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Art on the Road: Norton Simon Museum

The Portland-raised tycoon's eye for art and acquisition helped build a highly personal collection in Southern California.

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STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER


If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solid container or put it into the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

–Ursula K. Le GuinThe Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986)

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PASADENA, California — LeGuin’s essay on narrative theory is a masterful example of analytic prose describing different types of stories, explaining how and why archetypal heroic tales long held place of honor in our collective imagination. The analysis is interspersed with first-person, sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny contemplations by a gatherer who with wit and expressed contempt compares stories of “killing” with stories of “life,” namely stories of origin, myths of creation, trickster stories, folktales or novels. These latter narratives can be seen as a carrier bag, the author argues, gathering up and distributing, saving and sharing, in a nonlinear fashion and not necessarily tied to a hero who needs to prove himself in violent combat, linearly leading to victory or defeat, forever memorializing acts of war and destruction.

Barbara Hepworth, “Assembly of Sea Form,” 1972.

We need alternative stories, and we also need places that hold them, carrier bags of diverse kinds, museums being among them. At least that is what I thought when I approached the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, wondering if it was empty enough for me to dare enter, masked and all. I was in luck, on a late Thursday afternoon, after a Covid-imposed three-year hiatus of such visits, and, frankly, emotionally roiled by the simple fact that I would see art, and art new to me, in the original. So take subsequent ruminations with a grain of salt; they were affected by giddiness, no doubt.

Barbara Hepworth, “Four-Square (Walk Through),” 1966.

Parallels between the museum as a vessel and my own carrier bag, a small, beloved backpack given to me by a dear friend years ago, were easily drawn. Both are unpretentious, nicely segmented, and filled with an abundance of seemingly unrelated items. This is of course where the similarity ends — the museum scores with offering an impressive variety of art across several centuries, while my bag simply holds things that might or might not have predictable value. (You never know when that flashlight or that mini-umbrella, iron reserve stale candies, or a spare camera is needed.)

While the museum’s wings exposit orderly, period- or artistic style-based curations, chaos rules in Heuer’s pouch. Most importantly, the Norton Simon collection contains a mix of masterpieces, as well as an overall remarkable number of lesser but important works that speak of the eponymous collector who knew what he liked, knew how to acquire it, and knew that the lack of specialization would make this a more, rather than less, interesting collection. In contrast to yours truly, who is also an omnivore with regard to liking things, he knew what he was doing — and had the funds to do it.

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Formerly the Pasadena Art Museum, the building was constructed by the architectural firm of Ladd and Kelsey, with the interior architecture changed in the 1970s by Craig Ellwood, after the industrialist Norton Simon had taken over. Ellwood’s changes were lost in the 1990s after Frank Gehry redesigned the interior with Simon’s widow, Jennifer Jones Simon, overseeing the renovations in tribute to her late husband. The outside is beautiful: a curvilinear complex of numerous modules, tiled with 115,000 Edith Heath-designed custom brick red and onyx glazed 5 x 15-inch tiles that reflect the light and colors of the surrounding.

The building is surrounded by a sculpture garden with a small pond and outdoors seating area and cafe. The inside contains major exhibition halls lit with skylights, a theater on the main floor, and a basement devoted to the Asian art collection, which I did not visit.

You approach the building by running the gamut between rather tall, imposing males — bronze castings of multiple Rodin sculptures. Have your pick: expressions of fury, defiance, status, pride, or vanity in one’s intellectual or physical prowess are all on offer,

Auguste Rodin, “The Burghers of Calais,” 1884-95.

Auguste Rodin, “Monument to Balzac,” 1897 (left); “Jean de Finnes, Vetu,” 1884-95 (right).

although the latter might be short-lived, as the shadow tells a foreboding story of crooked aging.

Auguste Rodin, “Pierre de Wissant, Nude,” 1884-95.

A fitting welcoming committee, one might argue, for the founder of this institution as it now exists: Norton Winfred Simon, a wealthy industrialist who discovered art in his 40s and never turned back from collecting it with a passion. Simon was born in 1907 in Portland, Oregon, into a family of European Jewish immigrants, learning business practices in his father’s store Simon sells for less, a profitable business that allowed Meyer Simon to build a big house in Portland Heights, and Lillian Simon to drive the first-ever Cadillac in Portland, by all reports. (I am summarizing what I learned, among other things, from a biography by Suzanne Muchnic, Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture and from a 2009 lecture by the museum’s then chief curator, Carol Togneri.)

Norton Winfred Simon at work.

Equipped with a photographic memory and an uncanny ability to do complicated math in his head, the young Simon was fascinated by and stellar at acquisition: a life-long preoccupation developed by finding bankrupt, or weak, or poorly managed businesses, buying them on the cheap, and turning them around with harsh reigns, radical cuts and minute personal decision-making until he’d extracted enormous profits. Simon ended a six-week stint as a college student at Berkeley — once the family had relocated to San Francisco after the death of his mother when he was only 14 — with the declaration that he could do without the education. Which turned out to be true. He became a tycoon, rising from the scrap-metal collecting business to building the Hunt Foods & Industries empire, quietly buying undervalued stock and winding his way onto boards of directors, to ultimately swallowing organizations whole, extending to truck fleets, real estate, cosmetic giants, and the publishing business in later years.

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Staircase to the lower level.

Simon the art collector was clearly driven by more than Simon the businessman’s lust for acquisition and success, but the methods with which he built his collection were inseparable from those used to create his business empires. He was a demanding boss to his staff and advisors, requiring presence at all times and expecting tolerance for micromanaging each and every decision. He was a hard bargainer once he had caught the scent of something that he thought would enrich his collection. The purchases ranged from individual art pieces to the takeover of entire inventories, such as the Duveen Brothers Inc. in New York for $15 million. Over the years he amassed close to 7,000 pieces — but was as ruthless in selling what didn’t fit as he was in using unusual methods to buy what he wanted (reports of episodes of aggressive, if not scandalous, behavior during auctions abound). Sales produced enormous profits. In turn, he was one of the first to establish several tax-exempt foundations to buy art for public display. Before he had a museum, he created a “museum without walls” that loaned works from the foundation’s collection that enabled traveling exhibitions.

Entrance Hall.

His involvement in, build-up of, and generosity towards the L.A. art scene was appreciated, and the fact acknowledged that he offered one of the most important collections of the West Coast, but he did not necessarily make only friends. Controversy raged when he took over the museum we are looking at here: The Pasadena Art Museum was deeply in debt, and badly managed in his eyes. Supporters of the failed museum who saw their donated art sold at auction because Simon did not think it belonged in the collection were in uproar, with the remaining board members resigning and former trustees bringing a civil suit “charging Simon with cannibalizing the permanent collection and manipulating the museum’s assets for personal gain,” a suit which they lost. (Ref.)

Pablo Picasso, “Woman with a Book,” 1932.

The museum itself is no stranger to lawsuits, either. There was a protracted, multimillion-dollar battle over two Renaissance masterworks—Adam and Eve—painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder and acquired by the museum in the early 1970s. The art was looted by the Nazis after their invasion of Holland, and the heir to the robbed art dealer sued multiple agencies, the Dutch government and the museum included. She lost her case after it was heard eventually at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals five years ago, based on a legal technicality of U.S. Courts not being allowed to invalidate the official acts of the Dutch Government. “The act of state doctrine” limits the ability of U.S. courts, in certain instances, from determining the legality of the acts of a sovereign state within that sovereign’s own territory and is often applied in appropriations disputes, a legal approach that immunizes foreign nations from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts when certain conditions are satisfied. (9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-58308.) The art stayed at the Norton Simon Museum.

The 1970s saw a few few years of personal upheaval for Simon, a divorce after 37 years of marriage, preceded by the suicide of one of his sons, a failed bid to be elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate, a whirlwind courtship and marriage to a movie star, Jennifer Jones, and eventually being afflicted with Guillain Barre, a neurological disorder that destroyed his ability to walk. Why there isn’t a Hollywood movie depicting this quintessential (not quite) rags-to-riches American biography is a mystery to me.

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THE COLLECTION IS TRULY IMPRESSIVE, much of it focused on beauty rather than art-historical education or particular fame or theoretical richness, although some famous paintings are present and admirably placed without ado or spotlighting among the rest of the art (Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Boy — his son Titus, for example). The absence of fanfare allows for an unbiased approach and appreciation of those who do not know the genesis of these paintings. Distinguished paintings by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance artists, Old Masters, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, an extensive assembly of South Asian sculpture; monumental bronzes by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore; bronze studies of ballet dancers and related works on paper by Edgar Degas, are all placed in ways that signal the collector’s focus. As it turns out, during his lifetime Simon would often rearrange the curation by himself during visits, curious what would emerge in novel placements.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Portrait of a Boy” (his son Titus), 1655-60, oil on canvas, 25.5 x 22 inches.

If we apply Le Guin’s distinction between literary fiction’s stories that “contain sticks, spears, and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long hard things,” and those about “things to put things in, the container for the thing contained” to the visual art on offer, Simon gifted us with a few types of the former and very, very many of the latter. Just as an example of the ancient hero-worship template, we have Peter Paul Ruben’s 1618 painting of Meleager and Atalanta and the Hunt of the Calydonian Boar. Plenty of long hard things to poke and bash with, plenty of embedding in a cultural scaffold that needs to be known in detail to make sense of the scene opening up in front of you (predictably triggering my “oh, another Where’s Waldo?” association that tends to rise up when I see these kinds of mythological depictions).

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Peter Paul Rubens, “Meleager and Atalanta and the Hunt of the Calydonian Boar,” c. 1618-19. Photo © The Norton Simon Foundation

As an example of visual narratives that rely on your emotional reaction rather than your cognitive assessment or general learnedness, we have many to choose from, including Renaissance still lifes, some fine Lionel Feiningers (I’m partial – here a street scene from Weimar:)

Lyonel Feininger, “Near the Palace,” 1914-1915.

and the one I eventually settled on, painted by American artist Sam Francis in 1956: Basel Mural I (and two fragments of Basel Mural III.) These paintings are containers that invite you to fill them with new kinds of stories, offering to hold your spontaneous experience. You project your interpretation, if one emerges, or simply your feelings about the beauty that surrounds you into the empty or, perhaps more accurately, quiet spaces of these vessels, spaced in a way that leaves enough room next to the configured patterns to hold your connection and absorb it. The beauty loosens something, granting the freedom to abandon demands for deciphering. You can immerse yourself and be moved, without fear of appearing moronic to self or others because you are unfamiliar with the canon.

Sam Francis,” Basel Mural I,” 1956-58.

Released from analysis, you tend to be more open for surprises — the discovery, for example, that in the clouds of primary colors of red, blue, and yellow hovering over the white negative spaces, all kinds of dots and spots and sparks of other colors hide, including purples and turquoise darkening into some shade of cyan; joyful hints of a diverse universe to be found by looking closely. New stories unfold — well, I am describing my own reaction to a painter I had never seen before outside of print.

More information and exposure will be available to people in this area when a new exhibition, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with the Sam Francis Foundation, opens on April 9 at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum: Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness Overflowing, organized by yet another Portland-linked person, Richard Speer, who also wrote a book about the Painter: The Space of Effusion: Sam Francis in Japan.

Sam Francis, “Basel Mural I,” excerpt (left) and “Basel Mural III,” fragment (right), 1956-58.

Norton Simon, who died in 1993, was after beauty, and knew when he found it. He was also aware of what beauty does with people, what it teaches them, and how they are able to change under its tutelage. To accomplish those interactions was the core goal, and ruthless methods of amassing the necessary funds can be forgiven, in my book, when building a brilliant collection, and endowing organizations like the museum to display and share it, serve that goal.

Still there are seeds to be gathered and room in the bag of stars.”

The collector probably would have agreed with this closing sentence of Ursula Le Guin’s essay, forever searching for the seeds of beauty, perhaps these days collecting them in bags among the stars, riding on the extraordinary Bird in Space by Brancusi, one of the central sculptures in the museum’s collection. We are quite fortunate to be able to experience what he left behind.

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Constantin Brancusi, “Bird in Space” (excerpt), 1931.

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The Norton Simon Museum

  • Location: 411 W. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, Calif., 91105
  • Hours: 12-5 pm Sunday Monday, Thursday, Friday. 12-7 pm Saturday. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Detailed visit information here.

Peter Voulkos, “Black Butte Divide,” 1958.

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This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on March 13, 2023.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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