African Abstractions

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1 TRIBAL people African Abstractions The Collection of Jay T. Last By Jonathan Fogel You may or may not have heard of Jay Last, but chances are you have the legacy of his inventive mind in your pocket. His work with Fairchild Semiconductor, the earliest tech company in what is now Silicon Valley, resulted in the first practical integrated circuit chip, which in turn resulted in well the electronic world we live in today. Another thing you may not know about Jay is that he s been an avid art collector for more than fifty years, a span of time that even he finds more than a little shocking. In the course of those decades, he formed what is unquestionably the world s most comprehensive collection of Lega art, which is now held by the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles. His interest in African art goes far beyond Lega, however, and his Southern California home is an absolute treasure trove of remarkable sculptures from across the continent. Jay s road to African art was a convoluted one. He grew up in Western Pennsylvania in, as he puts it, one of these steel mill/coal towns that when you re about twelve you start wondering how am I ever going to get out of here? Part of this wondering involved a map of Africa that hung on his bedroom wall. The getting out part involved a doctorate in physics from MIT and becoming one of the group of eight scientists who founded Fairchild in It also involved extensive travels in Africa in the following years. As a graduate student at MIT in the mid fifties, Jay took a trip to New York for a meeting of the American Physical Society. While there, he visited the Museum of Modern Art and for the first time discovered art. Seeing abstract modernism was a life-changing moment and he needed to know more about it. Art books were not as extensively published then as they are now, but he got what he could find. One of these was Elisofon and Fagg s Sculpture of Africa, and the section on the Lega leapt out at him. It just blew me away. I d never dreamed of there being things like that around. A multiheaded ivory bust FIG. 1: Jay Last holding his first purchase. Photo: Scott McCue, FIG. 2: Multiheaded bust. Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ivory. H: 14.1 cm. Ex Charles Ratton, Paris; Merton Simpson Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Photo: Don Cole, FIG. 3 (right): Mask. Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Early 20th century. Wood, paint. H: 26.4 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA X ; Gift of Jay T. Last. Ex private collection, Italy; Marc Leo Felix, Belgium. Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Photo: Don Cole, 2001.

2 JAY T. LAST from Charles Ratton s collection was among the most intriguing of the book s illustrations. Thirty years later, he acquired it from Mert Simpson. African art wasn t especially easy to find in the United States in the mid sixties, although there were several dealers in New York City. His first visit to a gallery was J. J. Klegman s at Madison and 76th. Jay recalls that Klegman didn t have much use for a beginning collector, but he found others who did. Among them were Ladislas Segy, whom he remembers as a great scholar but not a very great businessman ; Aaron Furman, who was just starting and had a great eye ; and Julius Carlebach, who was handling a remarkable amount of material. Jay s first purchase, a Kuba cup, came from Segy. He still has it. He bought about twenty more cups from the same source over the course of a year before he decided to branch out. His first Lega pieces, minor things, came from Furman, who soon after also provided him with his first major purchase, a multiheaded Lega Sakimatwematwe. It cost $1,500. One thing that has characterized Jay s collecting over the years is his investment in multiple, or serial, objects. If one piece of a given style of African art is interesting, a group of related pieces is considerably more so. While he already had some sense of this (nearly two dozen Kuba cups as his first purchases), the Jawlensky and the Serial Image show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1968 really drove the concept home. As he says, You learn so much more by seeing groups of things that are related, and FIG. 4: Group of abstract figures. Azande, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, metal, pigment. H: cm. 149

3 FIG. 5: Helmet mask, bwoom. Kuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, pigment. H: 44 cm. FIG. 6: Cup in the form of a head. Kuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood. H: 23 cm. FIG. 7: Double cup with legs. Yaka/Suku, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood. L: 8 cm. each tells you something about the other. From the beginning he s been interested in the art quality of the objects, but he s just as interested in the process of the artists as well as what the pieces were intended to be used for. The serial approach helps reveal this and, whenever possible, he s tried to get more than one example of a given object type. The Lega collection was thoroughly informed by this process. Hardly two Lega objects are the same, but they all relate to one another. What started with a couple of inconsequential pieces from Furman turned into a collection of more than 400 pieces that include a remarkable number of instantly recognizable icons of Lega sculpture. Interestingly, while Jay s home is filled with stunning examples of African art, most of the Lega collection was never displayed there. Instead it was stored in a bank vault. As the collection grew, he realized he had a substantial percentage of that culture s material patrimony under his guardianship. If a fire or earthquake had struck his home, that patrimony would have been severely damaged, so he stashed it in a safe place. You can fit a lot of Lega into a bank box, he recalls. The first time the collection was really seen as a whole, even by him, was when it was being staged for the exhibition Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa, which was shown at the Fowler Museum in 2001 and traveled to several other US museums as well as the AXA Gallery in New York City. A comprehensive catalog by Elisabeth L. Cameron memorializes the exhibition and remains a central reference on the subject. A revised version of the exhibition will be on view this autumn at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and a new edition of the catalog in French is being produced to accompany it. The elegant simplicity of Lega art more or less encapsulates Jay s sense of aesthetics. In the course of his col- 150

4 JAY T. LAST FIG. 8 (above): Mask. Kwele, Gabon. Wood, pigment. H: 27 cm. FIG. 9 (far left): Mask. Ijaw, Nigeria. Wood. H: 46 cm. FIG. 10 (left): Mask. Igbo, Nigeria. Wood. H: 31 cm. 151

5 TRIBAL people Clockwise from right: FIG. 11: Head. Fang, Gabon. Wood, metal. H: 17 cm. FIG. 12: Figure with raised arm. Dogon, Mali. Wood. H: 31 cm. FIG. 13: Crouching figure. Dogon, Mali. Wood. H: 32 cm. FIG. 14: Standing figure. Mambila, Cameroon. Wood. H: 44 cm. FIG. 15: Standing figure. Lulua (?), DR Congo. Wood. H: 18 cm. FIG. 16: Implement with crouching figure. Lulua, DR Congo. Wood. H: 16 cm. 152

6 lecting, he s acquired a fair number of pieces, largely from West Africa, that challenged his aesthetic with their intricacy. Few of them stayed in the collection. What he finds most satisfying is abstraction with a rigorous refinement of line. An outstanding and ancient Grassfields elephant mask in his dining room epitomizes this, as does a stunning eyeless Lega mask that he donated to the Fowler. Such refined sculptures have absolutely no room for error. As he observes, Some people think it s easy to create a masterpiece of simple form. It s not. But when you have it, you know it. Almost as interesting as the objects themselves is the art market they come from and the various personalities involved in it. In half a century of collecting, Jay has seen the market change from what seemed to be an inexhaustible stream of accessible material in the sixties and seventies to the situation today, where great pieces demand such high prices that it takes serious commitment to acquire them. To him, that takes a lot of the fun out of it. Fifteen hundred dollars wasn t exactly chump change when he bought his Sakimatwematwe in the sixties, but it s a far cry from the two million plus that another example sold for at Sotheby s a few years ago. He s bought material from just about every dealer you ve heard of and a number you probably haven t, and his stories about his experiences with them range from enviable to funny to downright shocking. The book he s presently writing on that subject promises to raise some eyebrows. More than just being a collector, Jay has long realized that the arts need to be supported. He and his wife, Deborah, provided part of the funding that built the Fowler Museum s current building, and two years ago they endowed a curatorial position there for African art. In addition to the Lega donation to the Fowler, another major collection of his, some 140,000 examples of American lithography, is being donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Not everything is so serious minded. As you get to know Jay, you find that there s a deep streak of humor and whimsy behind his staid façade. Many of his African objects have a bit of a nod and a wink about them, but it s most apparent in his collection of owls. Some years ago he realized that the binary symbols 010 form an abstraction of an owl s eyes and beak. Since then, he s acquired scores of owl figures, ranging from masterpieces of pre-columbian sculpture to outrageously tacky things that friends have bought for him for a dollar. Though it may baffle many a somber collector, he far prefers the latter. FIG. 17: Elephant crest. Grasslands, Cameroon. Wood. L: 67 cm. FIG. 18: Dance crest, tsesah. Batcham, Grasslands, Cameroon. Wood. H: 72 cm.

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