NPR President Emeritus Jarl Mohn has a 50-year career in venture capital and media, starting as a radio disc jockey before joining E! entertainment television network and has held vice presidential positions at MTV and VH1.
But for the past 30 years, Mohn has also been an avid art collector and a major force in the Los Angeles art scene. Along with his wife Pamela, he helped launch the tasteful Made in LA biennial at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in 2012, and is still its principal underwriter.
The couple also sponsors the Biennale’s $100,000 Mohn Award, which honors outstanding emerging and underappreciated Los Angeles artists. They are also big supporters of the Serpentine in London and LAXART, where they recently made a $1 million donation in support of the organization’s new building project.
Art also has an outsized presence at Mohn’s Brentwood home, thanks to a collection that includes works by rising figures as well as historically significant names such as DeWain Valentine, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, Mary Corse, and Helen Pashgish. They even own a James Turrell “Skyspace” with a retractable roof.
We spoke to Mohn about the art he buys and how he divides it between his homes in New York and Los Angeles.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
My first purchase was in 1991, two photographs by Larry Clark from his “Tulsa” series about the life of the junkies there. I paid $1,200 each. They are both very dark and disturbing: one shows a pregnant woman in a nightgown injecting heroin. My wife refused to hang them in our home since our daughters were one and six years old at the time.
The director of the ACLU of Southern California (where I was chairman at the time) said she would hang them in their offices. In two days, so many lawyers complained that they fired her. So I got censored at home and at the ACLU! Years later, when my eldest daughter got her own apartment, she asked to borrow it and hung it for years. But their son is three years old now, so it looks like they’ll come down one more time as history repeats itself!
What was your last purchase?
We have two collections, one with minimalism/light and space, and another with emerging and underappreciated artists from Los Angeles that we keep in New York. The most recent minimalist piece is that of Michael Heizer slag, a 3.25 ton boulder embedded in the wall of my office. The latest work to be added to the burgeoning LA collection is that of Umar Rashid Le dejeuner. Rashid was in the Hammer Museum’s Made In LA exhibit in 2021.
What works or artists would you like to add to your collection this year?
I’m very excited to see what Hammer’s Made In LA show will bring in 2023. I will focus on many of these artists.
What is the most expensive piece of art you own?
The most financially valuable piece is a 1966–67 Robert Irwin aluminum disc.
Where do you buy art most often?
I’m more active in acquiring emerging LA artists, so most purchases are made here in LA (I probably buy more art from Commonwealth and Council than any other gallery, as I feel their program best reflects what is happening here.
Is there a work that you regret buying?
I have never regretted buying any piece. Never.
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What’s in your bathroom?
Doug Wheeler’s 1968 hangs above the sofa in LA Untitled Fluorescent and plexilight housing. In the master bathroom in New York I have two drawings by Martine Syms from 2021.
What’s the most impractical piece of art you own?
I’m nervous about the word impractical. All art is impractical as well as necessary and important. Let me say that the installation of the 3.25 ton Michael Heizer required the complete removal of an exterior wall of my house, reframing with steel, pouring industrial concrete and rebar four feet deep for the base, and cordoning off my street for three hours to crane them up.
What work would you have liked to have bought if you had the opportunity?
The one that got away was Sol LeWitt’s 1984 sculpture Three x four x threethe [the dealer] Paula Cooper offered it to me. I dragged my feet, I couldn’t pull the trigger. Then it was off to the Walker [in Minneapolis]where many will enjoy it – as it should be.
If you could steal an artwork without getting caught, what would it be?
I’m not only going to tell you what work I would steal, but also how I’m going to pull off the heist.
I would steal Walter De Maria’s 1977 earthworks The lightning field (a mile by a kilometer with 400 stainless steel rods.)
I would wait until winter when nobody is around. Each day when the sun is in just the right position to make the poles appear invisible, I would remove one of the wide rows of 16 poles and one of the long rows of 25. When the sun went down and the piece became visible again it would be just a bit smaller until it was all gone. I know that Jessica Morgan and the people at Dia would forgive me as it was so loved and cared for.
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