cover image Odd Man in: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture

Odd Man in: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture

Suzanne Muchnic. University of California Press, $45 (339pp) ISBN 978-0-520-20643-4

Self-made millionaire Norton Simon (1908-1993) parlayed a canned-goods fortune into a private art collection of astounding breadth and value. But as Muchnic, an art reporter for the Los Angeles Times, reveals, Simon's struggle for cultural legitimacy has persistently alienated and mystified art world insiders. Not content to hoard his acquisitions, Simon used a combination of ""power, paranoia, and publicity"" to muscle his way onto the board of directors of the newly constructed Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to acquire the Pasadena Art Museum. Most intriguing are Muchnic's final chapters, on the outrage provoked by Simon's corporate-raider tactics in taking over the Pasadena museum, the one institution that remains his legacy, bearing his name and housing his collection. Simon has been called both savior and tyrant, while his motives, obscure during his reign, are still obscure here, despite Muchnic's excellent research, which includes the only interviews Simon granted in his final years. Simon comes through as a complex character, an ""uneducated Jewish renegade"" and ""maverick"" whose cultural coming of age closely paralleled that of Southern California. Whether Simon attained the art-world legitimacy he sought remains debatable. Even Muchnic seems grudging in her admiration. She lauds his ""intelligence and accomplishments,"" but is more ambivalent about his contributions to Southern California's burgeoning cultural scene, which reflected but in no way assuaged the tension between commerce and art. Photos. (Oct.)