Fabled GERALD BUCK Art Collection
Forms the Basis of a Major UC Irvine Museum
written by Liz Goldner
photographed by Tom Lamb
Orange County’s art cognoscenti have long known about local developer Gerald Buck’s world-class art collection, currently hidden away in a nondescript downtown Laguna Beach building. Yet only a select few have been privileged to enter the private 3,000-square-foot gallery, where 80 exquisite California artworks are displayed and 150 more are stored on-site.
However, that state of affairs is about to change. Buck’s entire collection of 3,200 original works, described by curators as the most comprehensive private collection of modern California art, was recently donated to the University of California, Irvine (UCI). In anticipation of a major museum to be built to exhibit the collection, the Laguna gallery has been opened to members of the press.
A tour of Buck’s gallery reveals post-World War II works in a broad range of media and movements, from Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism, Hard-edge painting, Light and Space and Chicano art.
The gallery’s central room features Ron Davis’s Whole, a 12-sided wall sculpture made of multicolored polyester resin. Here also are Richard Diebenkorn’s Albuquerque, an abstract painting in southwestern colors, and Roger Kuntz’s Santa Ana Arrows, with its freeway signs and dramatic shadows. Roland Petersen’s Under One Flag and Two Parasols, a colorful Bay Area figurative piece, is an urban overview. Of special interest is Sam Francis’s Augustus after Sonny, Sonny before Augustus, an elaborate drip painting signed with a handprint and paying homage to Jackson Pollock. Viola Frey’s tall ceramic Woman in Blue and Yellow II stands in attention at the back of the room, warding off unappreciative intruders.
Two side galleries display an array of 1960s and ‘70s Light and Space works by former UCI faculty members. Here are three illuminated colored glass and argon gas Light Sentence pieces by Laddie John Dill; Peter Alexander’s cast polyester resin cube, imparting an ethereal resonance; an untitled Larry Bell light box of glass and stainless steel; and an untitled Craig Kaufman vacuum-formed Plexiglas sculpture, among others. Also in these galleries are DeWain Valentine’s flawlessly polished polyester resin Blue Circle and Helen Pashgian’s luminous epoxy resin sculpture Blue Secret.
A hallway features three magnificent Helen Lundeberg paintings, including her early Self-Portrait, in profile, evoking work by surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. In the gallery office, Barse Miller’s Apparition over Los Angeles depicts early 20th century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson floating over Angelus Temple. Also on exhibit are works by Robert Arneson, Chuck Arnoldi, Ellmer Bischoff, Phil Dike, Lorser Feitelson, Wayne Thiebaud and many other renowned California artists.
After Buck died in 2013 at the age of 73, his artworks, worth tens of millions of dollars, were donated to UCI and will become part of its Museum and Institute for California Art, or MICA, scheduled to open in about five years. (The nearby Irvine Museum’s California Impressionist collection has also been given to UCI, and will be housed in the future MICA building.)
Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and MICA executive director, explains that the Buck Collection, made up of works by more than 500 artists, is “the largest private collection that has never been seen” and “is the best collection of California art anywhere.” He adds that MICA will also be a major institute for the study of art and that, in conjunction, UCI will offer advanced degrees in museum studies and art conservation.
Buck’s daughter Christina, who administered her father’s collection, looks back fondly at her youth. “During my high school years, my father realized how under-appreciated California art was,” she recalls. “He would say that the sunlight in California was unique and it drew great artists from all over the world to come here and create. He would find artists who had stood the test of time, who remained strong and impactful for 20 to 30 years or more. He took pages of notes on everything that was presented, and could tell you everything about the artists, their lives and their work. He loved the history and story behind each piece.
“When I went away to college,” Christina continues, “I would come home and he would show me the latest addition to his collection. When my daughter Mia was five years old, we were at his home, and she wanted to touch everything! He explained that her fingers had oil on them that could hurt the art. He helped her put on a pair of white ‘magic’ art gloves, and together they explored his collection. I still have those gloves.”
Generally hidden from view for decades, the extraordinary Gerald Buck Collection is finally being prepared for people to see and enjoy. As the art-loving public waits for the museum opening, Barker and his staff plan to exhibit many of Buck’s most prized artworks on the UCI campus, and several of the seminal pieces currently in the Laguna gallery are expected to be part of the inaugural UCI exhibition. Stay tuned!