British artist David Hockney painted A Neat Lawn in 1967 shortly after moving to Los Angeles with boyfriend Peter Schlesinger. They were slumming nearby just off Pico Boulevard. It was “the worst place we lived in,” Hockney has said according to his foundation. Yet this period in the late 1960s was among Hockney’s most productive. But Hockney didn’t need to look far for his inspiration. The pictured property is 1033 South Bedford and it is only blocks from Pico Boulevard. What does this iconic image say about Southern California apartment living?
The painting caught my attention by chance recently when I picked up a book from my shelf and a card slipped out. It was a Christie’s promo for A Neat Lawn which last went on the auction block in 2006.
Like Hockney’s best works, A Neat Lawn reflects the Southern California landscape (and lifestyle) in its flat fields of color. The painting fetched $3.6 million when auctioned in 2006. That was a then-record for a Hockney. I hadn’t thought about it since the auction though Hockney’s canny take on Southern California stayed with me. His sky is flat, featureless and blue and that ubiquitous Southern California lawn is suitably flat, featureless and green like all lawns.
I remembered the flat fields of color but I did not at all recall the ostensible subject of the painting: a perfectly banal apartment house that is both generically familiar as an example of postwar multifamily housing yet also specifically recognizable. I’ve seen it before somewhere around the neighborhood. But where is it? The numbering indicate that it is not in Beverly Hills.
My fingers did the walking and after five minutes on Streetview I found it. The subject of one of Hockney’s better-known paintings is hiding in plain sight on Bedford between Olympic and Pico. (Bedford in Los Angeles is not to be confused with Bedford in Beverly Hills near Roxbury Park.)
Now there is nothing particularly special about this 6-unit rent-stabilized rental. It was built in 1954 and, like so many, is distinguished by a few design appliques on the facade. There are many similar examples in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. I often pass by a representative example when I walk the dog on the 300 block of South Elm (right).
Rather than the structure itself it is Hockney’s supersized treatment it that is engrossing. The painting is eight feet square! At that scale every banal detail is elevated to the monumental — and the symbolic. Here is what the Christie’s had to say about Hockney and his painting when it last went to auction in 2006.
It was everything he had hoped it would be: a land of possibility, sunlight, swimming pools and beautiful bodies…He painted modern and affluent homes with their impersonal tidiness and reductive architecture, seductive swimming pools and meticulously groomed lawns….A Neat Lawn shows Hockney exploring formal ideas of modernism and abstraction, and playfully shows his understanding of Minimalism. Hockney has trimmed away all the inessentials and deliberately creates a landscape built according to a strict rectilinear and symmetrical grid made up of rectangles and squares.
“A Neat Lawn emits a sense of emptiness and silence,” concludes the lot essay. “While celebrating even the simplest detail with loving reverence, Hockney could not avoid also suggesting the superficial nature of this facade.”
Some degree of overheated rhetoric is to be expected from the art world. Nevertheless for critics, and for me, A Neat Lawn does seem to be a metaphor, writ large, for a certain Southern California landscape. And because these structures are right around every corner, the painting feels somehow intimate.
Of course I had to know what’s changed in fifty years so a field trip was in order. Here is a side-by-side look at Hockney’s vision and the property as it stands today.
Hockney evidently took some liberties with the scene. Formally speaking he has rendered the front lawn with more apparent depth than is possible given the shallow multifamily front yard setback. And the abstraction of architectural detail makes it impossible to fix the elevation of his viewpoint.
Comparing then and now we see the visual tension created by the asymmetric plantings is replaced by a stand of miniature trees that partially obscures the facade. The stone wall pictured by Hockney has since been rebuilt out of cinder blocks. It saps some of the charm of the place today.
Looking Beyond the Facade
Looking beyond the record price and overheated rhetoric we see the ostensible subject of Hockney’s gaze: a humble apartment house. These underappreciated structures are not only home but collectively they lend our neighborhood its character. They are so prevalent in Beverly Hills simply because our rental housing stock is both smaller and older. Nine out of ten rental buildings number 10-or-fewer units and the great majority were built prior to 1960.
We take these small old structures for granted but we shouldn’t. They house 60% of rent-stabilized households in our city. They also provide so-called naturally occurring affordable housing. But they won’t be around forever because in Beverly Hills there is no real protection for these character-contributing properties. In fact city hall maintains a list of properties identified as good candidates for redevelopment. Our modest historic preservation incentive program (called the Mills Act) is no help because the city has not conducted an inventory of potentially-eligible historic properties.
Time will tell how long 1033 South Bedford is with us before it is relegated to an image on an auction card or a painting hanging on a collector’s wall.
The property will remain on the block so long as it provides value to the owner. In this regard the apartment rental business is kind to longtime owners. In this case the owner pays a very low property tax because it is calculated on a $200,000 assessment thanks to Proposition 13. That is about half the market value of a single unit at this property in today’s market.
Moreover the owner likely reaps 75-80 cents of each rental dollar as net income because his maintenance costs are low and investment in improvements is practically nonexistent. The building itself hasn’t changed much in the decades since Hockney captured it.
The real return on the landlord’s investment comes through asset appreciation. The estimated market value of 1033 South Bedford today is $2.5 million. That kind of appreciation is perhaps rivaled only by the fine art market. Indeed when A Neat Lawn last went up for auction in 2006 a foreign buyer paid a record price of $3.6 million. That was six times more than the then-record price previously paid in 1988 and a likely fraction of it’s current value today.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the image of the thing is so much more valuable than the thing itself?
In contrast the value provided to tenants is likely to decrease. Over time rents will rise while conditions at 1033 South Bedford will remain the same or more likely deteriorate. The $2,500 asked for a 2-bedroom apartment today, according to a recent online listing, buys a nondescript unit with few frills or updates.
Here’s the then-and-now comparison in an animation:
The lesson that I take away from my rediscovery of A Neat Lawn it that is better to be an owner than a tenant. And where it comes to 1033 South Bedford specifically it is best to actually own the painting!