House Calls

New York

Left: Christy MacLear, executive director of Philip Johnson Glass House, with collector Susan Bishop. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Collector Douglas Maxwell. (Photo: David Velasco)

The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, will open to the public for the first time this spring. You’ll finally be able to have dinner there—for fifty thousand dollars. Or a reception on the grounds for twenty-five thousand. On Friday evening, a cocktail party marked the occasion in another still-stunning modern landmark, the Four Seasons Restaurant, the kind of glamorous, adult event that would make any schlub feel like they are in a New Yorker cartoon. The Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson–designed ambience was supersexy: a midcentury masterpiece with booze. Though the room was filled with suits I didn’t recognize, I enjoyed it immensely. Parking myself on the vintage Mies banquette, I wound up chatting with a couple of architects from RISD (we admired the Richard Lippold stalactite over the bar and discussed precocious schmoozers: One of their students had his picture taken with Johnson and then displayed it on the wall during each of his crits), fellow ink-stained wretches (from the Times and the Paris Review), and a chap from Knoll (“Artforum. I used to get it. A bit dense, no?”). This June, an inaugural gala picnic at the Glass House that will feature the Merce Cunningham Dance Company restaging its 1967 performance promises to be fabulous.

The next day, I made another house call. The collector’s “open house” is a strangely denatured social situation. As a yenta intrigued by other people’s stuff, I find them irresistible. Art collecting is perhaps the most esteemed form of shopping in our culture today. Thanks to the Armory Show, several big art accumulators in town graciously “open their homes” so other Armory-affiliated VIPs can check out their stuff. Here’s the protocol: You show up and wander around their art-filled pad strictly for connoisseurship purposes—sometimes the collectors make themselves available for chitchat and offer coffee, sometimes not—all the while pretending not to notice that what you’re really marveling at is the money that enables these people to live in their own private kunsthalles. It’s a passive-aggressive display of conspicuous consumption exalted by the noble calling of art patronage. Who could resist? These people are to contemporary art what Imelda Marcos was to shoes.

On Saturday morning, Douglas Maxwell “opened his home” (a phrase I heard several times when fellow collectors thanked him for graciously doing so). Dr. Maxwell is a psychoanalyst with a “full twenty-hour load” of sessions each week. He also teaches a class called “The Contemporary Art Experience” at NYU (Continuing Ed.) and has curated exhibitions as well. He, his objets, and his practice occupy three floors in the sleek converted loft building he owns in the West Village. I liked to imagine his analysands’ free associations funding the entire superswanky operation, but I seriously doubt that.

Anyway, in Maxwell’s kitchen, near a wall piece that looked like a head in a bag, we kibbitzed with another collector in from London. “Unlike analysis and curating,” said our trim, affable host, “collecting is a passion . . . an affliction, really! It’s personal. I trust my unconscious. I don’t want to explain why a piece grabs me. This collection reflects my eye.” I noticed his squarish Gucci frames as a Mozart symphony softly serenaded us. “When people come here I don’t want them to like everything! I don’t follow fads. Absolutely not. I don’t buy as an investment—though the Robert Gobers at this point are like transferring assets . . .” An affliction? “I always go to an art fair with no money and I don’t want to like anything!” he confessed. “Then I leave with like five or six pieces.” I can relate. I do the same thing all the time at H&M!

Left: Samantha Boardman Rosen and Aby Rosen. Right: Michele Oka Doner. (Photos: David Velasco)

Passing through a white-walled, high-ceilinged foyer that opened onto a big, bright main space with nondescript furniture—one of those ICA-like spaces clearly all about the art—I was struck by the preponderance of dismembered body parts amongst the art specimens displayed almost clinically in this luxe, antiseptic environment: a large, processed photo of a woman “knitting” half a baby (working from the feet up to the torso); a clear, plastic, body-shaped bag hung limply from the wall near a sign that said DO NOT TOUCH THE ART. In a niche, a Gober news clipping reported on a man who intentionally sawed off his own hand. Lots of floor pieces: a knitted, Goberesque hairy leg, with sock and shoe; an eensy little mouse-hole door, with steps, framing the message STOP CRYING, DON’T BE A BABY; a faux “weed” sprouted from the spotless white wall a few steps away from Freud and Josef Breuer’s Studien über Hysterie as a tote bag. (“It’s a real oil painting.”) Tons of stuff.

I asked Maxwell to put on his analyst’s hat: “What drives the urge to collect?” “Well, there’s an obsessive component, for sure.” He sees himself as a caretaker of the art and added that's why he allows groups to come in and see the stuff. Walter Benjamin talked about “ownership” as the most profound, mystical relation to the object, I observed. “Well, I’m very proprietary, that’s for sure.” Maxwell described two recent mishaps, when pieces were damaged. One arm piece that extended out from the wall fell on the floor, and a foot-tall golemlike figure peering around a corner had to be redone. In both cases, the artists “are friends” and were happy to help.

Later in the day, a veteran artist pal ranted about a prevalent mode of art collecting and the weird effect it produces of schlock, sterility, and wealth: “We’re in a denatured world. Doesn’t Slavoj Žižek say we want things 'decaffeinated'? Like chocolate without sugar, coffee without caffeine. It’s like Paris Hilton! You know it’s thousands and thousands of dollars, but it looks trashy, like some schmatte she got from the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. But they do that to art. It gets the imprimatur of one of them, then they all have to have it. It’s like a Lexus. When your work can’t be colonized like that, it’s difficult to find a market. Your market niche,” she cackled.

A weary German guy and a perky, polished lady, clearly art-fair regulars, bonded with our host. “Do you know so-and-so in London?” the lady beamed at Maxwell like he was a cute puppy. “She has some similar things. How do you keep track of it all?” “It’s all in here,” he points to his head. “I have pieces here, in storage, in Europe . . .” They agreed that Basel is the best fair and that Skulptur Projekte Münster is great to do by bike.

As I headed for the exit, two lady VIPs of a certain age rushed in, “Douglas!” they ran to hug him. “This is so hot!”

Rhonda Lieberman

Left: Visionaire's James Kaliardos with Studio Museum chief curator Thelma Golden. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Robert Bishop and Woodson Duncan. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)