.

As a group, the paintings, sculptures and works on paper have a split personality: Most are amusing and lovable; a few are austere. Yet even when they're on a small scale, these works tend not to be particularly intimate or deeply engrossing. They make their points vividly and quickly and don't stir up trouble.

If a Nancy Graves sculpture ("Colubra") is prickly and mysterious, it also has its colorful, decorative side. Even the lone collage by the late William Dole has a sprightly graphic appeal readable from a distance.

The Berkuses are sufficiently smitten with Ed Ruscha's "Yes/No" from 1987 that (as the videotape reveals) hangs over their bed. The painting of silhouetted large and small neighboring houses incorporates the title words as if reflecting the results of one of America's ubiquitous polls.

Another Ruscha canvas, "Executive Pressures and Loss of Memory," is a prime piece from 1973 in which the title is spelled out in the faint, hovering yellow of dried egg yolk applied to a gleaming square of pale moire silk.

Perhaps the most important work in the show--surely the "deepest"--is a splendid John McLaughlin ("No. 6"), a black canvas with two serene white rectangular bars that the artist painted in 1973, three years before his death.

Although the Diebenkorn is a rather routine drawing from 1979, John Altoon is represented by a delicious, untitled ink-and-watercolor landscape from 1968 with blue-green stripes curving over a plump, hilly field spritzed with tender pink doodles.

In Andy Warhol's "Russell Means," from his American Indian Series, the image of the Sioux activist combines the directness and slightly off-register effect of a mass-produced photograph with the seductive, painterly quality of his pastel-colored tribal regalia.

Among several recent works by lesser-known artists, the standouts include a large beaker-shaped painting by Robert Therrien, Creighton Michael's long, tapering sculpture "Par Aquaba No. 3"--its waxy surface revealing the neat little trestles of its wooden armature--and a quietly seductive pair of little geometric paintings by Ron Janowich.

Robert Arneson's drolly winking ceramic self-portrait ("Askance") greets visitors on the museum's second floor, where most of the breezier stuff camps out.

Trompe l'oeil ceramics by Marilyn Levine and Richard Shaw, the '60s whimsy of resin-encased squirting paint tubes by Arman and the itty-bitty real-life objects that litter a Roland Reiss assemblage can be counted on to draw oohing and aahing attention.

One wonders if such easy-to-digest pieces were included in the exhibit primarily to encourage the faint of heart. Because this is a show with a mission: to help develop more local collectors by showcasing the art-addictive habits of people who've always bought whatever appealed to them.

In that light, it would have been even more interesting if viewers knew when pieces were acquired (how well known was the artist at that time?) and which other works were tossed out as the Berkuses' tastes changed. But as an inducement to fill one's home with art that looks easy to live with, the show has enormous window-shopping appeal.

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