Big plans in Irvine over a cov­eted art trove

The Buck Col­lec­tion heads to UCI, with a new mu­seum in works.


When real es­tate de­vel­oper Ger­ald Buck was sell­ing a ru­ral farm near San Luis Obispo, land he bought in a failed oil-drilling scheme, a prospec­tive buyer of­fered him an el­e­gant Old Mas­ter paint­ing by An­thony van Dyck in lieu of cash. Buck had no in­ter­est in art, but nei­ther did he have any other buy­ers in sight. So Buck plunged into re­search­ing the paint­ing’s au­then­tic­ity, his­tory of own­er­ship and mar­ket value — then agreed to the trade. And he was off. The Van Dyck is long gone, but now, four decades later, the Ger­ald E. Buck Col­lec­tion has grown to more than 3,200 paint­ings, sculp­tures and works on pa­per. Not only is the vast trove the finest hold­ing of its kind in pri­vate hands, the col­lec­tion is poised to an­chor an am­bi­tious new mu­seum be­ing launched at UC Irvine.

Chan­cel­lor Howard Gill­man is ex­pected to an­nounce Wed­nes­day the for­ma­tion of the UCI Mu­seum and In­sti­tute for Cal­i­for­nia Art, or MICA, with the Buck Col­lec­tion as its core. The col­lec­tion, much cov­eted by other mu­se­ums, fo­cuses on artists who emerged in Cal­i­for­nia be­tween World War II and 1980.

In ad­di­tion to his art-

home, where nu­mer­ous ma­jor works were kept, a non­de­script, un­marked for­mer post of­fice build­ing a few blocks from the beach in La­guna pro­vided a pri­vate place for Buck to study his col­lec­tion. Few have ever been in­side. When Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, re­cently opened the build­ing for The Times, about 80 works were on dis­play in sev­eral large gal­leries plus of­fices, a small kitchen, a bath­room and hall­ways.

Stor­age racks held an­other 100 or so works. The re­main­ing 3,000 items are at an art stor­age fa­cil­ity in Los An­ge­les. Many of the state’s most im­por­tant artists are fea­tured, in­clud­ing Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hock­ney and Ed Ruscha. In all, they num­ber more than 500.

When Buck be­gan col­lect­ing se­ri­ously three decades ago, Cal­i­for­nia was shed­ding its en­trenched reputation as a re­gional, parochial art scene. Col­lec­tors like Edythe and Eli Broad in Los An­ge­les and Doris and Don­ald Fisher in San Fran­cisco were rais­ing the tem­per­a­ture by avidly com­pet­ing for ma­jor, big-ticket art, some made in Cal­i­for­nia, but the ma­jor­ity pro­duced in New York and Europe.

Some of the great­est col­lec­tors search be­low the radar, how­ever, dig­ging deep into un­der-rec­og­nized and un­der­val­ued ter­ri­to­ries. Buck is among them.

The Buck Col­lec­tion in­cludes scores of artists, among them Wal­lace Ber­man, Robert Ir­win and John McLaugh­lin. It in­cludes more than 10 works each by John Baldessari, Larry Bell, Bruce Con­ner and Llyn Foulkes. Six of the col­lec­tion’s 10 Car­los Al­maraz paint­ings, rang­ing from 1978 to 1989, are in the artist’s cur­rent ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art.

In ad­di­tion to post­war art, the col­lec­tion in­cludes plein air, So­cial Real­ist and im­por­tant early Mod­ern paint­ings from the first half of the 20th cen­tury, es­pe­cially in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Those hold­ings in­clude me­ta­phys­i­cal ab­strac­tion­ists Agnes Pel­ton and Hen­ri­etta Shore, Sur­re­al­ists Knud Mer­rild and Lorser Fei­t­el­son, mu­ral­ist Belle Baranceanu and col­orist Oskar Fischinger.

The gift is ac­com­pa­nied by 398 file boxes of art books, auc­tion cat­a­logs, the col­lec­tor’s notepads and ac­qui­si­tion records.

MICA has been a long time com­ing. When ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Pereira un­veiled the mas­ter plan for a new UC cam­pus on a thou­sand acres of rolling ru­ral farm­land at Irvine Ranch in 1962, he iden­ti­fied a spot near the en­trance as an ideal place to erect an art mu­seum. Half a cen­tury af­ter con­struc­tion on the re­search univer­sity be­gan, and af­ter many un­event­ful years as a park­ing lot, the site will be­come MICA’s home.

News of the un­re­stricted Buck gift comes as a sur­prise.

Ac­cord­ing to Barker, who will be ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of MICA, it is un­clear why Buck chose the school to re­ceive the be­quest. He was an ex­ceed­ingly pri­vate per­son whose low-key pres­ence made him an anom­aly in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s high­pro­file art world, where f lashier col­lec­tors hold sway.

Buck, who died at 73 in 2013, lived in New­port Beach. Few knew the ex­tent of his art col­lect­ing, and fewer still have seen the full fruits of his en­deav­ors. A 2013 tele­phone call from a trust at­tor­ney no­ti­fied the univer­sity of the boun­ti­ful legacy, which has taken years to work its way through pro­bate. The col­lec­tor, born in Cul­ver City and an alum­nus of UCLA, had no spe­cific ties to the school.

“Per­haps,” Barker said, “it is sim­ply be­cause we are a prom­i­nent re­search univer­sity in the com­mu­nity where he lived.”

Buck’s daugh­ter Chris­filled tina points to the pos­si­ble in­flu­ence of art his­to­rian Jonathan Fineberg, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois who be­friended her fa­ther when he was a vis­it­ing lec­turer at UCI.

Bi­o­log­i­cal sci­ences form the school’s flag­ship dis­ci­pline. UCI does have a small art gallery, as well as the Beall Cen­ter for Art and Tech­nol­ogy, which pro­motes the in­ter­sec­tion of the arts, sci­ences and en­gi­neer­ing. A mod­est art his­tory pro­gram re­sides in its hu­man­i­ties de­part­ment, while the School of the Arts of­fers stu­dio and cu­ra­to­rial stud­ies pro­grams. The plan for MICA is to de­velop a PhD in mu­seum stud­ies and a mas­ter’s de­gree in art con­ser­va­tion.

A re­search mu­seum con­cen­trat­ing on 20th cen­tury Cal­i­for­nia art is dis­tinc­tive — and po­ten­tially rev­e­la­tory. The field re­mains woe­fully un­der­stud­ied. But the an­nounce­ment co­in­cides with a $2.5-mil­lion gift from the trust es­tab­lished by Buck and his late wife, Bente, to the Smith­so­nian’s Ar­chives of Amer­i­can Art, where he served as a trustee; funds are tar­geted to its West Coast doc­u­men­ta­tion pro­gram.

Christina Buck said that af­ter her fa­ther ac­quired the Van Dyck, he be­gan to buy more Euro­pean paint­ings, in­clud­ing an early Van Gogh. But soon he re­al­ized that form­ing a sig­nif­i­cant col­lec­tion of such ma­te­rial was un­likely.

Buck switched to Cal­i­for­nia Im­pres­sion­ism, an early 20th cen­tury re­gional style based on a Euro­pean model. His ac­tual piece of the bu­colic Cal­i­for­nia land­scape had meta­mor­phosed into painted pic­tures of it.

En­cour­aged by vet­eran Los An­ge­les art dealer Tobey Moss, whose Bev­erly Boule­vard gallery has spe­cial­ized in art from the 1920s for­ward, Buck rapidly moved into more adventurous early Mod­ernist and post­war Cal­i­for­nia art.

“We got to­gether at a cru­cial mo­ment,” Moss ex­plained in an in­ter­view. “He was a very con­fi­dent per­son, very smart and aware of the forces of his­tory.”

As the state’s pas­toral land­scape ur­ban­ized, partly a re­sult of his own ac­tiv­i­ties as an Or­ange County de­vel­oper, so did the col­lec­tor’s cos­mopoli­tan taste.

Moss met Buck in 1984 when he came into her gallery and, in­trigued by He­len Lun­de­berg’s dream­like Sur­re­al­ist paint­ings and grace­ful geo­met­ric ab­strac­tions, be­gan ask­ing ques­tions. Even­tu­ally Buck ac­quired 46 works from Moss, in­clud­ing seven of his 10 by Lun­de­berg span­ning her ca­reer from the 1930s through the 1970s. (Para­dox­i­cally, he never lost the taste for elab­o­rate, Van Dyck-era gilded fram­ing, even for his most avant-garde pic­tures.) Other ac­qui­si­tions in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant works by Fei­t­el­son, Mer­rild and Gor­don Wag­ner.

Buck sold most of his tra­di­tional land­scape ac­qui­si­tions. A num­ber went to Joan Irvine Smith, whose plein air col­lec­tion formed the Irvine Mu­seum in 1993. Iron­i­cally, those paint­ings too will find their way to MICA: The univer­sity an­nounced last year that it had re­ceived the Irvine col­lec­tion as a gift. More than 1,200 paint­ings by Guy Rose, Wil­liam Wendt, Granville Red­mond, Edgar Payne and other land­scape and genre pain­ters are in­cluded.

An ap­praisal of the Buck gift is un­der­way, but a spokesman says the fi­nal tally will be in the “tens of mil­lions.” For ex­am­ple, works of com­pa­ra­ble qual­ity to the 1952 paint­ing “Al­bu­querque,” a large Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ist mas­ter­piece by Diebenkorn, have sold at auc­tion for more than $6 mil­lion. Over­all, the do­na­tion ranks among the largest gifts ever made to UCI.

The MICA project is not with­out hur­dles. The tar­get for com­ple­tion is four to five years. The timetable is ag­gres­sive, and fundrais­ing is re­quired.

UCI’s Barker said that, given the promi­nence of the build­ing site ad­ja­cent to the school’s Irvine Bar­clay The­atre, sev­eral lead­ing in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects will be ap­proached for a de­sign competition as early as next sum­mer. The bud­get is ex­pected to be more than $100 mil­lion — and per­haps con­sid­er­ably more, when an en­dow­ment for oper­a­tions is fig­ured in.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

A BUILD­ING in La­guna Beach holds some of Ger­ald Buck’s vast art col­lec­tion, be­ing given to UC Irvine. Few peo­ple have ever been in­side the un­marked site, and The Times was given a rare glimpse into the gal­leries.

Christina Buck

BUCK fo­cused his col­lect­ing on Cal­i­for­nia artists emerg­ing be­tween World War II and 1980.

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