Gerald Buck was a Newport Beach developer whose passion for compelling art grew into that of legend over a span of 40 years until his death in 2013. This long-time love affair with art resulted in a massive collection of 3,300 artworks by California artists working between World War II and 1980. One of the most widely recognized collections of California artists spanning a wide range of genres and media, Gerald Buck’s collection, now known as The Buck Collection, is finding new life at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

UCI had always planned on creating an art museum on campus, but only recently announced that in the next few years, that plan will become a reality. The UCI Institute and Museum for California Art (IMCA), although not in existence yet, is the main reason for the current impressive art exhibition on display in two of the three art galleries on UCI’s campus. Although it is unclear why UCI decided to create a multi-space exhibition of this legendary collection for the inaugural showcase of the just-announced future IMCA space, the 50 artworks on display in “First Glimpse: Introducing The Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art” are innovative and historic works of modern and contemporary California art. Kevin Appel, co-curator of the exhibition — along with Cecile Whiting and Stephen Barker — says that this exhibition is merely a glimpse of the huge collection of art that was gifted to UCI from Buck. The public had become aware of the donated collection as the acquisition was finalized within the last year or so and were getting antsy to see the works.

Next September, UCI will open an interim space for the IMCA with a building of approximately 17,000 square feet in the UCI Research Park. This interim IMCA location will offer office spaces as well as permanent collection exhibition space to showcase the two new acquired collections, The Buck Collection and The Irvine Museum Collection. The interim space will also have rotating curated exhibits.

Finding the current exhibition on the UCI campus can prove to be tricky for visitors. Make sure you have a map handy (available online or on campus) and follow the signs that are situated above the lampposts. The galleries are in buildings #721 and #712 on the UCI campus map.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Albuquerque”, 1952

The first space holding work for this exhibition, the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery, is a beautiful white cube space with tall cathedral-like ceilings and artwork that felt just as big. The work in this space centered around abstraction — abstract expressionism and hard edge abstraction — and the figure — both abstract and representational. The abstraction in the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery was vast and varied, but compelling and curious. Richard Diebenkorn’s Albuquerque #9 and Peter Alexander’s Thrasher stood out as serene show-stoppers in the midst of anxious and uncomfortable expressions of life in this space.

By the entrance/exit to this gallery space, there is an additional timeline with images, large descriptive exhibition wall text and a video playing to better assimilate exhibition goers to the context of the collection in art history and the larger introduction of collector Gerald Buck. Although the art on display in this space is not quite as publicly palatable as the other space, the added information helps visitors understand the evolution of California art between the 1930s and the 1980s, and better adjust their frame of reference to the importance of this collection in its new home at UCI.

The second space housing the rest of the works in “First Glimpse,” University Art Gallery, is physically less impressive, with two delineated rooms, but the works are immediately recognizable as belonging to some of the most innovative artists in our modern and contemporary art history — they are instantly hypnotic and intimidating. This space houses assemblage works as well as light and space works. Walking into the space dead-center and upfront, your eyes are drawn to the hypnotic Ed and Nancy Kienholz piece The Fish Track and the Peter Voulkos sculpture Mimbres. With one quick look around the front room, you instantly see Ed Ruscha, Jay DeFeo, Llyn Foulkes, John Altoon, Alexis Smith, Robert Therrien, John Mason and James Turrell all present — making you immediately aware that you’re standing in the middle of something important, surrounded by some of the greatest artists of the last half century. For a modern art history lover, this is heaven in a space.

Each work is so powerful on its own, it almost feels like this room has a magnetic field, keeping everything close, but not touching, and pulled into one another, making it difficult to pull away from any one piece to move to another. The agitation in Jay DeFeo’s Mountain No.1 and the personal hypnotism present in Llyn Foulkes’ For Father W.B. drag you across the wall with gravitational force and propel you into Ed Ruscha’s Wanze to cool down like a quick dip in a serene tide pool. James Turrell’s Roden Crater reminds you of your humble human size in the grand scheme of the planet while feeling grateful to be creative and expressive creatures, but pushes your line of sight into the Kienholz piece.

George Herms, “Me”, 1962

An assemblage shrine featuring a military shell topped with a boxing glove as its centerpiece, The Fish Track seems to evoke the seated value in the trophy of a fight, while criticizing the dark places of war and society that lend to an entire industry dedicated to it. This mostly black piece puts a boxing glove and fisherman’s boot on a kind of shelf like a trophy, but also sits it in a chair, like it’s an ordinary object. This simple assemblage piece evokes a range of queries and emotions that tug on our curiosity and perception of objects and experiences to find something bigger, something visceral we can relate to. With a small nod to Dada and the absurdity, we find the small mold of a fish and a track tucked under the chair on the same shelf.

In the second room of the University Art Gallery, the palpable intimidation does not waiver, but ebbs and flows with subtle nuances like the ombre colored resin in DeWain Valentine’s Circle Grey-Rose piece on display. Sleek and calm, this room begs to be looked at. With monumental works by Mary Corse, Larry Bell, Helen Pashgian, Craig Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston and Tony DeLap, this room has a much more serene quality to it than the first, but with substantial reckoning.

To be in the presence of so many historically significant California artists reminds us of just how impactful California art has been on the larger history of modern and contemporary art. Even in such a wide range of disciplines and styles of expression, the works present in “First Glimpse” are a thorough look at the progression of creative expression over important moments in our history and in our California culture.

If you can find the exhibition spaces on campus, you may be surprisingly pleased with the experience of the “First Glimpse” at UCI IMCA.

“First Glimpse: Introducing The Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art” on view at Claire Trevor School of the Arts – Contemporary Arts Center Gallery and University Art Gallery on the campus of University of California, Irvine. On view through January 5, 2019.

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