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Singular Commitment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High above the endless traffic of the Sunset Strip, up in the hushed haven of the hills, Kourosh Larizadeh greets visitors at a locked gate and, with a gracious wave of the hand, invites them into his world. His house is modest yet elegant, a 1961 Modernist residence with stone floors and expansive windows that open onto lush greenery. Plain white walls and flowing spaces allow the home to easily accommodate a lot of art, but no one could have expected it to become the shrine to the multifarious works of L.A.-based artist Mike Kelley that Larizadeh has made.

In the middle of the living room, on a lushly colored Persian carpet, a white blanket supports a pile of all-white objects: a couple of pompoms, a mask, a holder for facial tissues, two plastic urinals and lots of crumpled fabric. This work, titled “White, Off-White, Off-Off-White,” which Kelley made in 1999, is a centerpiece of Larizadeh’s collection. To explain its meaning is in no way simple, as its emotional impact depends on the viewer’s own sensibility. Reactions could range from wonderment--"What is a urinal doing in the living room?"--to an immediate recognition of the work’s layered art historical references.

It is the latter that absorbs Larizadeh: The work is, in part, an hommage to Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 raised the ire of the art establishment and forever turned the art world upside down by exhibiting an inverted urinal as a sculpture. But “White, Off-White’s” overlapping objects also recall the imagery of Picasso’s early Cubist paintings, which shattered the flat plane of a canvas into a fractured mosaic. The mask evokes the drama of performance art that has radically changed the art world of the last few decades and has been an important component of Kelley’s work, and the white-white-whiteness recalls Kasimir Malevich’s 1918 abstract painting “Suprematist Composition: White on White.” These nods to Malevich’s purist sensibility and Duchamp’s down-and-dirty irony address an essential friction within 20th century Modernism.

If it takes more than a moment to absorb this one object, the same can be said of virtually all of the art installed throughout the house, where Larizadeh lives alone. The bulk of it is by Kelley and the rest by a small number of other closely related artists, including Paul McCarthy--a sometime collaborator with Kelley and a renowned artist in his own right--and Richard Hawkins, a former student of Kelley.

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An early work by Kelley, an elaborate birdhouse, sits on a kitchen counter; the dining room table is covered with an array of the artist’s works, a plaster body cast by Kelley and McCarthy titled “Heidi Sick Girl Molds” from 1992 dominates a room off the front hall. Kelley’s art, which includes many objects drawn from daily life, dominates every aspect of the residence to the point where it’s hard to tell whether a piece of fabric draped across a chair is part of a work, or just a blanket. Or whether an ashtray is an ashtray or a valuable sculpture.

Larizadeh’s commitment to Kelley is a quintessential L.A. story, one in which a sophisticated immigrant from a different culture falls in love with work by an artist born in working-class Middle America who came to maturity in this mecca of creativity. It rep- resents a crossing of cultures that can happen easily in our cosmopolitan city, but that also seems unique. In this house, there is the feeling that something important is happening; together, this collector and this artist are preserving an important moment in history.

“I’m completely letting my ego go out the door,” Larizadeh says of his full-fledged commitment to Kelley’s work. “It’s not to do with me, it’s about the artist. I don’t care what people think about me; they can come here and laugh. They can come here and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ I don’t care. I just do what I like to do.

“I made up my mind that he’s a great artist; he’s almost 50 years old, he’s incredibly influential on younger artists, he’s a leading figure of his generation, and I just went full force.”

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The relationship began innocently enough. In 1987, Larizadeh, a recent immigrant to L.A., was buying art sort of randomly, mostly work by younger local artists that he could afford. He bought one work by Kelley but didn’t hold on to it for long, selling it to buy something he wanted more. At the time, Larizadeh was just 25--he’s 39 now--and he was searching for some kind of meaning in life.

He’d been born in Iran but sent off to English boarding school at 14. His family was, he says, “a big industrial family under the shah"--Muslim, but not overly focused on religion. Everything changed for the Larizadehs during the Islamic revolution in 1979; the entire family fled to England, where Kourosh was already ensconced. For the first time, Kourosh found himself feeling disenfranchised, both from his home and from his religious upbringing. By the time he finished college in 1983, he wanted to make a big break, and in 1985 he moved to Los Angeles to help start up a private commercial bank with an old family friend.

Art soon became Larizadeh’s calling card, although he was more the quiet intellectual in his pursuit than the kind of social aspirant that often inhabits the art world. He’d started dabbling at collecting in London, buying a Calder gouache at auction, but in L.A. he got serious.

Soon after landing here, Larizadeh says, he read an article about a group of up-and-coming artists--Lari Pittman, Mike Kelley, Jim Isermann and others--all of whom were pushing the artistic envelope, combining performance, tough psychological explorations with art historical references. All of these artists were living in L.A., and all were beginning to create a new definition for Los Angeles art that has since become an international phenomenon.

In the early ‘80s, many of these artists were showing at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, and by 1986, Larizadeh was a devotee. Taking a giant step away from that first Calder gouache, Larizadeh began to acquire whatever he could afford by these artists and others, trading up and challenging his taste along the way.

In late 1993, Kelley--just 39 at the time--was celebrated in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that later came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was a watershed moment for Larizadeh, who went to see the retrospective in both cities.

“When I saw that show, I decided that he’s a very, very, very important artist,” Larizadeh explained as he gave a tour of his house and collection recently. Speaking softly yet emphatically, he takes pains to convey the power of his convictions. “At the time, there was an art world recession, and I had begun questioning a lot of art and what it meant. Because of the market, but also because of the art that was being made in L.A. since the early 1980s, I really thought that these artists represented the end of Modernism, the conclusion of a great era that began in late 19th century France.”

Larizadeh stops himself to pull out a copy of a 1993 article in Art and Auction magazine about Kelley by the critic Dan Cameron. “As far as I’m concerned,” Cameron wrote, “Kelley isn’t just your run-of-the-mill artist who happens to be showing at the Whitney. For me, in a way that I’m not completely comfortable with, he’s the only artist that really matters.”

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“At the time,” Larizadeh says now, “I took [Cameron] literally. Now, years later ... " his voice trails off ... “when you ask me how many objects by Mike Kelley I have, I can’t even say.”

In assembling such a focused and obsessive environment, Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel says, Larizadeh’s home recalls other collectors of eras, such as the late 19th century Symbolists, who made it stylish to turn a home into a gallery of devotion.

It is not uncommon for Kelley’s work to inspire this kind of devotion, says Patrick Painter, who since 1995 has been the artist’s primary representative on the West Coast and who has worked closely with Larizadeh to acquire works. Admired by critics, curators and collectors since the early 1980s, Kelley has a devout following, particularly in Europe. Painter, whose gallery is in Santa Monica, mentions the art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen as another collector who buys Kelley’s work in depth. “But Kourosh is doing it with a lot less money,” Painter says. “He’s collecting periods that a lot of people are overlooking, before the prices get ridiculous.”

Ridiculous prices are in the eye of the beholder. A Kelley drawing sells for about $5,000 and a major Kelley sculpture can go for $200,000, Painter says. The most expensive are the works that he is best known for, the “stuffed-animal pieces,” which assemble varying arrangements of used and often decrepit children’s playthings, often on baby blankets, evoking poignant images of innocence lost.

These well-known pieces are not what Larizadeh collects, however. He has early works from Kelley’s student days as well as paintings and assemblages from pivotal but often less famous developments in the artist’s career. And he has focused on one major all-encompassing work that could likely keep him connected to Kelley for a lifetime.

In 1993 in the Netherlands, Kelley first exhibited an ongoing project called “The Uncanny,” explorations into Sigmund Freud’s concept of “the uncanny"--mys- terious, undefinable, even frightening feelings recalled in relation to experiences or objects. For Kelley, this has meant tracking down and showing objects familiar from his own childhood: his marble collection, for example. It has also allowed him to exhibit a variety of seemingly random objects that have powerful associations for the artist, which can vary from pornography to bubble-gum cards.

A major component of “The Uncanny” has turned out to be a collection of collections, dubbed “The Harems.” These, Larizadeh explains, are “about many things, including memory and recollection, confusion, horror, anxieties, repetition, hoarding and collecting.” Kelley continues to add to what has become a massive work--each element contains an indeterminate number of pieces that the artist says could continue to grow for the rest of his life. Larizadeh owns the whole thing, and he estimates that the piece now consists of more than 3,000 objects--all of them selected by the artist, none of them handmade.

Such a large quantity means, of course, that not all the elements can be displayed at once; part of the work is in storage, and Kelley is holding onto major portions, some for research for his art, such as a group of postcards and comic books, some for daily use, such as ashtrays he uses for company. He says he’ll turn each component over when he’s finished with it. He’s also holding onto a group of squeeze toys, also part of “The Harems,” whose noises he uses for music he performs.

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“In 1999, I acquired Kelley’s ‘Harems’ and ‘The Uncanny,’” Larizadeh wrote in a brief statement prepared for a visitor asking about the collection. “Actually, this goes back to late 1997. Kelley was visiting me and recognized a drawing of his from 1982-83, which he remarked was meant to be part of a suite that had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wanted it for MOMA. I said I would swap it with him for his “Six Bent Coat Hangers and One Antenna Used to Break into Cars, (Harem No. 5),” found objects he had recovered at the parking lots at Los Angeles airport. I had coveted these for a very long time. He agreed. In April 1999, I purchased everything else. It was a very complex transaction, all based on trust and goodwill.”

Notable among the objects are piles and piles of church banners, many of which are stacked in a front room at Larizadeh’s house, only a few of which are hanging on the walls. To Larizadeh, they represent the hours of love and labor of their makers. He likes them for their colors, the way they drape, and he can arrange them and rearrange them as he likes. For Kelley, they are references to his Catholic upbringing and have served as source material for banners he made himself.

For a collector, owning “The Harems” is both a dream come true and a potential nightmare. Kelley is in charge, he can pass on what he wishes, when he wishes. He can create a new collection of any scale and Larizadeh has taken charge of preserving it all. It is a calling that Larizadeh embraces, but he recognizes it requires a kind of effort and accommodation not many people would so readily undertake.

As the collection has grown, Kelley and Larizadeh have become friends. In a conversation, Kelley called him “one of the few collectors I know personally.” Known for being extremely exacting about how his work is represented and described, Kelley nevertheless says, “I’m not all that social; I usually keep my distance from collectors. They should be free to have their own desires about what they get from the work.”

Larizadeh’s interest and proximity--most of Kelley’s patrons do not live in Los Angeles--have brought them together, however. Kelley likes the fact that Larizadeh often buys things that are not market-driven, such as sculptures once used as props in performances, often overlooked by collectors. “You can always tell the difference between an investment collector and someone who’s really interested in the work,” Kelley says. Often Larizadeh has asked the artist for guidance on how to install works, only to be gently rebuffed, such as when “White, Off-White” arrived at his house stuffed in two garbage bags.

“He had a really hard time letting himself organize it,” Kelley says. “He wanted me to come to his house and do it for him. I refused.” Kelley says he does not believe the arrangement of objects in his works control their meaning. Kelley lets Larizadeh do what he wants, and both artist and collector say they don’t talk about the work very much together. They share other interests, however. Larizadeh is an avid EBay and thrift-store buff and has often sought out obscure magazines and other objects he knows might interest Kelley. He’s even found church banners and offered them to the artist for possible inclusion in “The Harems.” Any decision about what is or isn’t art, however, is always up to Kelley. “I operate as a lowly studio assistant,” Larizadeh says.

At Larizadeh’s house, there is a kind of hushed reverence for the work. Russell Ferguson, chief curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum, calls Larizadeh “one of the most passionate and focused collectors in Los Angeles.” Although so much of the incidental space in his home is devoted to art, Larizadeh often entertains visitors, both for study reasons and for social events.

He does this because he likes to share these works that have rarely been seen. “It’s a beautiful home, and a large proportion of it is devoted to the work,” Ferguson says. “He’s getting a lot out of these works on a daily basis.”

Ferguson and MOCA’s Schimmel both point out that Larizadeh has been very generous to the Los Angeles art community. Over the years he has given major works to MOCA, many of them by Los Angeles artists. At the end of last year, he made donations of 21 works to MOCA, 11 to the Hammer, and an additional 15 to the Luckman Fine Arts complex at Cal State L.A. None of these works is by Kelley, but they include well-known as well as younger L.A. artists such as Jorge Pardo, Chris Finley and Pentti Monkkonen.

The gifts represent Larizadeh’s commitment to L.A., both its artists and its museums, but they are also a way for Larizadeh to maintain focus in his holdings. As it did for many, the events of Sept. 11 shook Larizadeh to the core. He says he was reminded of his feeling of loss when his own country was taken over, and of his anger at religious zealots. As a result, he has felt even more strongly committed to his home of nearly two decades (he became a citizen in 1995). L.A.'s art--so foreign to the culture he grew up in--is at the heart of his connection.

“I began thinking about art now, and how a painting no longer looks the same, since Sept. 11. But then, I thought, a true artist always speaks the truth, and wars don’t change that.”

Art, for Larizadeh, is the primary source of salvation and meaning in life. He says he thinks about it even as he does his work as a banker. He often looks at what he owns with fresh eyes and is always willing to talk about it more, to explore it.

To describe the relationship, he turns to a quote from Duchamp, the ultimate conceptual artist, the man without whom no art would look the same today.

“Duchamp described the relationship between artist and viewer as ‘one indefinitely stalled at the stage of courtship.’ That is exactly the relationship I have with Kelley’s work. I never really understand where they are from, and I think that’s the seduction. If I were to understand it, then I think I would lose my interest.”


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