Bruce Houston is an artist known for his small-scale sculpture: assemblages of children’s toys redefined by paint, glue and time. An avid collector of vintage objects, Houston’s Palm Springs home is brimming with action figures, toy trucks, odd bits and pieces that find their way into his creations. The Palm Springs Art Museum (then known as the Palm Springs Desert Museum) mounted a one-person exhibition for the artist titled Eccentric Sculptures in 1992.
Billy Wilder, a wildly successful Austrian born American filmmaker from the 1950s era, met his match with Houston as the two bonded over their obsessive collections and similar sense of humor. Billy Wilder was a six-time Oscar winning screenwriter, known for iconic films such as Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Apartment (1960), and Some Like it Hot (1959).
Throughout Wilder’s film career, he amassed a coveted art collection that spanned impressionism through modernism and into contemporary works but with the sweep of a pen in 1989, it was gone. At a Christie’s auction, he let go of over 80 works of art and raked in a cool $32.6 million for it; but even after that, Wilder couldn’t curb his hunger for art or the insatiable need to collect. He sold an additional $2 million worth of art through Christie’s Beverly Hills in 2000, stating “I’m just closing up before checking out.” He passed away in 2002 at the age of 95.
In a whimsical art collaboration between Wilder and Houston, the pair took an otherwise stoic figure—the 3000-year-old Queen Nefertiti bust representing Egyptian royalty and power—and re-imagined her through the lens of various 20th Century artists and famous figures, such as Groucho Marx. Perhaps they even chose to alter her name, from Nefertiti to Nefertete, contributing to the sense of jest? The series was inspired by the original limestone Queen Nefertiti bust still on display at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin decades after Wilder saw it during his youth in Germany. In 1993, the Louis Stern Gallery in Beverly Hills opened the first Wilder and Houston exhibition, entitled Billy Wilder’s Marche aux Puces, French for “a Paris flea market.” According to Wilder, “I have worked on my own but mostly in collaboration. My great luck was running into Bruce Houston, an exceptional artist, with an odd sense of humor. We clicked. The instant we came up with the Nefertete concept we danced for joy.”
Wilder’s versions of the Queen Nefertete busts, which were larger in scale than Houston’s, live on as part of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Houston, now 77, presents his Variations on the Theme of Queen Nefertete at Imago Galleries on Friday, April 4th from 5 to 7:30 pm. His plaster cast sculptures are meticulously hand-painted, and represent Warhol, Leger, Modigliani, and Stella Queens, among others. Excess “flesh” created for the plump-faced Botero Queen or the lovingly wrapped Christo Queen are just some of the humorous renditions of Nefertete drawn from Houston’s imagination.