Remembering Si Newhouse, a ‘unique and legendary collector’
Curator, author and art historian Mark Rosenthal shares his unique insights into a man for whom collecting art was the act of falling in love again and again
I once attended a dinner party in New York City, in the early 1990s, at the home of a couple with a very choice collection of post-war art. The host was showing the knowledgeable guests through the apartment, whereupon we came to an impressive large painting by Barnett Newman that was unusual because of its sultry colouration. The host announced with pride that it had come from the renowned collection of Si Newhouse.
The statement of this legendary provenance triggered shock and questioning: ‘Why would he ever want to sell this masterpiece?’; ‘But he loved Newman’. No one had any thought that the couple had acquired Si’s ‘leavings’ because the quality of the Newman was beyond question. Rather, it was obvious that they had acquired a work of the most prestigious provenance. The Newhouse pedigree conferred the imprimatur of extraordinary taste and quality, and the assembled collectors considered the new owner exceedingly fortunate.
But the myth of the mercurial Si had been further confirmed, that is, he was a remarkable collector given to surprising actions. His name had a magical allure, replete with fascinating attributes: Si was never outbid at auction; even as he was driven to acquire the most extraordinary works, he was, nonetheless, able to easily disengage from them; Si, a captain of the media and art worlds, was nonetheless a maverick, who chose to live in a townhouse just off Lexington Avenue and then near the United Nations, rather than in the sacred art preserve bordered by Fifth and Park Avenues where he, in fact, grew up; in appearance, Si dressed in the most unprepossessing fashion, as if to deter attention. Notwithstanding all the conundrums, he was, without doubt, a unique and legendary collector.
This story contains a central aspect of Si’s collecting activities, or at least the myth of that activity. He loved the hunt, the pursuit, for the incomparable work of art. He likely felt a palpable excitement when presented with an unusual opportunity, and never left the scene unfulfilled. It is even possible to suggest he would fall in love with what he perceived to be a great work, with a pure joy in aesthetic experiences.
As opposed to the myths, there were certainly no mistaking certain aspects of his behaviour. For instance, Si had no pretensions in terms of his possessions, nor did he seem to experience fear in taking actions. Rather he was fearless.
Even as he made a conquest, Si couldn’t care less about the prestige conferred by owning the unquestioned masterpiece, nonchalantly selling without any regret at all. Whereas another collector might hold on to that highly esteemed work until death, divorce or debt separated him or her from the symbol of immortality conferred by an important works of art, Si never appeared to possess such a motivation.
In fact, he might not have fallen out of love with said work, but only to have sought to replace or supplement it with another by the same artist — witness the sheer number of paintings by Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and Andy Warhol that came into the collection and subsequently left to be replaced by others by these artists. One is tempted to conclude that Si simply enjoyed the activity of falling in love with works of art and sought to repeat that impulsive act.
1959 to 1989: Becoming Si
Si’s demanding father purchased Condé Nast publications in 1959, as an anniversary present to his wife Mitzi, who loved Vogue. Gradually Si moved into that wing of the Newhouse empire, finally taking charge in the mid 1960s. There, for the first time out from under his father’s direct supervision, Si found two other senior male figures who would highly influence him — the magnetic Alexander Liberman, Editorial Director of the magazine chain, and the captivating Leo Lerman, a Senior Editor.
The former would become the not-so-hidden power behind Si’s throne, influencing almost all major decisions, and the latter would become Si’s tutor and friend on the subjects of literature and film. As Si became comfortable at Condé Nast, he could practise his highly refined editorial instinct unseen. He began to flourish, and with his emergence he discovered another area in which his particular talents could be applied — the art world and art collecting.
This development initially occurred through the tutelage of Liberman, who introduced him to Colour Field painting, of which he himself was a practitioner; further, Liberman introduced him to Barnett Newman, the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter. Si’s friendship with Newman led to him embarking upon a steep learning curve about art, as well as the collecting and installation of it.
In the mid 1960s the new head of Condé Nast purchased a duplex penthouse on East 73rd Street, near Second Avenue, known in the vernacular of the times as a bachelor pad. Si filled the apartment to overflowing with canvases by the likes of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Newman and Mark Rothko. As he would for the rest of his life, Si greatly enjoyed installing his collection, at this time cheek-by-jowl, with one on a ceiling.
As his collection grew, Si felt the need for a larger domestic platform, whereupon he acquired, in late 1969, a townhouse, which had many large walls and considerable ceiling heights, all of which liberated him to indulge in truly auspicious major works by new additions to his collection — Johns, Newman, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Warhol, among others.
Just as competitive as he was in guiding the fortunes of Condé Nast, likewise, Si was willing to pay any price for a work he desired. For instance, in 1988, he recorded an auction record for a painting by a living artist — Jasper Johns’ False Start, acquired for $17 million. Such objects were not, for him, trophies so much as things with which he had fallen in love. The one collector for whom he expressed admiration in these years was Ileana Sonnabend, an influential art dealer, and also a significant collector.
Besides keeping up with what was being shown at the galleries, he read art books and magazines voraciously, together with volumes on a variety of subjects in part suggested by Lerman. He sought pertinent intelligence from others, including William Rubin, Director of Paintings and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, who was a font of information about who owned certain works, and David Whitney, companion of the architect, Philip Johnson, and former gallery owner, who would let Si know when he should visit Johns to see a recently completed series of paintings. Si also enjoyed the company of Andy Warhol, whose lifestyle fascinated him.
Along with all this new-found confidence as leader of Condé Nast and as a major art collector with his own taste, his new wife, Victoria, became a life partner in 1973. He shared with her the adventures of viewing art and travels in that pursuit. They enjoyed visits to provincial European museums where Si took great pleasure in discovering minor masters. Victoria recalls a time when they drove all day through a surprise snow storm in the Swiss Alps to Trieste, because Si wanted to visit the hometown of Leo Castelli, the great art dealer for a number of the artists Si prized most.
1990 onwards: New directions
In the late 1980s the townhouse was being remodelled, and Victoria found temporary quarters for the couple in an apartment in the Beekman Place area. During this transitional period, it became clear to them that living in an apartment provided greater security and services than the townhouse, whereupon they made a permanent move into the building in which they had been staying in 1990.
Although the move made enormous practical sense to them, there was a consequence that resulted in a dramatic shift in the collection and Si’s collecting habits. Previously, he had been able to acquire almost any size painting and install it in his home, whereas in the apartment, he was significantly limited by the reduced number of available walls, and especially by the much-diminished ceiling heights.
Si never sold because of dramatic changes in his taste, nor due to financial reverses at Condé Nast. Moreover, he had not made large-scale sales during their two decades in the townhouse. All of the sales, of which there were many during the early 1990s, came about because of the physical constraints of their new apartment. Si did not define himself through the ownership of notable works of art; he simply adapted to these new self-imposed circumstances in a realistic, practical way.
Si gave up a prestigious position at MoMA to gain ownership of Picasso’s Man with Guitar
Not long after these events, in 2000, Si would acquire a small but important Mondrian from 1921. Indeed, to replace paintings by Johns, Newman, Rauschenberg and Warhol that he sold, he acquired slightly smaller ones by the same artists. Indicating no diminution in his ardour, for instance, in 1998 he paid just over $17 million for Orange Marilyn by Warhol, the highest price paid at that time for the artist.
In place of a vertical, 8ft-high Pollock, Number 5 (1948), that he had sold along with other works to the Los Angeles collector David Geffen in 1991, he acquired a horizontal canvas by Pollock of the same year, Number 7A. This last acquisition occurred in 2000, about a decade after the Geffen sale, and indicates Si’s persistent nature and characteristic commitment to an artist’s work.
In place of his deaccessioned works by Johns, he acquired in total at least eight more paintings, half of which were from the artist’s formative late 1950s period. Rothko proved impossible in this sort of quest because the great canvases were all too large for the apartment. Adding to the extraordinary breadth of the collection during the period in their apartment near the East River, Si acquired, for example, spectacularly significant works by Willem de Kooning in 1996, Arshile Gorky in 1999, and Cy Twombly, in 1999.
Even as he had taken on the challenge of finding smaller works by his favourite artists, Si was expanding the collection in new directions, including pioneer modernists. His quest in this direction had begun in 1988, with the auspicious Mondrian acquisition as well as with sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Henri Matisse. But the lynchpin to a new concentrated effort was triggered when Si visited an exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s watercolours at the Acquavella Gallery in New York, in 1999. So moved was he, Si dove into collecting early modern masters in a breathtaking flurry of purchases.
From 1999 through to 2005, he acquired important works by Constantin Brâncu?i, Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso, as well as additional works by Giacometti and Matisse. In the case of his 1913 canvas by Picasso, Man with Guitar, Si gave up a prestigious position to gain ownership of it. In 2000, the Museum of Modern Art planned to deaccession the Picasso, and Si wanted it. Because he was a member of the Board of Trustees and the museum had a rule against a board member acquiring a deaccessioned work, Si decided to leave this august body in order to chase his quarry.
Another Picasso acquisition gives a sense of how he acted in auction settings. In 2001, Si wanted to acquire Head of a Man at Christie’s, a Cubist gouache of 1909. Because he feared not having effective telephonic communication to bid from a location in Germany, he decided to place a ‘book bid’ on the work. He left a bid that was about three times the high estimate; then, just the day before departing for Europe, he increased it to approximately four times the high end of the range suggested by Christie’s. Si said that this bid would ensure there was no slip-up; he wanted to know the Picasso would become his.
Because he hated what he considered old-fashioned frames, he even had his favourite framer make a replacement for the gouache — this in advance of the auction — so that on his return from Europe, the work would immediately be available and delivered to his home to be installed.
Post-war figurative English art became an obsession, as Si layered interests one over the other and the other. He had acquired his first painting by Lucian Freud in 1993, but then went on to acquire four more between 1997 and 2008. Falling in love with the art of Francis Bacon, he acquired three canvases between 1997 and 2007.
For many decades, even as he was acquiring what one might term contemporary and modern masters, Si had been looking at and buying the work of younger artists. He and Victoria made Saturday outings to favourite galleries, spurred to see what they had either read about or seen, or to follow the careers of artists already present in the collection.
To give a sense of Si’s interests in this area, here are just the artists whose presence comprise at least three objects in the collection: Lee Bontecou, Michaël Borremans, John Currin, Raoul de Keyser, Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton, Richard Prince, Neo Rauch, David Salle, Wilhelm Sasnal, Luc Tuymans, John Wesley, and Lisa Yuskavage. (There are many more whose work Si collected, too.) Adding to these interests, Si began collecting cartoon strip drawings starting in 1987, including Krazy Kat and R. Crumb, and movie posters in 1992. Thus does one gain a sense of the stew that this fiercely independent aesthete had created.
The real Si
Si adored installing and reinstalling walls and rooms in his apartment, showing in the process that art-historical compartmentalisation might give way to aesthetic derring-do. He pointedly juxtaposed Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) with Picasso’s Pregnant Woman (1950). The two are of a similar scale and could be viewed in a line from one to the other across a broad space in the apartment. This wildly exciting act of installation risk existed alongside another type of fantastic ‘a-ha’ moment in the dining room, where Si placed a great early de Kooning Woman opposite a large Pollock or, on occasion, a Twombly Bolsena painting of 1969.
Elsewhere, abstraction with figuration might be his point. For another aesthetic kick, he arrayed a range of portraits: Warhol’s Marilyn with a sombre Freud, a convulsed Bacon, and an unsettling Currin. Such was Si’s approach: he seemed to have little interest in being a talent scout, but, instead, loved masterpieces and trying out new candidates for such exalted status.
All layers of his collecting could co-exist, with individual works competing for interest, or challenging for the approbation of ‘holding up’. Si knew that the act of installation was imbued with the possibility of reinvigoration and discovery. Indeed, he argued with gusto that a Fairfield Porter portrait belonged in his pantheon.
Si was always a loner in how he went about pursuing his art interests, except to have Victoria at his side. He considered opinions, but made his own decisions. One might generously compare him to an artist who has multiple acts of reinvention. And like an artist, Si had no sentimentality about past phases of his collecting life, only excitement about that which currently engaged him.
Here was an inherently modest — even shy — man, who went about navigating the incredibly public arenas of art and the media business. Whereas the latter was necessarily a very visible place, the former gave Si space to be his own man, in private. Collecting art had a profoundly personal dimension for him. One might say that Si’s success in the media world was notable, but Victoria modified that impression. It was as an art collector, she says, that Si felt he measured up to his father and achieved something great. It is very difficult to argue against that point.