Art in Flames:
The Fires in Southern California
Add a Strange Twist to the Art Scene

by Charles A. Riley II PhD

As I pulled onto the freeway from Orange County Airport to head to Laguna Niguel where I’d be staying for a week giving lectures and leading tours of local private collections and artists’ studios, I could smell the acrid smoke in the sea mist that fills the air each night. The fires had been raging on the cliffs above Laguna Beach for three days, and I would see the blackened hillsides the next morning from the comfort of my room at the five-star Ritz Carlton, where the management had given up rooms for fire victims and where my clients, a group of 150 pension fund managers and clients from Manhattan, would be wined and dined all during that first week of November, well out of range of the flames.

The next day I am supposed to be scouting out new paintings and the museum, but I end up helping out artists and collectors in the rush to move their paintings down from the mansions in the hills to the storage vaults of the Laguna Art Museum by the sea. A Guy Rose seascape which is one of the works I am supposed to be lecturing about ends up in my hands as we move it to safety through air that is still thick with ash, which drifts down like rain. Shades of Pompeii, except on the beach below the hotel where the surfers, oblivious, are not about to miss a day of good rollers.

Rescue Efforts
Up above the town, my friend Richard Yeakel, an antiques dealer, is fishing a Renoir bronze out of his swimming pool, where he had chucked it when a river of fire headed straight for his house full of Old Master drawings, Gothic linen-fold panels and doors and tapestries. Ordered to evacuate, he had submerged the Renoir and some 14th-century French ivory carvings, and returned the next day to find that his house had been looted while the homes on both sides were consumed. Fortunately the looters took the less valuable works, such as a $40,000 tapestry, instead of the silver sconces worth ten times that amount right next to it. The tapestry turns up the next day under a gardener’s shack, and in celebration Yeakel donates a Rembrandt etching to the auction held later in the week to benefit fire relief funds. In all, $100 million worth of art has been destroyed, including one of the world's great ancient Japanese collections and works by Picasso, Warhol, Stella and others, and a number of artists who work in the canyon area have been wiped out. The day after I arrive, the fire sweeps toward Malibu and crosses the Pacific Coast Highway in the afternoon. Curators desperately move works into the basement of the Getty Museum, including the Michelangelo drawing recently bought in London for $22 million.

The Party Goes On

A day later, once the fires have calmed, I am standing on a sun-drenched porch overlooking the waves watching large white flakes of ash softly fall into the water and plants within Vito Acconci’s Landing, a 1986 work that features three aluminum rowboats tangled together in a simulated wreck. Pointed out to sea, away from the disasters on the cliffs inland, even without the fish that swam in its depths when I first saw it at MOMA, the work has a new resonance. Inside the living room, Forde entertains the cocktail party by lighting the gas jets on a Jannis Kounellis piece that casts blue flames across a steel plate. Its steady hissing sound nearly drowns out the chatter. The glass-enclosed interior of the house, with other works by Rebecca Horn and Robert Mangold, Andy Warhol and others, is like a more populous version of David Hockney’s painting California Collector, except that instead of a rainbow on the cliffs above the house there are still plumes of smoke from the fire areas.

Later that evening, my fund managers in formal wear arrive by bus at the vast (15,000 square foot) Villa Elena del Mar, which has been on the market at $20 million for the past year but for the weekend has been converted into an open house for art by local painters curated by Diane Nelson and Stuart Katz, the area's top private dealers. A pianist plays Gershwin on the upper landing while the dealers and artists mingle with a few buyers, and some of the proceeds will go to fire relief funds for artists. Chris Burden's studio, just north of town, is rumored to be among the ones destroyed.

The Day After
By the end of my stay, there are signs of recovery. An auction in the canyon brings $40,000 for fire relief, partly from donations like a gold lamé high heel shoe from Bette Midler that sells for $400. The fire itself has created “works of art” out of partly melted toys and machine parts put together in sculptural forms by some of the canyon artisans. I stopped in at the little studio and home of Serge Armando, a painter born in Nice who came to America and joined Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters before settling in California. As I knock at the screen door I see him bent over a long, black painting on two trestles with a Barnett Newman-like strip of orange red down the middle which he has been working on since he and his family were permitted to return to their home a couple of days before. “It scared the hell out of me, but it also inspired me and I want this work to capture that,” Armando explains. On a daybed near the window his two-month-old daughter sleeps peacefully in the sunlight while he works on.

Charles A. Riley II, PhD
(Contributing editor for Inside Art & Antiques, professor of English at Baruch College and a Graduate Center alumnus, author of Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Art, Architecture, Philosophy, Literature, Music and Psychology)