Decades Ago, L.A.’s Only Modern Art Museum Was a Local Couple’s Home

A new book offers a rare look at the Arensbergs’ museum-worthy art collection and awe-inspiring interiors
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In the first half of the twentieth century, the only modern-art museum in Los Angeles was a couple’s house in the Hollywood Hills. From the 1920s until their deaths in 1953 and 1954, respectively, Louise and Walter Arensberg regularly opened their mansion to those interested in viewing their impressive collection—which featured signature pieces by French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and surrealists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, along with roughly 4,000 rare books, including the world’s largest private library of writings by and about sixteenth-century British philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.

“Anyone could write or call and come see the amazing Arensberg collection. And when it left, it was ten years before Los Angeles had another modern art museum,” says Mark Nelson, coauthor of the new book Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A. (Getty Publications).

The Arensbergs’ love affair with painting and sculpture began with the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, where they moved the following year. The exhibition gave the country its first glimpse of abstract and cubist artworks that radically challenged the status quo. The couple acquired several pieces from the exhibition, including lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, but Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) slipped through their fingers. That masterpiece, now considered priceless, sold for just $324 to a San Francisco man, but the Arensbergs later purchased it from him. Then they acquired two more versions of the painting from Duchamp himself.

Photograph by Corporal F. W. Lumbord. Living Room, with Views into the Dining Room through the North and South Archways, ca. April 1945. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives (PMA-WLA), box 53, folder 51. Constantin Brancusi, Prodigal Son, 1914-1915, and Three Penguins, 1911-12: © Succession Brancusi – All rights reserved (ARS) 2020. Georges Braque, Still Life (Violin), 1913, and Still Life (with the Word VIN), 1912-13: © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Marcel Duchamp, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, 1912, and Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters, 1911: © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020. Paul Klee, Village Carnival, 1926: © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Pablo Picasso, Old Woman (Woman with Gloves), 1901, and Head, 1906: © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Drawing from mutual trust funds (Walter’s family fortune derived from steel interests in Pittsburgh; Louise’s money came from her grandfather’s textile manufacturing), the two continued to acquire art at a furious pace, ultimately amassing over 40 pieces by Duchamp, as well as 17 works by Constantin Brâncusi and over a dozen Picassos.

They paid the rent on Duchamp’s Upper West Side studio in exchange for the iconic art piece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, which they sold before leaving New York for Los Angeles in 1921. “It was the single greatest regret of their life that they sold it to [painter and patron] Katherine Dreier,” Nelson says, “and the one thing they wanted back desperately.”

The move west was meant to be a temporary break from a profligate lifestyle that deflated their finances and threatened their relationship with extramarital affairs. For a time, they lived in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Residence A in the arts and theater complex he was building for Aline Barnsdall on Olive Hill in East Hollywood (now known for the Hollyhock House). But Walter and Louise were bothered by the leaky roof and low ceilings, and finally moved to Hillside Avenue in 1927. Like their apartment in New York, the house became a salon for artists and cognoscenti, frequented by the likes of photographer Edward Weston, artist Man Ray, and actor Vincent Price. Unlike the Gotham apartment, though, the 5,612-square-foot abode offered ample wall space to expand their collection to museum-like proportions.

The Arensbergs displayed paintings with visual puns in mind, like placing Juan Gris’s Open Window next to a window. Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3) was hung at the top of the stairs. Beyond such obvious juxtapositions were hidden references to the game of chess, an obsession of both Walter and Duchamp. Also instrumental in the curation were philosophical and cryptographic concepts derived from Walter’s research and writings on Bacon.

As their walls filled up with modernist paintings, the Arensbergs began collecting pre-Colombian artifacts and sculptures that could be displayed on the floor.

Photograph by Floyd Faxon. Living Room, with Views into the Dining Room through the North and South Archways, ca. January 1951. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives (PMA-WLA), box 54. Constantin Brancusi, Prodigal Son, 1914-15, and Three Penguins, 1911-12: © Succession Brancusi – All rights reserved (ARS) 2020. Georges Braque, Still Life (Violin), 1913, and Still Life (with the Word VIN), 1912-13: © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Marcel Duchamp, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, 1912, and Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters, 1911: © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020. Paul Klee, Village Carnival, 1926: © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Pablo Picasso, Old Woman (Woman with Gloves), 1901, and Head, 1906: © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

They invited strangers in, with little care for the potential risks. “Walter really enjoyed having people come over and expend intellectual energy in considering and completing the work,” says the book’s coauthor Ellen Hoobler, associate curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“He had this idea that ‘you’re welcome to come in, but I won’t give you the answer to what you’re looking for,’ ” Nelson adds.

The couple was particularly keen on opening the collection up to young people. Walter Hopps was just 15 when he first visited, laying the groundwork for his future career as a legendary curator and art dealer. Particularly taken with René Magritte’s The Six Elements hanging in the upstairs sitting room, the boy asked what it meant, to which Walter replied, “It means absolutely nothing.”

After Louise’s death, and with his own end only months away, Walter searched for an appropriate home for their collection. Interested parties included the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fogg Museum on the campus of Harvard University, Walter’s alma mater. But ultimately agreements always came to a halt: Walter believed that Francis Bacon was the true writer of Shakespeare’s canon, and he wanted that assertion maintained under any and all circumstances.

Walter “was a little crazy,” Nelson says. “And especially on this front, he was a bit paranoid.”

Ultimately, he agreed to split his collection between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Claremont College, which now displays the works at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

In 2017, the house on Hillside was purchased by San Francisco designer and architect Jonathan Browning and his husband, Marco Heithaus, also a designer.

An architectural hodgepodge, the home includes updates by numerous noteworthy designers and architects: a sunroom by Richard Neutra, a sitting room by Gregory Ain, and a carport by fellow midcentury modernist John Lautner. All were added to the original Mediterranean revival structure by William Lee Woollett, who designed downtown L.A.’s Million Dollar Theater. Browning and Heithaus have spent the last three years restoring it as near as possible to its glory days. They eventually plan to open the house for cultural events and fundraisers.

“When we bought it, it was as bad as things get,” says Browning. “This house is truly one of those forgotten things.


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