Their own little MOCA

Special to The Times

Cliff and Mandy Einstein are the kind of couple you can’t imagine apart. They finish each other’s sentences. They savor the same coffees and wines. They treat each other with great affection and yet are quick to quibble over a forgotten fact in the stories they love to tell.

Married 42 years, they’re the definition of how a relationship can grow within the aura of stability. They’ve lived on the same Brentwood cul-de-sac since 1970, raising their two children in the Modernist house they share today. That home, built for them by Ron Goldman of Goldman-Firth Architects, was once a more modest family residence with a tennis court in the back. Today, thanks again to Goldman’s design work, it is vastly expanded. The court is gone and every nook and cranny of the nearly 8,000-square-foot house has been taken over by art.

Big art. Daring art by a vast array of contemporary names, some well known, others emerging. The stuff of museums, not private homes. And the Einsteins love it -- one might even say they live for it. They gladly open their doors to share their collection with others; they obsess about the works’ installation, lighting and placement. And it is this common focus that makes the pair seem so in sync. Nothing about collecting art is “his thing” or “hers.” It’s all about the intellectual and aesthetic challenges of owning and sharing precious objects. So inevitably, in this manicured and personal setting, those objects begin to tell a story about the Einsteins themselves.


The Einsteins are studied but not stagy, fit and a bit fancy, yet in an understated L.A. style. They’re also thoughtful. Responding to questions about their art and life, they both pause before speaking, answering questions with a deliberate seriousness. They don’t work directly in the entertainment industry, but they were raised in it.

Cliff is a creative director turned chairman of the large advertising firm Dailey & Associates, which represents multiple big-name clients -- among them Ford Motor Co., Safeway Inc. and Australia’s tourist industry. He is also part of a successful family of actors. His father, Harry Einstein, was a much-loved vaudeville radio comedian known as Parkyakarkus. His younger brothers -- actor-director Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (also known as Super Dave Osborne) -- have made their names in comedy. Mandy was a nationally ranked tennis player as a child; her father was a musician who played on recordings with Tennessee Ernie Ford, among others, and later was a musical contractor for comedy variety shows. Both their mothers are living; Cliff’s mother, an actress and singer in the 1930s, was famously portrayed by Debbie Reynolds in Brooks’ film “Mother.”

Despite these genes, if Cliff cracks a joke, it’s a dry one, deliberate and understated. And Mandy, clearly a decisive force in the marriage, is happy to play Cliff’s “straight man.” You’d think he was the serious brother, although he started his career as a stand-up comedian before moving to advertising. He says he has learned a great deal from his own creative work, as well as that of his family. Mandy has appeared in commercials, most notably as the “Tang Lady,” for the orange drink.

“My father told me when I was a young kid, ‘You always want to leave an audience hungry,’ ” Cliff says. It is a mantra that he keeps in mind not only in his work, but also in the way that the pair approaches the installation of each new piece of art -- always considering how it will best arouse a viewer’s curiosity.

“I think every work of art, more than anything else, celebrates good decisions,” Cliff says. “Sometimes early in the morning, I look around and say, ‘Wow, this is good.’ And then I want to examine what makes it all look so good, because I want to carry that into my day.”

It’s obvious from what you see in their home, which is nestled below the Getty Center, that Cliff and Mandy are adventurous, willing to push themselves to take chances. Prominently placed in the more than 130-piece collection is a naked female figure by the New York-based feminist sculptor Kiki Smith. The figure is of a standing woman crafted from wax, appearing simultaneously fragile and hefty. She is shown mid-stride yet slightly bent, suggesting a pain that could be either physical or psychological, and flowing from her genitals is a trail of red beads -- a glowing cord that reminds us of her monthly cycle, the private ordeal that defines femininity. This work provokes the kind of memorable surprise that makes the collection so distinctive.

“We weren’t sure how people would react to it,” Mandy says of their decision to buy Smith’s piece, titled “Train,” soon after it was made in 1993. “And yet people walk up to it and say, ‘Oh, this is beautiful.’ ”

“She took something really beautiful and rephrased it,” Cliff adds. “Using beads -- jewelry -- to illustrate the menstrual flow. We said, ‘I’m not supposed to be thinking about that in public, but that’s really interesting.’ ”

“They like spectacles, theater,” says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “The house is like a stage set that takes you through a series of experiences, each in a very deliberate way.”

The home is divided into three distinct levels. On the two lower floors are small, intimate rooms, where you might find yourself sitting on a Memphis group sofa set between a soft, flowing fabric piece by Robert Rauschenberg and a crunched-metal sculpture by Abstract Expressionist John Chamberlain. A workout room overlooking the lap pool outside is filled with well-designed aerobic equipment, a mirrored wall and an array of well-known Los Angeles artists, including a romantic collage by Alexis Smith, a metal miniature house sculpture by Tony Berlant and a wall of manic narrative ink drawings by Raymond Pettibone. The den has a sunken conversation pit and a low-set bar, behind which hangs a painting by Ed Ruscha showing an image taken from the final seconds of a vintage film; the words “The End” appear in gothic type. This part of the house is intimate and friendly.

The house is filled throughout with hard surfaces, lath and plaster walls (no drywall) and white oak floors dyed black. The master bedroom, which is also filled with art, stands out for its softened surfaces -- it is carpeted, and the walls are covered with gray flannel. “It’s a nice cozy room, a respite,” Mandy says, “almost like an apartment within a home.”

Move upstairs and a whole new world full of surprises opens up. The home becomes a museum, with distinct galleries and commissioned showpiece works. Inside and out there’s more than the eye can take in, and the piece de resistance is a room-size exterior installation by the light artist James Turrell that must be experienced precisely at sunset -- timed for the color of an opening in the roof to turn a deep hue of sky blue.

“I think that Mandy and I always think that we are trying to have a museum for ourselves,” Cliff explains. “We share it more than most people who collect art. It’s designed to be visited, and we very much like people who like art to come and see it.”

“It starts with ourselves, but we want groups to come,” adds Mandy, a gourmet who sets out elegantly arranged platters of fine foods for visitors.

These are people who are daring yet finicky. You can see it in the mix of abstract images and aggressively narrative works. Two major theatrical sculptures by Ed and Nancy Kienholz are in-your-face political commentaries against racism, while a calming abstract painting by the German-born Gunther Forg represents the other extreme of art’s potential. You sense that the juxtapositions have nothing to do with historical presentation and everything to do with personal taste. Every corner of the house, every vista, is designed to show the art to its best advantage.

That the Einsteins are particular about their presentation is clear from the first invitation to visit. “Remember to wear rubber-soled shoes,” Mandy commands in her always gracious tone. And when you arrive, suitably shod, it’s clear why. The black floors create an insistent-yet-minimal decorative effect that highlights the paintings and sculpture. The shoe rule, quirky and absolute, adds to the sanctity of the environment. Forget it and you will be wearing one of the many pairs of colored booties set out at the front door.

Despite their fetish for perfection, the Einsteins have made a point of commissioning and acquiring major pieces that appear both gritty and precarious. Yet they install them in a way that makes them look like jewels in a box. Every bit of how things look is a collaborative effort, both say. When possible, Cliff likes to hang the work himself, but the pair spend days thinking of how it will be done, ever willing to rearrange when things don’t look quite right.

“When the kids were already out of the house, we’d say, ‘Can you come over, we need to move some pieces of art,’ ” Mandy says, referring to their daughter, Karen, and son, Harold, both in their 30s and married with children. “And I’ll never forget them saying to us, ‘Is this going to be a two-hour day or an eight-hour day?” The kids enjoy the art, the Einsteins say, but have gone in their own directions. Karen, who graduated from the art history program at UCLA and has been a fashion designer, is a personal fitness instructor in Utah, and Harold is an award-winning advertising writer. The three grandchildren, ages 1, 5 and 7, have been taught not to touch the art. “I’m still scared when they come, because they’re so athletic,” Mandy says.

The Einsteins didn’t become serious about collecting until about 1984, after Cliff sold his business and the kids were almost grown. They saw an opportunity to follow a passion for art that they’d previously satisfied mostly by looking.

“We thought, ‘What are we going to do for ourselves?’ ” Cliff says. “It wasn’t that we said, ‘We’ll do art,’ but it was almost that. We readied the house. We got rid of all our furniture, made everything black and white. Got rid of all our drapes, changed the landscape, so in effect, we had created galleries that needed paintings. We changed the lighting. And we didn’t have a painting. We were an art gallery’s dream. I’ve since heard gallerists say, ‘Why didn’t I meet you that day?’ We didn’t know anything, but boy, were we ready to go.”

Initially they hooked up with some of the leading Los Angeles and New York galleries but soon spread their wings and have worked with a wide array of artists’ representatives worldwide. Like all good collectors, they listen to advice from other collectors, dealers and museum curators and then make their own decisions.

“We tried from the first to get important stuff,” Cliff says. “We had no idea what we liked; we went only with the stomach and what was going on. We were buying an average of a piece every three weeks for the first two or three years. Some say some of those pieces were mistakes, but that was just the path.”

There has been honing. They have donated works they didn’t want -- and some they did that were coveted by art museums -- and they hang some works in Cliff’s offices at the Pacific Design Center. They’ve also been very involved with MOCA; Cliff has been a trustee since 1994 and is currently a vice chairman and co-chairman of MOCA’s 25th anniversary committee. Mandy has served on the museum’s acquisitions committee for 14 years, and she has long been on the board of the MOCA Projects Council, the museum’s most important fundraising arm.

Now that their house is full, the hardest part is deciding what to move when they buy -- very selectively -- new works. Or lend to museums. “Both of us still like the fun of taking something home to look at it, but we have different skill sets,” Cliff says. “Mandy is quite a scholar. I’m just looking at the theme, how well is it designed and where would I hang it. But finally, we both deal with -- will it play on the team?

“We’re stuck with that now, because we don’t have any substitutes hanging up anymore,” he continues, recognizing that within his regret, there is a great deal of irony. “They’re all starters.”

They have gone to great lengths at times to get the right works into the right places. The Turrell, for example, was a work they first saw at MOCA; they commissioned architect Goldman to create a setting for the work so that it could be a free-standing piece of architecture outdoors.

A suspended globe-like sculpture by L.A.-based Chris Burden is another major piece that took some extravagant handling to install. A sandy mass with toy train tracks running all around it, it is an offshoot of a much larger work titled “Medusa’s Head” that was exhibited in MOCA’s now-legendary “Helter Skelter” exhibition of the L.A. art scene’s darker side in 1992. The Einsteins had to cut a huge hole in their roof to install Burden’s “Medusa’s Flying Moon,” which rotates on its axis like a world unto itself.

Burden and the Einsteins remember how challenging bringing the piece into the house was, and Burden speaks with admiration of the effort and expense incurred. “It was a major installation, and it was difficult for them -- it spits gravel and sand all over their nice floors. They deserve credit for what they did; that’s what we like to see collectors do -- go the extra mile.”

The Einsteins also commissioned sculptor Nancy Rubins to create a huge tree-like metal form on their terrace, assembled from the crushed airplane parts that have become a signature of her recent work. That piece, commissioned specifically for the site, can exist only in its current placement, a major commitment for any collector.

“The good part for me about the Einsteins,” says Rubins, who is married to Burden, “is that while they were growing as collectors, they helped to foster my development too. They gave me a beautiful site with full license set against a minimal building, and I loved that they let me take over that whole outdoor plaza.” It is, she says, one of her most ambitious pieces in a private collection.

Visiting this is unforgettable, and to absorb all of the works requires more than one short visit. Only a few pieces are in storage. Used to living with the work, the Einsteins seem to forget how overwhelming it can seem. “We think we need something new every time someone comes over. But then we realize they see two-thirds of it at most,” Cliff says.

“It’s gotten to the point where there’s so much,” adds Mandy, “you can’t take it all in.”