Gift is a Modernist trove for LACMA

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Times Staff Writer

In a single stroke of philanthropy, two scrupulously private L.A. art collectors have transformed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s holdings of modern art.

Janice and Henri Lazarof have given the museum 130 works by major artists, LACMA officials said this week. The gift includes 20 works by Pablo Picasso spanning 65 years, seven figurative sculptures and a painting by Alberto Giacometti, and two versions of Constantin Brancusi’s signature bronze, “Bird in Space.”

The museum did not disclose the value of the artworks, but recent auction sales of similar pieces suggest that the collection is worth more than $100 million. It is the largest single donation of its kind locally and one that will greatly enhance LACMA’s collection.


“It’s a major deal to get this work in one fell swoop, at a time when the art market has made it nearly impossible for museums to purchase work of this quality,” said Michael Govan, LACMA’s director. “This significantly expands the modern collection, where we need help. We have major works and landmark things like the Robert Rifkind collection of German Expressionism, but we don’t have the richness and depth of modern art that you expect of a museum of this scale. This gift doesn’t complete the picture, but it adds a lot.”

About 80 works from the collection will go on view Jan. 13, a month before the museum unveils the first phase of an ambitious expansion and renovation program that includes a new contemporary art building financed by Los Angeles collector-philanthropist Eli Broad. The Lazarof donation will debut in three galleries on the plaza level of the Ahmanson Building, in a new 22,000-square-foot showcase for modern art.

Although Henri Lazarof is a veteran composer and his wife, a daughter of the late banker-philanthropist S. Mark Taper, is president of the S. Mark Taper Foundation, the couple have maintained an unusually low profile in art circles. Their names are not on art magazine lists of top collectors, but for about 25 years they have assembled works by a who’s who of 20th century figures, including Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and Henry Moore.

Encompassing small pictures designed for intimate viewing as well as large artistic statements, the couple’s donation includes two-dimensional works in oil, watercolor, charcoal, pencil and collage, and sculptures of alabaster, marble and steel. Presented as a fractional and promised gift, it makes LACMA a part owner of each piece, with remaining shares to be given over time.

Among the Picassos are 17 portraits, such as a tiny Rose Period painting from 1906; twisted images of the artist’s mistress Dora Maar from the 1930s; and a monumental likeness of his wife Jacqueline painted in the early 1960s. About two dozen works by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger represent the influential Bauhaus school in Germany. There are also Impressionist pieces by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, but the gift is primarily a Modernist bonanza.

Stephanie Barron, the museum’s senior curator of modern art, who has worked quietly for years to secure the collection for the museum, said the Lazarofs are “incredibly rare” philanthropists who have collected for their own pleasure, completely out of the limelight.


“I watched their collection grow from modest to interesting to remarkable to astonishing, to the point when I felt I had to do everything I could to make the case for it to come to the museum,” Barron said. “Not since the David Bright collection came to us in the mid-1960s has there been a single addition that allows the modern collection to turn a corner like this.”

Janice Lazarof said she and her husband reached their decision after a lot of thought and exploration of possibilities. Henri Lazarof, who was born in Bulgaria and moved to California in 1959, was a member of UCLA’s music faculty from 1962 to 1987.

“As longtime residents of Los Angeles, we have watched the museum being built and going through all of its changes,” Janice Lazarof said. “Now there is a whole new change, and we just felt this is where the collection belonged. We wanted to do something that would bring pleasure and last for many generations in a beautiful new home. We wanted to be able to enjoy watching other people enjoy what we had enjoyed for so many years.”

The gift is a coup for LACMA, which has lost promised and hoped-for collections in the past, including those of Armand Hammer and Norton Simon, who built their own museums, and actor Edward G. Robinson, who sold his art holdings as part of a divorce settlement.

The Lazarof donation comes at an auspicious time, as LACMA’s campus on Wilshire Boulevard is undergoing a sweeping transformation. Phase one of the expansion, which includes the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, will provide a new showcase for recent works. The Ahmanson Building, on the opposite side of a new entry plaza, has been reconfigured to give visitors a more complete sense of art history, Govan said.

“There are many publics in Los Angeles, many tastes,” he said. “The museum is expanding on many different levels, and other surprises are coming. This is a good time to reinstall the modern collection in proximity to contemporary art.”




Among the donated works

Janice and Henri Lazarof have given the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 130 works by major artists. A selection of significant pieces is shown.

“Bird in Space,” a 73-inch-tall polished bronze sculpture made by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi in 1927, is a signature work by this leading Modernist. Highly refined abstractions from nature, the sculpture and a companion piece are the first Brancusis in the museum’s collection.

“Head of a Woman,” a 1906 Rose Period painting by Pablo Picasso, is an archetypal early work by the Spanish artist who dominated 20th century art. The 13 3/4 - by-8 1/2 -inch oil is a mask-like portrait thought to depict the artist’s companion Fernande in the style of Iberian sculpture.

“The Cage,” a 1950 bronze sculpture by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, portrays emaciated figures confined in a box-like space. The spare artwork, about 3 feet tall, reflects the postwar sensibility of an artist who focused on human brutality and existential angst.

“Glass, Bottle and Playing Card,” a 1912 oil by French artist Georges Braque, is a classic Cubist work. A collage-like composition that merges different points of view in a new kind of realism, it blends fragments of ordinary objects into a multifaceted oval.


Sources: Suzanne Muchnic; photographs from Los Angeles County Museum of Art