Desire, Tempered by Discipline

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he descends the winding staircase of his grand Beverly Hills Spanish-style home, Max Palevsky makes a striking figure. It's not his impecable pink dress shirt, or his pale-blue pants, for, after all, those are pretty much what you'd expect a successful, retired businessman to wear. It's the way he holds himself. Board straight. And the way he looks at you through his thick, dark-rimmed glasses. Direct and unflinching.

From first greeting, Palevsky, 76, emits an air of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, but his demeanor also seems intended more to challenge than to put off the visitor. With a strong handshake, he evokes an old-fashioned elegance--gracious, but no-nonsense, fitting for an entrepreneur who has turned his attention to art collecting and political patronage.

A student of mathematics and science, Palevsky got into computers in the late 1940s. His vision paid off, and by the early 1970s he was a very wealthy man, having sold his company to Xerox. He continued to work in various businesses, but his new affluence allowed other interests to flourish too, including art--both as a collector and a donor to museums--as well as political patronage and movie producing.

Married and divorced five times, Palevsky also owns a sweeping, ocean-view Mediterranean-style house in Malibu with interiors by Italian Pop designer Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis group, an ultra-Modern house in Palm Springs designed by Craig Ellwood built in 1968 and an apartment in New York, all of which contain his very personal mix of art and fine furniture. His '20s-era Beverly Hills home, which he shares with three of his six children (they range in age from 16 to 43), sits on a quiet street just below Sunset Boulevard; it is spacious without being overwhelmingly huge, and one can imagine conversations flowing in the many different public quarters.

Every detail of each room was done over for Palevsky when he moved in about 15 years ago by L.A.-based architectural designer Coy Howard, who also designed some of the furnishings. From the dark floors, which glow with a mirror-like shine, to the ornately decorated ceilings--different in each room--the interiors contain many unusual flourishes, all of which easily complement the mix of early 20th century Arts and Crafts furniture, Modern and Contemporary art and oriental rugs. Delicate Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass windows can be seen on the French doors leading to the pool and in Palevsky's master bedroom suite.

"I hope the house doesn't look like its decorated ," Palevsky says as he sits down to talk about his collection in the library on a brightly colored sofa designed by Sottsass, lit from behind by a Tiffany floor lamp. "I hate decorated houses." He mentions a recent party at a celebrity's home. "Wow! I haven't been to a place like that in a long time," he says. "Oh!"

His own house, he insists, is informal, and anything can be used. "I hate houses that are fragile," he says. But everything has a distinct place. When he sets down a book, he does so very carefully, taking a moment to correctly align the edges with the sides of the table. Upstairs, six pairs of glasses line up in a row on his bedstand, next to six different decorative cases.

"I know it's all a little obsessive," he says with a smile. "I should have been an architect."

He tends to talk in exclamations, with a sly grin when he's making a point about some aspect of society he doesn't approve of. He leaves the room at one point, giving his visitor a recent Sotheby's catalog with a page marked showing a work by British artist-provocateur Damien Hirst. Coming back, he asks, "Isn't that incredible?" barely concealing his contempt.

But ask Palevsky about the kind of work he collects, and the "wows" take on an entirely different tenor. He loves the French Purist Fernand Leger, whose "Femme Assise (Sitting Woman)" hangs above the mantle in his living room. He is passionate about a sideboard in the dining room made by English craftsman and architect Charles Robert Ashbee; he says he is the world's most extensive collector of the late Richard Lindner, a German-born Surrealist-style painter who immigrated to the U.S. and was a friend.

In this house, Palevsky's collection mixes a vast array of important Arts and Crafts movement furniture that will be the basis for an upcoming exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with bold Pop art by Roy Lichtenstein, including an early cartoon painting from 1964 titled "No Thank You." In an upstairs hall, drawings by Wright are encased in elaborate wood frames made by Howard, which close to protect the work from fading. In the bedroom, a wall display of Japanese prints recently returned from an exhibition at LACMA are rotated occasionally, so they're not exposed to too much sun. Everything else remains in place, unless it's on loan to a museum.

Despite the varied origins of the artworks, Palevsky's taste consistently favors a clean, linear style--no Expressionism here--and the sense of geometry lends a peaceful order to the eclectic collection.

A Self-Taught Connoisseur

There are many kinds of collectors in the world. Lots of them are addictive personalities, forever buying, hoarding, wanting more. Many collectors who can afford to do so buy without thought for where the piece might be displayed. Some store their holdings, others cram them onto every available space.

For Palevsky, collecting is a discipline. And he is entirely self-taught, with the help of some museum curators, to whom he quickly pays homage--notably Leslie Bowman, former curator of decorative arts at LACMA and now director of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware; Wendy Kaplan, who recently took Bowman's place as head of the decorative arts department at LACMA; and Robert Singer, the museum's curator of Japanese art.

Trained in philosophy and mathemematics with every intention of becoming an academic, Palevsky got into computers early. In about 1949, while still a teaching assistant at UCLA, he attended a lecture on the theory of self-correcting machines at Caltech--at the time, the notion was purely theoretical. He was enchanted, and quickly sought out a job in the embryonic world of computer technology. Today he is still best-known for selling Scientific Data Systems, his then 6-year-old firm, to Xerox in 1969 for $1 billion. It was a time, he has joked, "when $1 billion meant something." He personally pocketed $100 million and went on to serve as a director and chairman of Xerox Corp.'s executive committee, leaving the company in 1972.

Palevsky was also a founder and director of Intel Corp. and a director of Komag Inc., but he may be as well known for his political activities. He helped manage George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid, ran Tom Bradley's 1973 campaign for mayor of L.A. and has given extensively to many liberal candidates and causes. Ever the individualist, however, last year Palevsky surprised political insiders by donating $1 million to a statewide effort to support campaign finance reform. He has also produced movies, including "Endurance" in 1998 and "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "Islands in the Stream," both in 1977. Perhaps his most notorious public moment came when he sued the then-fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art in 1984, rescinding a pledge of $1 million for the building by Arata Isozaki. Palevsky had been invited to donate the money, serve as a trustee and lead the museum's architecture committee. After a long series of disagreements over control of the design, Palevsky went to court to get back the $500,000 he had already given and be released from giving the rest of his gift. Two years later the litigation was settled, according to the museum, for "an amount exceeding the sum paid to the museum" by Palevsky but less than the total he pledged.

Raised in Chicago, Palevsky is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants; his father was a house painter and his mother a homemaker. "They didn't even speak English," he says. "I grew up in a very primitive house." Asked if those early years influenced him, he sighs, "No one ever loses their childhood."

Palevsky served as an electronics officer in the Air Force during World War II and then graduated from the University of Chicago in 1948, to which he still holds ties (he recently pledged $20 million for student housing. He did post-graduate work there, too, as well as at UC Berkeley and UCLA, but never took an art or art history class.

His interest in art didn't only begin after he became rich, however. On a tour of the collection, he stops at an etching from Picasso's famous Vollard Suite, "Salome," from 1905. "Isn't it great?" he asks. "It was something I saw when my first wife and I lived in Paris in the 1950s. We lived on $3 a day, $1 for lodging, and $1 each for food.... It's the first artwork I ever lusted after." And when he finally had the money, years later, he tracked it down and bought it.

Buying With a Discerning Eye

Now, he buys only rarely because he insists that he has no place to put anything more, and if he can't show something, he doesn't want to have it. If he buys, he makes himself sell something or give it to a museum. The result is an extreme sense of restraint.

"When you buy art, as opposed to looking at it, there's a discipline. You have to really look. It isn't just going to a gallery and saying, 'Oh, that's nice, I like that.' If something costs $85,000, you have to decide 'Do I really want to spend $85,000 on this?' And you have to look at a bunch of things to decide, 'Is this worth that much money to me?' People who collect seriously look seriously."

Foremost among collectors he has admired is the late Norton Simon. "Norton was incredible; he'd get up at dawn, play the stock market all day. Then when the market closed, he'd play the art market for the rest of the day. He was constantly at it."

He is disdainful of collectors who buy for show, and there are many, he admits. "The only way you can show you're rich now is by putting art on the walls," he says. "In the 18th century, you could have a coach with 16 horses and gold uniforms; there were a lot of ways of showing wealth. Now, really, what kind of car can you buy? The only thing, really, is art. The alternative would be to put stock certificates on the walls."

This is not Palevsky's motive. "He's really passionate about what he believes in," says longtime friend and artist Alexis Smith, several of whose works Palevsky owns. "He's passionate about art, he's passionate about movies."

He says he doesn't understand why many collectors give their collections to museums in other cities, without supporting local institutions. All his art holdings are promised to LACMA, and he gives regularly. In 1990, he gave 32 pieces of Arts and Crafts movement furniture to the museum. In 1993 he gave another 42 pieces. The museum comes to him regularly for support, but he claims he doesn't always say yes. Nevertheless, last year he gave them $2 million for Arts and Crafts works. Decorative arts curator Kaplan is organizing an international overview of the movement for LACMA, which will be based, in large part, on loans from Palevsky's holdings.

"What I cherish about Max is that he is as interested in the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement as he is in the objects," Kaplan says. "He brings to any discussion a literary and philsophical context."

Asked what keeps him busy these days, Palevsky just laughs. "I have six kids, I have lots of interests, and I have mail that high," he says holding his hand above his head. "I'm on every sucker list in the world." Politics still takes up a lot of his time, and he continues to be active in the fight for campaign-finance reform.

He says he's not working in the business world anymore, and he has people to handle his financial affairs. Indeed, for a man who helped kick-start the modern, computer-dependent world, his obsessive interest in hand-crafted furnishings might seem odd, until he drops one last bomb after a long and winding conversation.

He doesn't, he says, have any interest anymore in anything related to technology.

"I haven't touched a computer, watched TV or used a credit card in 15 years," he announces. "I am," he says, "a Luddite." And then he leaves the room, his impish smile disappearing up the stairs.

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