L.A., Ready for Its Close-Up: Meet the City's Artists and Designers Whose Markets Are About to Explode

"RM 669," 1969, is by Douglas Wheeler, one of the Los Angeles artists who is primed for a market spike.
(Courtesy of Mike Rosenthal, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles purchased with funds provided by Bullock's/Bullocks Wilshire)

With this fall's opening of dozens of Southern California museum exhibitions and countless gallery shows on postwar Los Angeles, that cultural moment may seem to be experiencing a sudden resurgence in interest. But in fact the Getty-backed Pacific Standard Time initiative was more than 10 years in the making. And over the same period, galleries and savvy collectors have been rediscovering undervalued figures from that Southland scene. Eric Bryant looks at a few of the artists and designers whose markets have started to move — and are poised for growth.

LIGHT AND SPACE

The years around 1970 were a heady time for a cluster of artists who were loosely affiliated through an engagement with the phenomenon of perception and who, sometimes over their objections, came to be grouped by dealers and critics under two banners: Light and Space and Finish Fetish. Encompassing Douglas Wheeler's room-size installations of enveloping light, Larry Bell's cubes made of powder-coated glass, Craig Kauffman's sensuous vacuum-molded plastic shapes, Mary Corse's monochromatic paintings with light-refracting surfaces, and John McCracken's exquisite monoliths, the work was diverse and the makers united less by a single aesthetic approach than by the proximity of some of their studios in the bohemian-industrial area of Venice as well as the early experience, shared by several, of showing with dealer Irving Blum at the legendary Ferus Gallery.

"This myth has developed that it was all about car finishes and surfing," says Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, an art critic and the author of the recent book "Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s." "But East Coast artists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris were making visits to see the latest work, and the artists really were engaged with the theoretical framework of Minimalism." Bell and Robert Irwin were featured on covers of Artforum in the late 1960s, and by the early '70s their works were appearing alongside those of Kauffman, De Wain Valentine, and Wheeler in important group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York; the Stedelijk, in Amsterdam; the Tate, in London; and the Centre Pompidou, in Paris.

Despite this early critical and institutional support, many of the artists' markets languished in subsequent decades. The reasons vary: Some of their output, especially the more ephemeral light environments, were essentially noncommercial; several members transitioned away from working with their signature materials, particularly resin because of health concerns; the scene lost its nexus when many in the group moved out of Venice; and it lacked an effective proselytizer and defender as the history of Minimalism was reduced to a New York–centered tale.

In recent years curatorial attention has done much to reinvigorate the Light and Space narrative. This and a desire on the part of several of the artists to reengage with their early work are boosting their markets. Perhaps most striking is the breadth of the renaissance, with auction and gallery prices climbing even for some of the group's least-known figures. "There has been a reawakening of interest in the whole scene over the past 5 to 10 years in particular," says Joshua Holdeman, Christie's senior vice president and international director of 20th-century art. "There is a recognition that this was an influential movement, not confined to a region but one that had a cascading effect."

Each story, of course, has its own twists. James Turrell, who early on created sculpture through optical illusions with pure light, began only in the mid 1980s to devise his "Autonomous Spaces," rooms built to frame views of natural light effects. The first was sold by Ace Gallery director Douglas Chrismas in 1986 to L.A. collectors Cliff and Mandy Einstein for $30,000; today a similar work would go for $2 million to $3 million. Irwin by the mid '70s had rejected object making in favor of site-specific installations, such as the Getty Center's Central Garden, although he recently has begun producing light sculptures. This spring and summer, Ace exhibited one of his last large vintage pieces, an untitled 19-foot prismatic and refractive acrylic column from 1970, priced at $2.5 million.

In the late '60s, Wheeler — the third participant, with Irwin and Turrell, in a landmark 1970 Tate exhibition — was making plastic encasements with neon behind them that seemed to distort space through light. They earned him curatorial attention but little money. "Irving Blum was going to pick me up at one point," Wheeler recounted to arts journalist Tyler Green in 2008. "He [asked] me what they cost. I think it was something like $1,600, $1,800. And he said, 'Your aesthetic is only a $700 aesthetic.' I shrugged." Wheeler subsequently moved to Italy and then to New Mexico, and had virtually no art-market presence while concentrating on commissions from museums and collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.

In May 2007, however, a neon-and-plastic piece he made in 1968 sold at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles for $78,000 against an estimate of $20,000 to 30,000. Two years later at Christie's New York, a similar piece from the same year reached $290,500 (est. $90,000–150,000).

As for the artists who remained committed to object making, rediscovery has come only in the past 10 or so years. The strength of the group's European market got a bump when the Pompidou's 2006 exhibition "Los Angeles 1955–1985: The Birth of an Art Capital" exposed a new generation of Continental collectors to their work. American prices have also gotten a boost. Kauffman's auction record of $146,500 (est. $40,000–$60,000), set this past March at Sotheby's New York, nearly triples the sums paid five years ago for similar 1960s vacuum-molded works, which in the mid '90s could be had for under $10,000. Primary-market dealer sales for the artist's pieces are picking up as well. The L.A. gallerist Frank Lloyd credits his proposal to focus on Kauffman's work with earning him his first appearance at Art Basel, this June. At his booth Lloyd, who had known the artist for nearly 30 years when he began representing him in 2007, had bubble and donut pieces from the early 2000s priced at $30,000 to $55,000 and vintage examples at $100,000 to $250,000. European and American buyers picked up several works. The dealer cautions, however, that most of the recent bubbles and donuts are now gone and since Kauffman's death last year the estate has been working to place his early works in institutions: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) just paid $170,000 for a large painted plastic sheet from the 1969 "Loop" series that five years ago would have gone for $90,000.

Other artists continue to make new work or rework old forms. Concurrent with the exhibition of Irwin's column, Ace featured cast-resin sculptures by Valentine and Helen Pashgian. Valentine's contributions were a mix of earlier polyester-resin pieces and new plastic objects. And even the old examples had a new patina: When he stopped making resin work in the 1970s, Valentine had dozens of cast pieces that required thousands of hours of polishing to finish and has only recently embarked on that process. Those newly finished vintage objects, usually in some variant of a disk shape, are priced from $90,000 to $300,000, depending on size, while the plastic pieces go for $50,000 each.

Pashgian, who was always among the underappreciated members of the group, had an even lower profile after moving her studio to Pasadena in the '80s. Then in the middle of the past decade, she began showing series of luminous, colorful resin columns installed in darkened spaces. Stellar reviews greeted their display last year at Pomona College Museum of Art before they appeared at Ace, priced at $125,000. "Just five years ago you could buy her work for $10,000," says Chrismas.

CALIFORNIA DESIGN

The California lifestyle cast a spell over the country in the postwar decades of the 20th century. This modern idyll was in part the work of a tangle of European émigré architects, mass-market furniture designers, and studio craftspeople. Taking their cues from such disparate sources as the local aerospace industry and the remnants of Pasadena’s Arts & Crafts movement, they sought to create a holistic approach to living that integrated new technologies with nature. The California design movement’s impact reached far beyond the Golden State's borders. Those who couldn't live in a Richard Neutra house could at least pick up a lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames.

Much of the furniture, pottery, and other objects produced for daily use in the 1950s and '60s had fallen out of fashion by the '80s and began to resurface as collectibles only around the turn of this century. "If it weren't for the Eameses and if it weren't for the first wave of mostly L.A.–based collectors interested in them, we wouldn't have the entire postwar-design market," says James Zemaitis, senior vice president of 20th-century design at Sotheby's New York. In the '90s, prices for pieces by the husband-and-wife team soared, and many records from those years still stand. The overall Eames record was set by a unique 1943 molded-plywood sculpture that Christie's sold for $365,500 in November 1999, and the top mark for a chair was established in May of the same year by a 1941 prototype of the Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen molded Conversation chair that brought $129,000 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA).

By the mid naughts, says Zemaitis, people had "discovered the volume of Eames work that was out there," and their market became more nuanced. On the one hand, more people were interested in owning one or two key pieces. On the other, mass-produced objects, such as the chairs manufactured by Herman Miller and others, several of which are still being made, fell in price. These production works now occupy the low end of the market, despite the fact that many curators — including Daniel Ostroff, who organized the Eames show opening next month at A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles — feel that they are the most perfect expressions of the designers' art.

"Desire drives the marketplace, and people want rare things," explains LAMA owner Peter Loughrey. Consider the classic Eames molded-plywood LCW lounge chair. Loughrey notes that a current production model can be had for less than $1,000. This keeps the price of a vintage counterpart from the mid '50s with a Herman Miller label at around $800. But pieces from the late '40s, which Eames produced himself under the Evans mark, routinely fetch $5,000 — even more if they involve unusual woods or colors. "Then there are the earliest examples, shown at Charles's publicity events and his Museum of Modern Art show in 1946," Loughrey says. "Those are the types of things that could still break $100,000."

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While the Eameses were embracing the newest materials and techniques, other designers, such as Sam Maloof, were expressing the California aesthetic through more traditional craftsmanship. Although his spindle-back chairs, clean-lined casework pieces, and elegant music stands look perfectly at home beside manufactured furniture by the Eameses and other midcentury figures, Maloof eschewed the mass market, instead running a woodworking shop out of his home in Alta Loma, east of Los Angeles.

Because they are handcrafted no two Maloof creations are exactly alike. The most consistently sought after are his all-wood rockers, which he produced for more than 50 years. When his pieces first began appearing regularly in auctions, in the early 2000s, prices settled at around $20,000. They began to rise in the middle of the decade, and in fall 2008 two examples — one at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles and the other at LAMA — brought around $50,000. Values decreased during the recession, depressed further by a sense of uncertainty following the artist's death in 2009, but they have recently been inching up again. "It took 10 years after Nakashima died for his vintage pieces to really start increasing in value. Maloof is just starting to build the consistency for that. Right now everything except the rocking chairs is undervalued," says Loughrey, who in March sold a late '80s rocker for $43,500. Those willing to forgo a Maloof signature can get a new one for $25,000 from the studio, still operated out of the designer's home by his three longtime assistants.

A new tier of pricing for Maloof's work was established this April by the Bonhams & Butterfields sale in Los Angeles of 64 items that the artist made in 1990 for Pacific Enterprises' downtown headquarters. The 27 lots earned a combined $592,000 against an estimate of $256,000 to $353,000. "Although it was a corporate commission, the pieces had such incredible lines and presence that most will fit perfectly in a domestic setting," says Jason Stein, associate director of 20th-century decorative arts at the house. Maloof does not perform quite as well away from the West Coast, where a steady supply nurtures a well-informed clientele. This March at Wright, in Chicago, two pairs of side chairs just reached their low esti-mates, bringing $5,000 each. And at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York last December, two pairs of chairs with aggressive estimates of $10,000 to $15,000 were bought in. "We knew we were pushing it," says Alex Hemingway, the house's director of design in New York. "But we thought the fact that they were early, from 1962, would help. Lack of familiarity is a problem. We don't see enough volume on the East Coast yet."

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Gerard O'Brien, owner of Reform Gallery in Los Angeles, feels Maloof's East Coast credentials just need better promotion. The designer was a key figure for decades on the American Crafts Council, in New York, and among his patrons were such Gotham tastemakers as Aileen Webb, the council's chairman. O'Brien suggests that Maloof's prices will increase as collectors take note of the many elements that make each piece unique: the varieties of wood, details such as the spline joints, and less common models, such as bassinets. "California was offering a whole culture of living," O'Brien says. "This is special work that is going to be more and more desired."

Stein points to other factors bolstering Maloof's market. "His works are held by people in entertainment and politics, so provenance often attracts bidders. And he is collected across categories. We have early American collectors who see Maloof's work fitting in with rare Chippendales." The designer also appeals to those interested in other 20th-century craftspeople, such as the potters Otto and Gertrud Natzler, whose rare pieces can fetch five-figure sums. "They were bought by the same people back then, and young collectors are reuniting these artists," says Stein. "They just seem to go together." Moving forward it seems clear that the mass-produced work will see modest growth, strongest at the margins. The greatest potential, though, resides in the unique studio crafts, where each new discovery spurs collectors on.

CONCEPTUAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Rich in variety, plentiful in supply, and just beginning to receive institutional exposure, the work of Southern California’s revolutionary Conceptual photographers of the 1960s and '70s is primed for market growth. Artists like Joe Deal, John Divola, Judy Fiskin, Robert Heinecken, and Anthony Hernandez cast an unsentimental eye on gritty landscapes and urban streets and reinvigorated the medium by integrating found imagery, abstraction, and sculptural techniques. Although their development of appropriation, seriality, and authorial distance paralleled that of their East Coast counterparts, their prices have remained lower. This is in part because they have been relegated to the photo category — typically undervalued relative to the contemporary field, home of such photographers as Cindy Sherman and William Eggleston.

Curatorial and market interest, however, are on the rise. "For many of these photographers, we may finally be seeing a time when their historical, aesthetic, and market values are in alignment," says Amanda Doenitz, a former photo specialist at Christie's and Bonhams & Butterfields and an independent appraiser. "When all three cross, you have something great."

Such a confluence may be happening for Robert Heinecken. Heinecken, who died in 2006 at 74, was an influential educator and a technical innovator. In 1962 he founded UCLA's photography department, teaching for more than three decades while pioneering cameraless photography and appropriation. His strikingly varied body of work contains a large amount of alluringly unique material. Yet despite his unconventional approaches, "Heinecken always self-identified as a photographer," says Philip Martin, of Cherry & Martin gallery, "while his students, like James Welling, studied photography but moved out of the photo world."

"He's a household name to people who know the history of photography," says the dealer Marc Selwyn, who with Cherry & Martin corepresents Heinecken's estate in Los Angeles. "But younger collectors and people not as connected to photography are seeing how revolutionary he was and asking why they haven't heard more about him."

To introduce Heinecken to a wider audience, the dealers are augmenting survey shows with special projects. Beginning the 10th of this month, for example, Cherry & Martin is re-staging "Photography into Sculpture," a groundbreaking 1970 MOMA exhibition that featured him along with several of his students. Joining in their efforts to position Heinecken's work in the art mainstream is Friedrich Petzel Gallery, which took over the estate's New York representation from Pace/MacGill.

Heinecken's auction record of $98,500, for a group of 28 plates from his early '80s series "Lessons in Posing Subjects" (est. $15,000–25,000), was set last year at the Sotheby's New York sale of the Polaroid Collection. In galleries his large photoemulsion-on-canvas pieces, seminal sculptures, and full sets of series have gone for between $100,000 to $120,000. At the low end, his editioned prints retail for $5,000. Even more significant works are relatively cheap: Prints from his "Studies" series of 1970 — unique, chance-driven works derived from magazine clippings, revealing connections to both pop culture and Surrealism — can be had for $15,000 through his L.A. dealers. "Looking at the market, you have to ask, 'Why John Baldessari or Barbara Kruger and not Heinecken?'" says Doenitz.

Lewis Baltz belonged to the generation of artists who chose photography as a medium but saw themselves as part of the broader art world. Baltz gained entrée to that world early on. Based on the strength of his "Prototypes" series, which he started while still a student, recording banal contemporary architectural forms, he was signed up by Castelli Graphics in 1971. In 1975 he was featured alongside fellow Californians Joe Deal and Henry Wessel, among others, in the influential "New Topographics" show at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, where his spare "New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California" series, focused on suburban sprawl, was a standout.

Although this work brought him a following among curators and artists, Baltz failed to develop a market. "When I took over representation in the early '90s, we were selling 'Prototypes' and 'New Industrial Parks' for $1,000 and couldn't find takers," says his dealer, Theresa Luisotti, of Santa Monica. "For many in the traditional photography community, the work and its rejection of beauty were looked on as an insult." Today vintage prints from those series, if available, go for $26,000 to $35,000.

The dealer credits German curators and collectors with reviving interest in the "New Topographics" photographers in the mid '90s. By then Baltz had moved on to even more difficult subjects, in the '80s producing "San Quentin Point" and "Candlestick Point,' portfolios of images of urban wastelands, and in the '90s making several series of color pictures focused on high-tech environments and cityscapes at night.

Interest in the newer series is picking up as early work becomes more rare. Luisotti sold two sets of "San Quentin" this year, one to a private collector for €200,000 ($283,000). A selection of eight images from an incomplete set of "New Industrial Parks" holds the artist’s auction record, $72,000, set in 2007 at Phillips de Pury in New York. Luisotti predicts that a complete portfolio coming on the block could earn in the seven figures.

If market success seems to be nearly at hand for Baltz, others who played a part in redefining the medium are still awaiting wider recognition. One is Anthony Hernandez. Best known for his black-and-white photos of crowded city streets, he stopped including people in his pictures 25 years ago but has continued to produce arresting series depicting ad hoc target-practice sites and places where the homeless take shelter. Although he is currently without representation, Hernandez continues to sell work at the prices set by the Santa Monica dealer Christopher Grimes, who last showed his work in 2008: vintage prints from the '70s and '80s for $15,000, and new inkjet prints made from some of his later, large-format negatives for $8,000. Hernandez is busy preparing for a retrospective being mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — his first solo show at a U.S. museum. "His career has been out there in orbit for a long time," observes Doenitz, "but it may be about to come into alignment."