Fred and Marcia Weisman look unhappy. The artist sets them among their sculptures, standing apart and looking in different directions. Fred clenches a fist so fiercely he appears to be dripping paint; Marcia grins, her mouth mirroring that of the totem in the grass behind her.
If David Hockney’s portrait of this couple—the 1968 painting American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), on view through Feb. 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of the artist’s work in his 80th year—is unkind to its subjects, it shows great deference to their house, their collection, their environment. The painting is a tease of textures and patterns, set against a depthless sky. The concrete yard and slatted shades are short plays of precision; sculptures by William Turnbull and Henry Moore are portrayed delicately, their materials (stone, bronze) carefully brushed into being; a potted plant sits just off the grey wall, framing a stripe of blue day. These are not details of derision, but of doting affection. If the Weismans’ relationship seems unappealing in Hockney’s rendering, their world is rather lovely; it’s no wonder the couple purchased the painting upon its completion, more than a decade before they divorced.
The painting’s title is apt; Fred and Marcia Weisman were indeed American collectors, founders of a community (and family) of art-collecting Angeleno Jews. Fred Weisman was born April 27, 1912, to Russian immigrants in Minneapolis. He made his way to California and became an executive at Hunt’s before opening countless Toyota distributorships across North America. Marcia Simon, born Aug. 22, 1918, in Portland, Oregon, to a wealthy family, moved to California in 1929 and married Fred in 1938. The couple began collecting art in the early 1950s.
At that time, there were no significant art museums in or around Los Angeles other than the Pasadena Art Museum (later renamed the Norton Simon Museum, after Marcia’s brother donated his collection and support to the cash-strapped institution). Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century was not particularly receptive to contemporary art; a Modern Institute of Art opened in 1948 and shut two years later, just before the Los Angeles City Council banned the public display of such work, labeling it Communist propaganda. But in 1957 the UCLA Adult Extension Program published Looking at Modern Painting, an introductory textbook that formed the basis for a series of lectures on contemporary art. Fred and Marcia Weisman hosted many of these lectures in their home, and a community of collectors formed around these conversations.
The lectures the Weismans hosted were not only formative in the development of their lifelong commitment to postwar American art but essential in the cultivation of a generation of discerning and dedicated art patrons in California. A portrait Hockney painted some years before the Weismans’, Beverly Hills Housewife (1966), depicts another member of this community, though this title is far less accurate; the nameless “Beverly Hills housewife” is Betty Freeman, who supported contemporary composers including John Cage, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass. John Adams dedicated Nixon in China (1985-1987) to her; she wrote books about American painting; she bought Hockney’s portrait upon its completion.
One can now spend a day, or days, visiting art museums in California constituted by the Weismans’ collection, generosity, and leadership. In Los Angeles alone there is the Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution founded by Marcia Weisman and containing much of her collection. This is only a short drive from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, housed in their former home (and this is to say nothing of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University in Malibu or the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis). In total, these collections constitute an astonishing trove of American, European, and Asian art.
When the Weismans were painted behind their pool house in the late 1960s, Hockney had already established a unique and celebrated visual vocabulary of life in Los Angeles. Born July 9, 1939, in the industrial English city of Bradford, Hockney studied at the Bradford School of Art and then, beginning in 1959, at the Royal College of Art in London; he moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where he still spends much of the year.
In his work and in his leisure, Hockney enjoyed the mood of the West Coast in the sixties. His paintings and drawings from this period are celebrations of Los Angeles’ pools and patios, modish split-level homes, open sexual culture, and sunny vibes. The Met dedicates considerable space to this period of the artist’s career, and the paintings that brighten these galleries are the standouts of this stellar exhibition, which surveys more than a century of work from an artist eager to experiment across various styles and media, including photography, film, drawing, and set design. In total, the exhibition constitutes a testament to a lifetime of probing, provocative, and accomplished work.
Running through this first West Coast decade and continuing up to Hockney’s current work is an abiding interest in portraiture. Portraits, for Hockney, were not only about the person being depicted, but also the way the painter saw the subject, and the way the subject might see the world. “You can choose where to look,” Hockney states in the catalog of a 1981 show. Hockney’s notion of looking is not mimetic—it does not aim at copying the world accurately. Rather, we “see psychologically,” projecting elements of ourselves onto the things we observe.
The subjects of Hockney’s portraits are usually his friends and lovers. To paint a companion is to set what you see in them and what you feel about them down on the canvas or page. To paint strangers or mere acquaintances, however, is something else entirely, and in his painting of Fred and Marcia Weisman, Hockney sees an estranged, uncomfortable couple—a man standing in profile, clenched with tension; a woman in a bright pink caftan, eager to be noticed. Hockney didn’t know the Weismans well, yet his sense of their relationship comes through clearly; it is not a kind portrayal.
If the painting’s title is apt, is the portrait? Were the Weismans as cartoonish and unhappy as Hockney makes them seem?
By accounts, Marcia was not pleased with the painting. She hung the portrait in their house for a short time before selling it. “It wouldn’t have been very easy to live with,” Noriko Fujinami explained. Fujinami helped Marcia and Fred curate their collection from 1975 to 1980; after the couple separated, she was Marcia’s curator until the collector’s death in 1991. Despite Marcia’s misgivings, Fujinami describes a couple who were able to laugh at this unflattering portrait. When Fred and Marcia were recognized as Hockney’s “American collectors,” they found it funny. They remained on good terms with the artist, who attended their parties and sold them more work.
Hockney’s portrait, then, feels at once accurate and incomplete: The artist picks up on elements of an unhappy marriage, which would come to an end 12 years later. At the same time, the couple’s taste—their house and sculptures—illuminates Hockney’s canvas. The Weismans are remembered by friends as good and giving people, and after the couple separated, they remained close for the rest of their lives. How unfortunate, then, that they should be mostly known as the crude and troubled couple portrayed in Hockney’s great painting, and not as the generous and civic-minded art patrons that have so enriched the city of Los Angeles and the development of American culture.
An anecdote recounted in Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, might fill out their portrait. Fred Weisman was having dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He approached the neighboring table about the noise and anti-Semitic remarks he was overhearing, interrupting a meal Frank Sinatra was hosting for Dean Martin and some friends. Accounts differ about what happened next, but Fred was struck by a phone thrown by Sinatra (Sinatra later denied this) and ended up in Mount Sinai Hospital. He was in a coma for several days and when he came to, he was unable to recognize his family or friends. It wasn’t until Marcia arrived with a small drawing by Jackson Pollock that Fred’s memory returned, and he began talking to the hospital staff about the complex beauty of contemporary art.
After Fred was released, he and Marcia filled the halls of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with contemporary art, including several Hockneys.
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David Sugarman is a writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.
David Sugarman is Tablet’s Deputy News Editor, and teaches American literature at New York University.