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Bidding Hello to Spring

New York’s spring art auction season won’t reach its pinnacle until early May, but the buildup is well underway as Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to release news flashes about big-ticket shopping opportunities awaiting collectors in the upcoming marathon of sales. Without spending a dime--except perhaps for parking--Southern Californians can get a glimpse of what’s to come in a preview exhibition at Sotheby’s Beverly Hills showroom, Friday through next Sunday.

The show offers highlights of Impressionist, modern, contemporary and American art. At least in terms of money, the star items are paintings by Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne--valued at $25 million to $35 million apiece. Both works come from the estate of John Hay Whitney, a venture capitalist and newspaper publisher who was U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1956-60, and his wife Betsey Cushing Whitney. The couple collected for 50 years and donated many artworks to American museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn.

The Seurat, “Island of La Grande Jatte,” is billed as the most important privately owned work related to the artist’s best-known painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” The latter work is an icon of modern art, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago--and the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Seurat made many small oil sketches and drawings in preparation for his 6 1/2-by-9 3/4-foot masterpiece, depicting about 50 people at a riverside park north of Paris. The Whitney painting is an unpopulated landscape executed in his trademark pointillist style. Measuring 25 5/8 by 31 1/8 inches, it is one of two relatively large final studies for the mural-size painting. Seurat began the study in 1884 but reworked it the next year, then added a border of small dots in 1889--three years after completing the monumental work. The other major preparatory painting for “La Grand Jatte” is a composition of figures in a landscape, in the collection of the Met.

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The Cezanne painting scheduled to go on the block is “Curtain, Pitcher and Fruit Dish.” The archetypal still life is an example of the artist’s mature work, made around 1893-94, at the peak of his career. Along with works by Pablo Picasso, Gustave Courbet and Berthe Morisot, the Seurat and the Cezanne will be offered May 10 in an auction of the Whitney collection that is expected to bring about $90 million in sales.

The exhibition also features two contemporary paintings--Richard Diebenkorn’s “Berkeley” and Franz Kline’s “Shaft,” both made in 1955--from the Dorothy S. Blankfort Trust. A Los Angeles-based literary agent, writer and art patron who died in December, she was the wife of screenwriter and novelist Michael Blankfort, who died in 1982.

The Blankforts were pioneering collectors of contemporary art and longtime supporters of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Michael served as a trustee, Dorothy as president of the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council. In 1982, LACMA presented an exhibition of 189 drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints and multiples by 100 artists from their collection.

The couple gave the museum “Montauk Highway,” a 1958 painting by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, at the time of the exhibition and donated dozens of other, less valuable pieces over the years. A bequest of additional works is currently being processed, a museum press officer said. But 11 works from the Blankfort collection have been consigned to auction to pay estate taxes.

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The Kline, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, and the Diebenkorn, $400,000 to $600,000, have been consigned to a sale of modern and contemporary art on May 18. The remaining nine pieces--including paintings by Robert Motherwell and Josef Albers, a watercolor by John Marin, a pastel by Edouard Vuillard and a photograph by Edward Weston--will be offered in other spring sales.

Sotheby’s preview exhibition, at 9665 Wilshire Blvd., will be open Friday, 3 to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: (310) 274-0340.

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PHILANTHROPY, PASADENA-STYLE: As members of the Pasadena Art Alliance often say, the purpose of their group is raising money to give it away. And they’re at it again. In this year’s round of grants to local arts organizations, announced Thursday, the alliance donated a total of $108,925 to 10 institutions.

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Established in 1956 as a volunteer support group for the Pasadena Art Museum, the group reorganized as an independent nonprofit organization in 1974, when the museum closed. The heart of the 150-member organization is still in Pasadena--as its philanthropic record shows--but over the past 25 years, the group has become an essential component of the local support system for contemporary art all across Greater Los Angeles.

This year about half the money went to Pasadena institutions. The Armory Center for the Arts and Art Center College of Design received $20,000 each and Pasadena City College won $10,500, for a variety of exhibitions, scholarships and educational programs.

The Museum of Contemporary Art was also a big winner, as recipient of $15,000 for a new program, “Dialogues @ MOCA: The Richard Koshalek Lecture Series.” Artists, curators and historians involved in the museum’s exhibition program are expected to participate in the series, designed to honor MOCA’s longtime director, who will step down in July.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach each received a $10,000 grant for an exhibition catalog. LACMA’s grant will help finance a publication for a show of sculptor Robert Therrien’s work, scheduled to open in February. The University Art Museum will use its money to publish a catalog for “Historically Speaking,” a visual overview of the museum’s exhibition program, planned in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the university and the 25th anniversary of the museum.

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Smaller awards, mostly designated for exhibitions, went to the Claremont Graduate University’s master’s of fine arts program, the Long Beach Museum of Art, New Town Pasadena and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A.

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VISUAL HISTORY: An exhibition of Larry Rivers’ unorthodox narrative mural, “History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews,” at the Skirball Cultural Center, has sparked a symposium on issues related to the work and mural traditions. The program, “Modern Art: Murals as History,” is scheduled for Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Skirball.

Albert Boime, a UCLA art history professor who specializes in historical and sociological interpretations of 19th century art, will moderate a panel discussion with Los Angeles-based artists Terry Schoonhoven and Gronk, and Skirball curator Barbara Gilbert. Schoonhoven, who established himself as a muralist in the 1960s, is currently completing a 12-by-17-foot painting, “Jewish Contributions to Medicine,” for the Harvey Morse Auditorium at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Gronk, a leader of the Chicano art movement whose paintings have been exhibited internationally, has been commissioned to do a mural at the San Francisco Airport.

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Symposium and gallery admission: $8 general, $6 members, $4 students. To order tickets, call Tickets L.A. at (323) 660-8587. Information: (310) 440-4500 or https://www.skirball.com. *


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