Roger Kuntz threw shade on paint
Roger Kuntz threw shade on paint
Courtesy of the Buck Collection at the UCI Museum and Institute for California Art

Gerald Buck's Treasure Trove of California Art Gets a New Home at UC Irvine

"Hold on tightly; let go lightly," says Clive Owen as the title character in Croupier. That doctrine applies to the late Orange County developer Gerald Buck's private collection. His fortune fed an intense love for art created in California, but few have seen the 3,200 works. Some pieces were installed in his home in Newport Beach, most were stored in a warehouse, and a gallery's worth were hung in a former Laguna Beach post office that stayed closed to the public.

But now the whole lot, in every medium and genre—plus mountains of ephemera from pamphlets to show catalogs—has been given to UC Irvine for its planned UCI Museum and Institute for California Art. The priceless cache augments the Irvine Museum's $17 million worth of California art promised just a year ago. So, if you've been thinking about getting out of the private sector and into a graduate program in art history, you won't have to go far.

"UCI is the perfect match," says the collector's daughter, Christina Buck. "It makes me so happy that the campus now has the works for students, faculty and, ultimately, people who just love art—like my father did."

Among the most famous pieces is Richard Diebenkorn's Albuquerque, an early abstract painted in California by the New Mexico-born artist, whose work, especially during the 18 years he painted his "Ocean Park" series in Santa Monica, captures the West Coast's wide-open sense of space and shimmering light.

Many of the artists, including Diebenkorn, were World War II vets. Roger Kuntz's painterly series of SoCal highway signage takes you to the sun-soaked outdoors with their slicing shadows. The B-24 turret gunner grew up in Lomaland, a Theosophical Society near San Diego; he then studied at Pomona College and taught at Scripps before moving to Laguna Beach in 1963. Santa Ana Arrows couldn't be a more apt expression of the freeway life.

Ben Messick moved to California after serving in the First World War, eventually opening a studio in Long Beach. Known for his regionalist work, Children's Playground is ripe with robust mothers and nursing nannies, nonstop kids, and overlapping narratives all awash in exquisite light.

California-born or not, many of the artists went on to pioneer movements in the 20th century. In the 1950s, while army vet Sam Francis dripped and splattered on paper (Augustus After Sonny, Sonny Before Augustus), Lorser Feitelson, who moved to Los Angeles in 1927, pioneered hard-edged geometric paintings such as his Magical Space Forms.

Of all the life stories within the Buck collection, the most compelling to me is that of Ruth Asawa. Born in 1926 to Japanese-immigrant farm workers, she never stopped making art despite being interned in 1942 at Santa Anita Racetrack, where she spent her time drawing in horse stalls alongside Disney artists also interned there. While in high school at a relocation center in Arkansas, she was the yearbook's art editor. Postwar discrimination put the kibosh on a teaching career and continued because of an inter-racial marriage. Adept with illumination, shadow and form, her drawings, paintings and sculptures were eventually acquired by major museums. In the 1960s, she began competing successfully for public art commissions and was active in social justice, eventually founding a public high school for the arts in San Francisco, which was renamed in her honor in 2010.

Maybe lightness was her secret to a nonstop creative life: "An artist is not special," Asawa said. "An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special."

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