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UCI presents a ‘First Glimpse’ of its treasured Buck Collection of California art

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“Thrasher,” a 1992 oil on canvas work by Peter Alexander, is featured in the Buck Collection at the UC Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art.
(Courtesy of UC Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art)

It’s been billed as “the greatest collection of California art that nobody has seen.”

That might be a slight exaggeration, but the Buck Collection — donated to UC Irvine in November 2017 — contains dozens of hidden gems of modern and contemporary California art that haven’t been shown publicly in years. Gems such as Richard Diebenkorn’s “Albuquerque #9,” a large, attention-grabbing abstract oil on canvas from 1952; Peter Alexander’s “Thrasher,” a sweeping bird’s-eye view of Los Angeles at dusk from 1992; and Stanton MacDonald-Wright’s “Le Comble,” an oil on canvas from 1955 and a perfect example of Synchromism, an important movement MacDonald-Wright co-founded that linked color and music.

These gems have been in storage — some for decades — in an unmarked Los Angeles warehouse, in the late Gerald Buck’s home, in a former Laguna Beach post office and in a sail manufacturing plant on Balboa Peninsula. But starting Sept. 29, about 50 works will be on view to the public in the exhibition titled “First Glimpse: Introducing The Buck Collection.” The free show will run through Jan. 5 at UCI’s University Art Gallery and Contemporary Arts Center Gallery.

Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, co-curated the exhibit with Kevin Appel, chair of the art department, and Cécile Whiting, chair of the art history department. Altogether, they took about six months to put together this show. And surprisingly, they were on the same page for about 90% of the choices, picking from about 3,200 works total.

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“We have been so overwhelmingly delighted by not only the way in which the show has come together, but by the response we have received, keeping in mind that we have just begun bringing the public into this ‘First Glimpse,’” Barker said.

Though self-taught as a collector, Buck, a successful Newport Beach developer, knew exactly what to collect. Most of it is regarded by critics and art aficionados as pretty significant work.

The list of artists in the collection reads like a who’s who in California art, and in American art, in general: Alexander, Carlos Almaraz, John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Karl Benjamin, Tony DeLap, Diebenkorn, Lorser Feitelson, Oskar Fischinger, Llyn Foulkes, Frederick Hammersley, Craig Kauffman, Roger Kuntz, Helen Lundeberg, John McLaughlin, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, James Turrell and Peter Voulkos.

Keen observers of art in Southern California will recognize several of these artists being prominently featured in exhibitions and museum shows throughout the region over the past 20 years.

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“It’s a balance of looking at an overview of the history of modern California art, but at the same time, it has some idiosyncrasies to it so that it’s more thematically oriented instead of being a step-by-step historical viewpoint,” co-curator Appel said.

The chair of UCI’s art department said all of the attention the Buck Collection will potentially bring to UCI may get his students paying attention, too.

“It’s hard sometimes to get their interest, especially across campus,” he said. “Some students of mine have never been in the galleries, and they’re art majors. Hopefully, this will invigorate the arts for students. They are always looking at things, at art on their phones, and they see everything backlit. The way they experience color is a very different thing than seeing a painting in person.”

The Buck Collection will be housed in the future UCI Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA), which is expected to be built on Campus Drive, adjacent to the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The 100,000-square-foot building is anticipated to have 45,000 to 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, and cost between $150 million and $200 million, Barker said.

If all goes according to plan, a ground-breaking ceremony for the new structure will be held in the next five years, and the IMCA will open after funds have been secured.

Next year, in the fall, the museum will move to a 16,000-square-foot interim location on the UC Irvine campus. The interim IMCA will be on California Avenue in the research section of UCI by the medical school, according to those familiar with the project. The museum will also house the Irvine Museum Collection, gifted to UCI in October 2016.

In the meantime, the public will be able to view choice selections from the Buck Collection, which is valued between $30 million and $40 million. An opening reception is scheduled from 2 to 5 p.m. Sept. 29.

The collection spans a broad range of genres and media, with quintessential examples of abstract classicism, expressionism, pop, assemblage, Light and Space and hard-edge painting.

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Highlights include Lee Mullican’s “Oblique of Agawam,” an energetic, sun spectrum-like, 1950 oil on canvas; Llyn Foulkes introspective “For Father W.B.,” a 1974 mixed media; Helen Lundeberg’s mystical “The Wind That Blew The Sky Away,” a 1951 oil on canvas; and DeWain Valentine’s pristine purplish resin sculpture, “Circle Grey — Rose,” from 1970.

At a recent soft opening for invited guests, members of the Orange County and L.A. art communities admired selections from the Buck Collection while artists Alexander, Bengston and Lita Albuquerque looked on. Laguna Beach gallery owner Peter Blake also attended, as did Jonathan Burke, president of the Laguna College of Art + Design.

Through the run of “First Glimpse,” the emerging IMCA will host a series of symposia and “artist’s glimpse” talks. Bengston will deliver a talk at 6 p.m. Nov. 13, followed by a reception. Helen Pashigan will offer a talk at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6, followed by a reception. And Alexander and artist Chuck Arnoldi will offer their artists’ glimpse at a future date, to be determined.

Organizers say IMCA brings UCI full circle, as the original architect for the university, William Pereira, drew up a rectangle that represented an art museum in his initial blueprints. It was stationed at the northern entrance of UCI, approximately where the new IMCA will be located.

If You Go

What: “First Glimpse: Introducing the Buck Collection”

When: Sept. 29-Jan. 5; hours will be noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, open until 8 p.m. Thursdays

Where: University Art Gallery and Contemporary Arts Center Gallery, UCI, 712 Arts Plaza, Irvine

Cost: Free

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Information: (949) 824-9854 or visit imca.uci.edu

Richard Chang is a TimesOC contributor.


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