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Ben Heller. Photo: Eric Kuhn, The East Hampton Star.
Ben Heller. Photo: Eric Kuhn, The East Hampton Star.

Ben Heller (1925–2019)

Ben Heller, a New York art collector, dealer, and early advocate of Abstract Expressionism, died on April 24 in Sharon, Connecticut. He was ninety-three years old. A longtime member of the international council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Heller was known for his holdings of work by Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt, among many others. 

In a discussion on Heller’s collection in the July 1962 issue of Artforum, John Coplans, a former editor in chief of the magazine, noted: “The Heller collection certainly seems to be one of the most magnificent. . . . For the first time, when Europeans saw this collection of paintings, they found a profoundness in American painting that they had not believed was there. They had not conceived that this kind of scale and magnificence existed in painting in America.”

When he sold Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, 1952, to the Australian National Gallery in Canberra in 1973 for $2 million, it set a ten-year record for the highest amount ever paid for an American painting. The New York art world criticized Heller for the sale of the AbEx masterwork, both for taking it out of the country and for blurring the boundary between the roles of collector and dealer.

Heller was also a writer who penned important considerations of Jasper Johns and Clyfford Still—both artists whose work he collected—and wrote the lead catalogue essay for the Jewish Museum’s 1963 exhibition “Toward a New Abstraction.” A 1990 article Heller wrote on Still in Art in America helped launch an initiative to establish a museum of the artist’s work, which opened in Denver, Colorado, in 2011. (In the March 2002 issue of Artforum, Yve-Alain Bois also credited Heller’s collection and “indefatigable insistence” for shifting the negative critical and institutional consensus on the early work of Newman.)

The Museum of Modern Art acquired many of the paintings in Heller’s collection. In an interview with the New York Times, Ann Temkin, chief curator of the museum’s painting and sculpture department, called him “an essential figure in the history of Abstract Expressionism [who] fearlessly championed the art he loved even as others found it incomprehensible.”