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Collecting from the Heart
So noisy was the battling by educational commentators and political pundits last spring over Yale’s decision to return Lee Bass’s $20 million that news of an even larger donation to the University went almost unnoticed.
On the occasion of a show at the University Art Gallery entitled “Collecting with Richard Brown Baker, from Pollock to Lichtenstein,” Yale officials announced that the collector, a member of the Yale College Class of 1935, had given 14 paintings and sculptures, most of them on display and valued by Sotheby’s at roughly $25 million, to Yale. The gift includes major works by Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Motherwell, as well as by Jean Dubuffet, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, Willem de Kooning, Jim Dine, and Cy Twombly. And those are just for openers. Shortly afterwards, Baker, who began collecting art in 1941, also revealed his intention to bequeath to Yale at least 1,600 additional paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works by such lesser-known artists as Sue Walls, Steven Assael, Joseph McNamara, and Eric Stotik. Taken as a whole, the collection might justify a museum of its own, but by adding it to Yale’s already powerful modern holdings, Baker has raised the Gallery to new heights.
“Richard Brown Baker has sought, and sought, and sought with the most wonderful eye, and he’s put together an extraordinary collection,” says Sotheby’s director of contemporary paintings Robert E. Monk, who appraised the artwork. Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a former curator at the Yale Gallery, concurs. “This would be a great acquisition for any museum in the country,” says Stebbins. “It’s a unique capsule history of contemporary art.”
But Baker’s collection also contains abundant material whose significance has yet to be determined, and it is those works, says Stebbins, that may make the bequest even more valuable. “Tastes are always changing, and art that is considered minor now may be major in the future,” he says. As an example, he cites the rusted steel sculptures of Richard Stankiewicz, which were done in the 1950s and are well-represented among Baker’s holdings. Based on Baker’s record of picking winners, Stankiewicz is very likely to have his day.
Perhaps the best proof of the collector’s past prescience is Jackson Pollock’s Number 13A, 1948. In 1955, when Baker purchased Arabesque, as the kinetic painting is popularly known, the artist’s reputation was anything but secure. Once the brightest star on the New York art scene, which was then the heart of the artistic universe, Pollock was being nudged off center stage by Willem de Kooning. Baker was not swayed. “The moment I saw it [Arabesque], I was enchanted,” he wrote in the diary he has kept since he was a teenager. “I am quick to make up my mind about pictures and rarely reverse my judgment. It seemed to me an unquestioned opportunity and I took it.”
Damn the critics, full speed ahead.
The painting, which he bought for $2,500, would now fetch, experts estimate, in excess of $8 million on the open market. The Pollock is only the most dramatic example of Baker’s shot-calling. Years ago, he bought a number of Roy Lichtenstein prints for $5 each, and purchased Lichtenstein’s Blam!, which is now considered a major work by the artist, for $1,000. Baker bought a Jim Dine painting for $31.66, and a Motherwell for $800. An Alexander Calder sculpture he purchased for $1,600 is now worth an estimated $250,000, and the Franz Kline painting called Wanamaker Block that cost the collector $2,000 in 1956 has an estimated value of $3 million today. But artistic, rather than financial, gain has always been Baker’s goal. “I’ve never sold anything,” he says. “I pride myself on not making a profit on art.” Explaining the fact that he has assembled his riches without the help of great family wealth, he says, simply: “I buy at the bottom of the market, and I collect work by contemporary artists who are not very well established.”
According to Susan Vogel, who became director of the Yale Art Gallery last spring after serving as the founding director of Manhattan’s Museum for African Art, “It’s not that great wealth can’t produce great collections. Obviously, it can. But the best collections I have known were not formed with fortunes. They have come from people obsessed with art who collect out of sheer passion; Richard is the exemplar of the collector.” That view is shared by Carol Craven, director of the Tatistcheff Gallery in New York City, who has had extensive dealings with Baker over the years. Collectors “love the pursuit, and when they fall in love with an artist’s work, they are almost insatiable,” Craven says. ”They really enjoy ‘living’ with artists by having the work in their homes, and they love to watch artistic growth and development.”
Vogel is quick to distinguish the activities of Baker and others who have given works of art to the Gallery from mere hoarding and accumulating. “For starters, collecting is systematic,” she explains. “It has a clear sense of what part of the terrain it’s going to cover.”
In a 1955 journal entry, Baker described the territory he planned to explore. “I decided that I would henceforth concentrate on the new post-war art, the art created since 1945, because I shared [the] view that it was more exciting, helpful, and challenging to buy the work of the living, the young, the unestablished,” he wrote. “I decided to ignore the artists (for price reasons) whose reputations had been achieved in pre-war years.”
In the beginning, Baker gravitated toward the American abstract expressionists who were showing their work in New York, and he kept a careful and systematic record of everything he bought, starting with accession number 1.1941.1, an Adolf Dehn watercolor that cost him $150. (The most recent entry, 1633.1995.11, is a realistic Bill Vuksanovich colored pencil drawing called Young Boy in Jeans and Sweatshirt, for which the collector paid more than $7,000.)
Early on, says Vogel, Baker also displayed another key characteristic of his discipline. “A real collector, unlike a hoarder, makes the collection public. Richard has done this from the beginning, constantly inviting people back to the apartment to look at what he’s collected and lending to exhibitions across the country.”
By donating his works to Yale, Baker has, according to Vogel, both fulfilled his own intentions and joined a tradition of contributing to what she describes as “a collection of collections.” The tradition began in 1832 with the opening of the Trumbull Gallery, which was formed around a collection of paintings from John Trumbull, a distinguished artist whose most famous work is The Declaration of Independence. The holdings were enlarged considerably when James Jackson Jarves added his collection of Italian art to the Gallery in 1871, and throughout the 20th century, the institution—while making an occasional purchase on its own—has relied ever more heavily on the generosity of collectors. One of the most notable additions arrived in 1941 when Katherine S. Dreier gave Yale the Société Anonyme Collection, a veritable treasure trove of early 20th-century modern art. Vogel considers the Baker collection to be a continuation of the Dreier “time line,” giving students and scholars alike access to holdings that now run the entire gamut of this century’s artistic output.
According to Baker, collecting came naturally. “I consider it an inherited quality,” he says. “It definitely runs in the family.”
Indeed, his father gathered up azaleas and Swedish china. His sister and his great aunts rummaged back-country New England for antiques. Following in the Baker tradition, Richard, who grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, began collecting pennies as a youngster, gradually added dimes, nickels, and quarters to his purview, and, as a Yale undergraduate, became a serious book collector. (In addition to art, he also collects stones and Chinese boxes, and when asked whether a handsome display of figurines in his apartment represented the core of another collection, he said, “I suppose it does.”)
Surprisingly, perhaps, Baker did not study art or art history while he was at Yale. Instead, the self-proclaimed Anglophile majored in English literature, a love he acquired as a teen when, during a year-long convalescence for a heart condition, family members took turns reading to him from Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Trollope, Boswell, and other masters. “The classics were poured into me,” he says.
The art connection was probably made when Baker was 16 and, accompanied by his mother, toured the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London. That interest was further strengthened at Oxford where, as a Rhodes scholar studying politics, economics, and philosophy, Baker would dine at Christ Church College under the watchful eyes of the portraits that graced the old hall. “A lot of my art background comes simply from living with good art,” Baker explains.
In 1938, he returned to the United States and worked as a reporter for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. For $20 a week, Baker wrote fillers and obituaries, proofread the editorial page, and reported on such mundane events as school fundraisers for the USO. Small wonder that when an opportunity arose—even though it meant a salary reduction (to $50 a month)—to serve as the private secretary to Ambassador Alexander Weddell, U.S. envoy to Spain, Baker jumped at the chance.
With the Nazis consuming Europe in 1940, Baker helped American refugees reach safety in Spain. The experience whetted his appetite for government service and, exempt from military duty because of his earlier heart problem, he spent the war years working for the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., and in London.
In 1941 on a visit home to Providence, Baker bought his first work of art, a Dehn watercolor called Sopris Peak. “It appealed to me, and it wasn’t terribly expensive,” he recalls, citing the two threads that have woven his collection together.
After the war, Baker settled in Washington, where he served as a research analyst, first for the State Department and then for the Central Intelligence Agency. In his spare time, he frequented the Washington galleries and began amassing a modest collection of paintings.
Through it all, Baker hoped to turn the events captured in his by-now voluminous journals (particularly those that covered 1944, “the year of the buzz bomb” in London) into a novel. With a modest inheritance and with his father’s encouragement, he resigned his CIA post in 1952 and moved to New York City. “I went there to write,” he says, “not to establish myself in the art world. In a sense, I consider myself a failure in life.”
The novel has yet to be written, but while Baker wrestled with the written word in the early 1950s, he discovered another career path. He had done some painting himself and, given his interest in art, he was naturally drawn to the city’s vibrant gallery scene. “It didn’t cost anything to look,” he says.
To learn more about art history, Baker attended lectures at the Museum of Art and the Art Students’ League, and to improve his painting skills, he studied with Hans Hofmann at the artist’s summer studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. (Baker rates his own efforts at a 72 out of 1007 and confesses that he has not picked up a brush since 1961.) Entranced with the artistic output of his generation, he began buying their work “before they became household names.”
Among the early purchases was a painting by Franz Kline, which Baker gave to the Gallery last December, and a Josef Albers, purchased for $25.00 from a wholesale grocer who ran art shows on the side. “The more I bought, the more I knew my own taste,” he says, “and at some point, I began to consider myself a genuine collector of post–World War II art.”
With the exception of the Albers and a handful of work purchased directly from its creators, the vast majority of Baker’s acquisitions have come from galleries. “There are millions of paintings out there,” he says, “and the best dealers have the ability to select only work from extremely good artists.”
For Baker, the galleries have served as a kind of artistic filter; respecting their judgment, he does not attempt to “deal” on price (the most he has ever paid was $52,000 for George Segal’s 1986 sculpture, Standing Nude with Chair). That characteristic alone would, no doubt, endear him to art dealers, but according to the Tatistcheff’s Carol Craven, the Richard Brown Baker admiration society is much more than checkbook deep. “He’s a gentleman in the finest old-world tradition,” says Craven, who has worked with Baker for the last five years and introduced him to the art of Steven Assael, who is currently high on his list of favorites. “Richard’s totally charming, he has an enormous range of interests, and his responses to art are always dead-on. He picks the best.”
Precisely how he does it is something of a mystery. Asked during an interview in his New York apartment what he looked for in a work of art, Baker surveyed his eclectic holdings—which include a dazzling array of objects, from Luis Jimenez’s fiberglass and epoxy sculpture Cyclist to Joseph McNamara’s ultrarealistic oil painting Boatyard II—and repeated several times, with increasing heat, “I don’t know.”
Sotheby’s Robert Monk is not surprised at the collector’s inability to pin down the nature of his vision. Most artists can’t do it either, he explains. “Each thing Baker has collected is brilliant in its own intuitive way,” says Monk. “There’s no common thread.” Except, he adds, Baker’s “intuitive perception.” It is, he says, a “great human quality that can be honed by the arts, but one that is almost impossible to deconstruct.”
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