October 20, 2014

The Collector's Eye

For a true collector, the passion often begins early. Such is the case with one long-established Naples arts leader whose two-story villa reflects an eclectic boldness, a fondness for strong color, and a willingness to explore new tastes and directions.

"I've been a collector since I was eight years old," she says. "My grandmother was a very unusual woman, self-educated, who spoke nine languages. She always took me to galleries and museums, and when we were looking at pieces to acquire, she'd ask me, 'Angel, what do you want?' I fall in love with art. I don't have a lot, but what I have I treasure."

And she knows what she wants. Whether it's the large Arman piece employing squeezed red paint tubes that hangs in her foyer (which she spotted in the Collector's Corner of the Naples Philharmonic Center) or an authentic Biedermeier sofa picked up at La Rocco Galleries in Naples, this collector trusts her eye and isn't afraid to pair items others might think would clash.

"Most people wouldn't put a Helen Frankenthaler painting near Biedermeier furniture," she admits. "But I like it. And when Frankenthaler visited me, she liked it, too."

She also doesn't hesitate to change things around and eliminate when she must. "I think that all of us who collect have too much, and every so often there has to be a weeding party," she explains. "I take down things a lot and put them away for a while; you should, particularly with works on paper." "

She certainly did that when moving into her villa 13 years ago. Originally from the Chicago area, she discarded much of the art and antiques she and her late husband had collected before her move to Naples. "The artists I have living with me now," she says with a smile, "are mostly people I know, who show up in my life. And I think of them and our times together when I look at their work."

Since she purchased her Naples home pre-construction, she was able to make changes and additions to the design that would best show off her acquisitions. Most dramatic is the two-story cathedral ceiling with skylights over the living room. Poised against the reinforced glass railing upstairs, one can take in the sweep of the setting below, from the Dunbar couch the owner had redone in red to the equally red Alexander Calder mobile hanging above it to a large Wolf Kahn abstract painting done in yellow, green and purple. Kahn's purple, in fact, dictated the rich purple shade of the living room walls.

"I'm a strong color person," says the homeowner. "I love it, and I just try it." In the sunroom she had added on near her outdoor courtyard, yellow dominates what she calls her "hodgepodge room," where an African tribal mask mingles with a family of sculpted figures from Bali and a painting of figures and flowers by Bernd Cohen from the 1920s. Of the latter artist, she recalls, "I had lunch with him and his wife at their home in Florida. He opened a special bottle of wine for us, and I decided I had to buy something. The piece I chose had special meaning for them both, but they conferred and agreed I could have it."

In the dining area, the yellow continues, as does the juxtaposition of periods and pieces: a 1930s Hans Hofmann painting adjacent to a 1720s cabinet from England; one of Jim Dine's bathrobe prints near a 1925 French dining room table; a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of an African-American male figure hanging over the small wet bar next to a Sadie Rosenblum work showing Russian dancing girls; and a contemporary chair carved from a piece of spruce by a Brazilian artist that features raised green trees and a blue stream flowing down the back.

"To look at these pieces, this way, pleases me," the owner says simply. And she's particularly pleased with her latest finds: a lovely green glass vessel by Daum, from the Art Nouveau period, with ironwork by Louis Majorelle, carefully placed on a Biedermeier chest with mirror; and an exquisite 1920s French bronze and silver chandelier designed by Petitot that she says "makes the room come alive."

Even the kitchen is a cache for one of her newer loves: the red and gold Versace china she collects on trips abroad. "A Romanian artist in Salzburg introduced me to the china," she says. "He insisted I buy a piece, but I didn't, and then I thought about it all the way home and ended up ordering it when I got back. That started me on the path to that particular sin," she says.

Of late she's also found herself acquiring more of the 1920s-era furniture she admires for "its straightness of line, its simplicity. And it goes with other things well-although I don't necessarily think of how a piece will fit in or where it's going to go when I buy it," she says.

One of the furniture buys she's proudest of is a long, functional bookcase by Bruno Paul, an early 20th-century German architect and furniture designer who counted Mies van der Rohe among his pupils. Like several other pieces the collector owns, it's made of an ebonized African wood that the hand simply longs to touch. And it fits with the four original Mies chairs the owner has grouped nearby-as well as with the 1982 Frank Stella painting that hangs over it.

Upstairs, overlooking the living room, one can sit at a '20s-era Hoffman table and chairs from Austria (with the original removable tray top intact, a rarity) while admiring a large, handmade paper clown by Joan Hammond and a 1930s watercolor by an artist named Starkweather that has a special sentimental meaning for its owner because she remembers how she "scraped together the money" to buy it in her early days of collecting back in Chicago.

In general, she refuses to be bound by such sentiment, feeling free to exchange works as her tastes change. In fact, she recently said farewell to four Civil War-era chairs she'd had for some time. But there are some pieces she says she'd never part with: that Daum vase ("it's the newest child, and besides, I could never replace it; there's only one like it") and the Bruno Paul bookcase ("the African ebony pieces are just important to me") among them.

But don't count on her divesting herself any time soon of the tiny 1400s-era Bodoni etching of St. John the Baptist that hangs in one bathroom, the large, bright painting of two women standing on the seashore by Gullah artist Jonathan Green, or the Miro hanging in the hallway titled The Good Organizer. That last piece might have autobiographical overtones for a woman who manages to organize vastly different art forms and styles into one aesthetically pleasing and emotionally satisfying whole. 

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