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A patron with all the juice

Times Staff Writer

GREETING guests on his penthouse rooftop, Eugenio Lopez Alonso seems to have all the requisite props for his jet-set playboy lifestyle.

Swingin’ bachelor pad crammed with expensive artworks? Check. Second home in Beverly Hills, done up in chic, high-Modernist style? Check. Two yippy dogs, named Jasper (as in Johns) and Pollock (as in Jackson)? Yup. Posse of glamorous, attractive pals hanging out nearby? Check.

Private source of steady income? Um, you’re kidding, right?

As sole heir to Mexico’s Jumex juice fortune, Lopez could live like a pasha without lifting a finger for the rest of his life. But unlike so many of his pampered peers, the 38-year-old scion has put his millions (or rather, his family’s) where his mouth (or rather, his discriminating eye) is.

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In the late 1990s, Lopez began to acquire a reputation as perhaps the most important contemporary art collector in Latin America. Armed with his family’s checkbook and guided by savvy advisors, he sought out and purchased important pieces by the likes of Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Koons, Nancy Rubins, Francis Alys, Lari Pittman, John Baldessari and other artists of international stature.

Lopez also emerged as a steadfast patron of up-and-coming Mexican artists such as Gabriel Orozco and Damian Ortega, helping to shift their careers into high gear. All told, he has spent an estimated $50 million to $80 million of the family lucre on objets d’art.

Since March 2001, Lopez’s striking assemblage of contemporary works, officially known as La Coleccion Jumex, has been open to the public, housed in a 15,000-square-foot white cube of a building on the grounds of the giant Jumex plant in Ecatepec, a gritty industrial area about half an hour north of the capital. Although the collection -- tucked behind steel vats of apple and pear juice, and requiring passage through two security checkpoints -- isn’t easy to get to, it’s well worth the trouble: Lopez’s 1,300-piece collection is one of the largest private art collections open to the public in Latin America, as well as one of the world’s most important public showcases of Latin American art. (About 15% of the collection consists of works by Mexican artists.)

Today, Lopez is a frequent flier on the global art-buying circuit, the kind of shopper whose arrival can send auction-house minions tripping over themselves. Although he still holds the largely ceremonial post of Jumex marketing director, his real vocation is scouring auctions and art fairs and chatting with artists, gallery habitues, curators, museum directors and fellow collectors.

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“He’s on the move constantly,” says Abaseh Mirvali, 36, the Iranian American director of the Jumex Foundation, which administers the art collection. “He is such a great part of picking the pieces, that if he wasn’t traveling and educating himself and reading and meeting, we’d really lose.”

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Cash and credentials

FORTUNATE sons who set themselves up as connoisseurs always risk being ridiculed as dilettantish poseurs. But Lopez is respected for his taste and foresight as well as his bank account, and is widely credited with raising the global profile of contemporary art and artists here in his hometown.

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His foundation recently underwrote a major exhibition of work by L.A. artist Ruscha at Mexico City’s Rufino Tamayo Museum, the capital’s premier public venue for contemporary art. Mirvali says that the foundation awards about $3.5 million in scholarships every year. It also lends art for exhibitions and supports a variety of educational programs in Mexico and the United States.

Ramiro Martinez, the Tamayo’s director, lists Lopez’s principal assets as “an excellent eye,” “good advisors” and the wherewithal to form a truly international art collection that also has managed to integrate top-notch Mexican artists. “I believe that this has aided in the visibility of contemporary Mexican artists outside of Mexico,” he says.

By digging into his own pocket to support contemporary art, Lopez has encouraged more rich Mexicans to support cutting-edge video, conceptual, installation and digital works. That takes a rare talent in a culturally conservative country like Mexico, says Richard Koshalek, president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and former director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, on whose board Lopez sits.

“People collect in Mexico, but they tend to be very traditional in their tastes,” Koshalek says. “I think what really interested me in Eugenio was his exploratory instincts. He seemed to have an eye on the future, he seemed to be concerned with emerging artists. That takes a tremendous amount of intellectual courage.”

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Though skeptical at first of their only child’s aspirations, Lopez’s parents have come to accept and even embrace them. It helped, Lopez says, when he befriended Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, Cuban American husband-and-wife collectors from Miami. “I went to see their collection, and that was very good for me because then my father could relate to someone Latin, older people, successful, businessman, businesswoman, with four or five children, which they were all married, Catholics, with all the right credentials.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries of Lopez’s largesse is the metropolis he has adopted as a second home: Los Angeles.

What Lopez calls his “special attachment” to the City of Angels began when he was a boy and his father (also named Eugenio Lopez), the chief executive of Jumex, owned an L.A. restaurant. The family visited Southern California often. Lopez the younger, restlessly searching for his own identity, decided to uproot himself and go west (by northwest).

“Basically, I always wanted to live outside of Mexico, either New York or Los Angeles,” he explains. “I wanted to get out of my own shadow, maybe, my own friends, my own circle of people. It was like always the same, you know, and I needed a change. And it was also that I was working with my father my entire life, had been there, and trained and educated to be always with the company, running the company. So this [Los Angeles] was like fresh air for me.

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“I love Los Angeles. I have chemistry with that city.”

Within a few years he’d opened the Chac Mool Gallery in West Hollywood with his then-business partner, Estella Provas, thereby establishing the beachhead he would need to become a collector. Today he laughs at his naivete.

“The gallery in Los Angeles? Oh my God, it was a mess!” he says. “I thought that people from Japan would travel to California to buy Latin American art, artists from Oaxaca. I had no idea about the market at all.”

But he quickly learned, devouring books on art and poring over Sotheby’s catalogs. Meanwhile, he put his business and social skills to work.

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Charming, bilingual and inevitably described in magazine profiles as “boyishly handsome,” Lopez is reported to be a world-class schmoozer. The blowout private parties he throws in Mexico City and at his Beverly Hills sanctuary have brought Mexican and U.S. art-world cognoscenti and socialites together, linking two metropolises that, despite their “sister city” status, can feel like separate worlds. Yet publicly, Lopez has kept a low profile, working in what Art Center’s Koshalek describes as “a very quiet, respectful way.”

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Making his move

LoPEZ’S stature as an important player on the L.A. haute-culture circuit was certified when he gave up Chac Mool to join MOCA’s board of trustees last April.

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Already, he has earmarked a $75,000 gift to the museum to beef up its Latin American holdings. Part of that money was used to acquire Ortega’s “Cosmic Thing,” a sliced-up and suspended Volkswagen Beetle that evokes pre-Columbian monumental sculptures and was the subject of a joint MOCA-REDCAT show last fall.

Ortega says that Lopez bought several of his works, even though these were difficult pieces to install and maintain. “It made an impact, his own audacity in starting to collect young artists of Mexico with a lot of energy, and this has given enthusiasm to some other collectors to forget their fear and to get closer to knowing and collecting a little,” Ortega says.

Further proof of Lopez’s infatuation with all things L.A. will be on view through early July at the Jumex collection, in the exhibition “Los Angeles-Mexico: Complejidades y Heterogeneidad” (“Los Angeles-Mexico: Complexities and Heterogeneity”). Guestcurated by MOCA associate curator Alma Ruiz, the show fashions striking juxtapositions out of works created between 1986 and 2005 by 70 L.A. and Mexico City artists.

Visitors get the point practically the moment they step inside the collection’s reception area, where dueling, iconic aerial views of Mexico City and Los Angeles square off: Melanie Smith’s serial black-and-white “Photo for Spiral City 11" (2002), which freezes the Aztec capital in its sprawling horizontal geometry; and Doug Aitken’s “Rise” (1998-2001), a wide-screen duraflex of L.A.'s glowing nighttime streets.

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Emphasizing thematic and stylistic overlap among artists on both sides of the border, the show highlights the collection’s depth as well as its breadth. Some nouveau collectors buy artworks as if ordering off a dim-sum menu: one Cindy Sherman, one Lari Pittman, one Damien Hirst, and so on.

Lopez prefers to pursue artists in depth; the current Jumex exhibition includes 18 works by Orozco alone, including an unplayable “Oval Billiard Table” (1996) that has no pockets and only three balls, one ominously suspended over the table like a pendulum.

Other notable pieces in the show include Monica Castillo’s “Model for Self-Portrait III and Representation” (1997), a witty meditation on artistic self-genesis; excellent sculptures by Rubins, Thomas Glassford, Jorge Pardo and Carlos Amorales that examine the transformative properties of a wide array of materials (paper, fluorescent light tubes and so on); and Mike Kelley’s “Odd Man Out” (1998), a disturbingly humorous exorcism of “family values” in which cut-out faces from posters of “kid-friendly” movies are spliced onto an anarchic pile of bedsheets, pillows and children’s clothes.

“I prefer to buy the best from the best, than the worst from the best,” Lopez says, meaning he’d pass on an inferior work, even if it were by a big-name artist.

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Eager and ambitious

CLIFF EINSTEIN, chairman of the board of trustees at MOCA, remembers meeting Lopez around the time when he first started collecting. “He was so open to the excitement of what lay ahead,” Einstein says. “He was so bright and so open to ask questions.” That intellectual energy and curiosity have continued to be Lopez’s hallmarks as his collection has grown, Einstein says.

MOCA curator Ruiz, a Guatemala native, says it’s unusual in Latin culture for a second-generation heir such as Lopez to branch out from his parents’ tastes, rather than simply adopt theirs. She says Lopez also isn’t one of those collectors who feels obliged to show off his knowledge about art and artists. “He’s extremely unassuming, never asks for anything back,” Ruiz says. “The Jumex collection has helped so many people, and they don’t even know.”

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But the collection is subtly rethinking its identity. So far, the foundation and its staff of 18 have been able to handle the collection’s demands. But at Lopez’s instigation, the collection is moving toward greater professionalism, with better staff training and a more tightly organized and transparent grant-giving and policy-making structure.

“In its first five years it was very organic, and amazing things came out of this young collection,” foundation director Mirvali says. “Now we’re going to go out and start making alliances with more and more people, with more and more educational institutions, and with our colleagues.”

Next year, Mirvali says, the collection is going to take a sabbatical from doing exhibitions so it can concentrate on mapping out its next phase of development. A top priority will be finding a more accessible satellite space, possibly in Mexico City’s fashionable Polanco district, for doing shows and hosting the collection’s 6,000-volume contemporary art library.

“I think that Eugenio, he himself, the persona, is so charismatic and so visionary, that in some ways he has carried the collection,” Mirvali says. “But it is now time for the collection to carry the collection, and for us as an institution to be able to stand behind our product and what we do.”

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