In 1989, when he was not long out of school, Peter Loughrey was ahead of the curve when he opened a gallery focused on the kind of Modern design that would develop a hot market of avid collectors less than a decade later. He soon found, however, that he was more drawn to the unpredictability and excitement of another corner of the business— auctions—and in 1992, he rechristened his operation Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
In the decades since, LAMA has grown with the local market, expanding to handle the full breadth of art and design from the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from vintage Greene & Greene cabinetry to Enoc Perez watercolors to Picasso prints to a canvas by Vija Celmins that set a record last May when it went for $587,500. Throughout Loughrey has continued to build his own collection, giving it a appropriate setting in 2011 when he and his wife and business partner, Shannon, moved into a dramatic hilltop Modern abode, which he has called “the kind of home Mike Brady would have built for some really eccentric clients.”
Which came first, your private collecting or your opening the gallery?
I was always collecting something for as long as I can remember. There were the typical collections that young boys favor: stamps, coins, baseball cards, et cetera. But there were also other more obscure objects like mason jar lids, pre-WWII beer cans, and vintage surfboards. Whatever the medium, I was always looking for a sense of order. I would incessantly place each piece in context with the rest, always looking for the best example to reveal itself. The gallery was my realization of my desire to curate and explain my personal view of the most recent obsession: Modern Americana.
What do you think of as the core of your current collection?
I am still very drawn to mid-century Italian design, and there is a great example in every room of my house. Unlike most things I've collected, I have never gotten bored with it. The other passion is contemporary art. It works so well with the design and our architecture. I have a mix of Pop art and subsequent movements, and there is a slight emphasis on Los Angeles artists, or at least artists that had a connection to L.A. But, I still buy works on the spur of the moment from any period or movement.
Both LAMA and your private collection feature a mix of art and design. Can you talk a little about how you see the two fields relating?
Modernism is a philosophy that ignores all media. I don’t see any difference between an upholstered wooden frame and a lithograph if the message is the same: reject classicism and embrace what's new. Whether paint, clay, wood, metal, or any material, it all dialogues with each other if each artist has accepted the core tenets of the movement. From a business point of view, it is easier to make this point when many media are present.
Can you describe an example from your private collection of where you feel like an artwork and a design piece really speak to each other?
In my dining room there is a cabinet by Gio Ponti with hand painted decoration by Piero Fornasetti. It's a marvelous blend of the avant-garde shapes of Ponti with a sly wink at classicism from Fornasetti. In a blink, the piece is simply beautiful. But it is also highly conceptual and somewhat cerebral when one digs deeper. I have hung above it five small paintings by Richard Pettibone. They too are a visual treat in an instant for each is an “appropriation” of well-known Pop art paintings. However, when one considers the ideas and concept behind the creation of these pieces, the parallels become clear. Like Ponti, Pettibone is at once rejecting the past but also honoring it with historical reference.
Your home itself is work of modern design, does that affect the kind of art you collect or can show?
I have the same constraints that most homeowners have. I need to find works that fit a particular wall or can fit between two chairs. However, because of the volume of items I come into contact with, I have many more opportunities than most. I recently bought a large shaped canvas painting on impulse and was very happy to find that it would actually fit somewhere. It turns out that there is only one spot where it would fit, so my decision of where it would go was made for me. Several other works had to move; some sold and some went into storage, others found a new space and could stay.
In your work, you get used to seeing beautiful things come and go. Do you think that has affected how you feel about building a collection?
Yes, it's a natural hazard of being a dealer to become a little jaded. There are some things I see so often that it's hard to get excited about having it around the house. The Eames lounge chair and ottoman is an exception—I don’t think I’ve ever been without one.
The Los Angeles art scene has been vital for close to half a century now, but the art market is a more recent development. Can you talk about the growth of the collector class and how you see the L.A. art scene going forward?
Markets have many universal drivers, like supply and demand. The Los Angeles art market is not immune to these factors, but it is like the wild west sometimes and following trends can be difficult. For example, since the Getty’s "Pacific Standard Time" initiative, the global response has been very strong. However, some of the artists that got a boost have since flattened out.
What California artists do you think are currently undervalued and ready for more attention?
The Four Abstract Classicists, otherwise known as the Hard Edge School, have been a strong influence on subsequent generations locally, but have largely gone unnoticed in the wider art world. In Miami this past December, I saw several galleries from around the country representing great examples. Many were sold and the prices seem to be on the move. John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Karl Benjamin, and Lorser Fietelson are the best known from this group, but there are others waiting for wider recognition. I believe these artists will become much more valuable as additional museum shows are organized. I know from experience that the work itself is getting much harder to come by.