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With Regen’s Passing, L.A. Art Loses a Guiding Force

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TIMES ART CRITIC

During some four decades as an increasingly major center for contemporary art, Los Angeles has had its share of talented dealers. Their galleries have provided essential public platforms for artists and their work.

This week, the city lost one of the most gifted when Stuart Regen succumbed to the ravages of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Regen was barely 39, but in slightly more than eight years’ time his West Hollywood gallery had assumed a critical position in L.A.’s burgeoning art-ecology. Many another gallery around town had been fundamental to the slow but steady maturation of L.A.’s art scene since the 1950s, and to its arrival as an international powerhouse for new art by the end of the 1980s. Yet, working in collaboration with his wife and business partner, Shaun Caley, Regen established the first major L.A. gallery to come of age in concert with the city’s newly conversant ease as a cosmopolitan art scene.

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Skill and insight were crucial to that success, although the serendipity of timing also played its part. Regen was born in New York in 1959, just as L.A. was beginning to peek its regional head over the long horizon of international art prominence. The trajectory of the young man’s art life was, in a sense, to parallel that of a city at the other edge of the continent.

When he was 21 and nearing completion of studies in arts administration at Skidmore College in upstate New York, Regen’s mother, Barbara Gladstone, opened an art gallery in Manhattan’s SoHo. It quickly became a major player in the rapidly internationalizing art world as the 1980s art market exploded.

The 1980s were an amazing decade for art, in ways good and bad. On the good side was the collapse of the singular postwar dominance of New York. Germany, other parts of Europe and, finally, other parts of the globe became entangled in a cultural discourse of international dimensions. And for the very first time, the United States saw a second American city--Los Angeles--join New York as an unmistakable center for new art of international caliber.

By the mid-’80s, Stuart Regen had worked for P.S. 1, an alternative space in Long Island City, and a commercial gallery in Cologne, Germany, European center of the contemporary art market; but in 1987 he chose L.A. as his permanent home. Two years later, after a stint directing the Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica, he opened the first of two art spaces that would draw increasing attention in the 1990s.

West Hollywood’s Stuart Regen Gallery featured exhibitions by some gifted younger L.A. artists, such as Larry Johnson and Liz Larner, but the schedule was dominated by a roster of well-known international figures, including Anish Kapoor, Rosemarie Trockel, On Kawara and Lawrence Weiner. Regen’s keen interest in L.A.’s earlier gallery history was signaled by an unusual 1990 event: a three-gallery tribute, mounted in conjunction with the prominent Asher-Faure Gallery and Gemini G.E.L., upon the untimely death of legendary L.A. dealer Nicholas Wilder.

The next year saw two events of unusual note: Regen’s debut solo show for Matthew Barney, a then-unknown 24-year-old New Yorker who has since become a definitive artist of this decade, and Regen’s marriage to Caley.

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In the wake of the sudden and prolonged downturn in the art market, the couple downsized their gallery in 1992 to a smaller space a few doors north at the newly re-christened Regen Projects; what they didn’t downsize was their ambition for their artists.

Indeed, Regen Projects still featured work by renowned masters, including Weiner and Sol Lewitt, while introducing to L.A. a batch of younger or less well-established artists from New York and Europe, such as Stephan Balkenhol, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton. More important, though, was a greatly expanded commitment to significant artists based in L.A. and at varying stages in their careers--Toba Khedoori, Catherine Opie, Raymond Pettibon, Lari Pittman and Charles Ray, among them.

As a sideline, Regen also dabbled in movies. He found the book “Leaving Las Vegas,” brought it to director Mike Figgis and was associate producer of the Oscar-winning film.

Here’s the most extraordinary fact of all: These accomplishments came to pass after Regen’s 1989 lymphoma diagnosis and while he struggled with the increasingly debilitating disease.

In the modern era, no city’s art scene has ever matured without the passionate labor of art dealers and their galleries. At a bittersweet memorial service Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles remembered the critical contributions of one of its best.

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