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Picking Up a Piece of L.A. Art History

TIMES ART WRITER

“The Broadway Mural,” John Valadez’s landmark, 60-foot-long painting of downtown Los Angeles street life, has been rescued from the auction block. Peter Norton, a Los Angeles-based computer guru and a major collector of contemporary art, has purchased the epic artwork, along with a group of 28 portraits by Valadez.

The mural--a realistic depiction of the shoppers, merchants and colorful characters who populate the bustling commercial district--was painted in 1981 for owners of the historic Victor Clothing Co. building and has been a prominent interior fixture there for the past two decades. But the building has changed hands, and its contents--including remaining artworks by Valadez and others--will be auctioned today.

Norton purchased the mural and portraits--which depict former Victor Clothing employees and were also commissioned by the building’s former owners--last Tuesday, said Susan Cahan, senior curator of the collections of Peter and Eileen Norton. Neither Norton’s representatives nor the mural’s owner would divulge the purchase price, but a source close to the transaction said it was $100,000.

“It’s really great,” Valadez said of Norton’s acquisition. “Who knows where the mural would have gone if he hadn’t bought it.” Valadez also said he was immensely grateful to artists and various art-world professionals who rallied to the cause. Artist Alfredo de Batuc and art historian Shifra Goldman spearheaded the effort. But many others got involved, De Batuc said.

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Cahan said that some local institutions might have been interested in purchasing the mural and the suite of portraits, but--unlike Norton--they usually cannot raise funds and make acquisitions quickly. As an effort to save the artworks mounted, Allan Sekula, a photographer who teaches at CalArts, urged Norton to consider the purchase, she said. However, a discussion with Steven Lavine, president of CalArts, “really clinched it for Peter,” she said.

Lavine, in turn, credited Sekula for championing the artworks and Norton for “his wonderful imagination and sense of possibilities.” While expressing delight that CalArts could play a beneficial role in preserving a component of local art history, he praised Norton’s ability to “grasp the essence of the situation” and take action.

Lavine said he actually contacted Norton about the portraits--which were painted with the help of photographic images--because Sekula views them as an important part of the history of painting and photography, and believes they should be kept together as a unit.

“The mural is an important painting, but it is so huge, I felt that it would eventually end up at a museum,” Lavine said. “But if the portraits were sold individually at auction, we would lose an important piece of Los Angeles art-making, Los Angeles history and Los Angeles’ Latino presence.”

The acquisition was a natural for Norton because “he is always aware of the social context in which art is created,” Cahan said. “This is representative of his approach to collecting.”

The portraits have been moved to Norton’s storage facility in Santa Monica, and the mural--painted on 10 panels measuring 8 feet high by 6 feet wide--is scheduled to be moved Friday. Cahan said that she and Norton hope the works will be shown by a local museum, where the public can see them.

Among other artworks from the Victor Clothing Co. collection to be auctioned today are Eloy Torrez’s 1985 “Mural of Muralists,” a 10-foot-by-14-foot homage to a group of Los Angeles artists, and Valadez’s “The Top Hat Bridal Shop Mural,” an 8-foot-by-20-foot, five-panel painting of wedding scenes, also painted in 1985.


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