MARYLAND COLLECTORS Enthusiasm for works of art puts old masters, newcomers on the walls of area homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jerry Sherman gets excited about art. He can talk about it for hours at a time. He sometimes gets so excited it's counterproductive.

One of his favorite artists is the Italian Mimmo Paladino, and recently at a Chicago art fair he saw a 1989 collage called "Cherubini" by Paladino. "I thought it was fabulous. I went wild. I jumped all over the place like a kid in a candy store. I thought later the price probably went up $5,000 then and there." He bought it subsequently from the same dealer at an art fair in Basel, Switzerland, "after crazy types of negotiations," and it became the fifth Paladino in his collection.

Another Maryland collector, who wishes to be anonymous, has a collection whose concentration on early 20th century avant garde art -- cubism, futurism, constructivism, suprematism, de Stijl -- is so thoughtful that one imagines the collector must be an art scholar. But he didn't start out that way, more than 20 years ago.

"I moved out of a modern house of glass and stone that didn't need art on the walls and into this house with lots of plaster walls, and portrait lights over the mantelpieces." So he figured he needed some art.

"I went to a dealer in New York and said I wanted a painting. He asked me what I wanted. I said, 'I don't know, but it has to be 23 by 19 inches.'

"He said, 'Nobody buys a painting that way.' "

Jim and Suzie Hill, who have been a collecting team since the 1960s, have art all over their modest house -- so much art that it won't all fit on their walls. Works by Leonard Baskin, Paul Markus and Leonard Koscianski rest on the floor in the dining room. A photograph by Connie Imboden occupies a chair in the living room. The Hills go on buying, but they don't sell.

"We may give some things to museums and schools and leave instructions for some things to be sold after our deaths," says Mr. Hill. But "the work has not done anything to disabuse us of it. We would not sell it for money."

Collecting thrives

Yes, Virginia, there are still collectors out there.

It may seem that the great days of art collecting are all in thpast, with the results housed in museums: Henry Walters, at the turn of the century, buying 900 works of art at a crack for his encyclopedic collection; the Cone sisters buying works directly from the studios of the 20th century's greatest artists, Picasso and Matisse, for a collection that became part of the Baltimore Museum of Art's family tree -- which ranges from Mary Frick Jacobs' old masters to the Wurtzburger and Levi sculpture gardens.

Maybe something of those heady days is gone, but fortunately collecting never stops.

There's no telling the number of collectors in Maryland at thitime, from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, whose legendary collection of classic contemporary art (Johns, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, etc.) has been promised to Washington's National Gallery, to the typical local collector characterized by BMA curator Jay Fisher as the person who "collects until the walls are full and stops."

These collectors' interests include everything from old master to abstract expressionists and from painting and sculpture to photographs and artists' books. Recently, three of them allowed a peek at their treasures, showing three very different interests.

Compulsion to collect

Jerry and Gilda Sherman's home is a neutral background for art: gray walls, gray floors, gray furniture, glass-topped tables. "In decorating the house we wanted to have it subordinated to art as much as possible," says Mr. Sherman. "We took a couple of years in the living room to even add a few pillows." One doesn't notice the pillows too much when right in the middle of the living room is an enormous sculpture by Nancy Graves, called "Gravilev." It looks like the skeleton of a dinosaur and demonstrates the artist's "interest in history and prehistory," says Mr. Sherman.

This is one of the collection's 11 works by Graves, a major enthusiasm of Mr. Sherman, whose collection of contemporary art is mainly but not exclusively figurative, with holdings of certain artists in depth. "I always try to acquire more than one example of an artist, to get a greater sense of the artistic development." Other things, though, are completely unplanned -- they just happen.

"Someone asked me, 'Why do you collect women artists?' I don't, though I have works by a number of women artists, some in depth -- Nancy Graves, Mary Frank, Melissa Miller, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Deborah Butterfield -- but I've never collected by gender."

In fact, although the Shermans travel extensively in this country and Europe, Mr. Sherman says he never looks for the particular item. "I never went looking for [specific] artwork and I don't today."

Gaining visual literacy

Although he says "I imagine I always paid some attention to aesthetics even before I knew the word," he started collecting seriously about 18 years ago. At first, "I was naive, I made mistakes, I got ripped off on some pieces. Then I got interested in Rufino Tamayo [the 20th century Mexican painter and muralist]. That was not the first thing I acquired, but it was something in italics, real art.

"Then we met Klaus Perls, a real dealer, who got us going, more me at the time and later Gilda." Mr. Sherman thinks "there are a lot of sellers in the art world, but not a lot of informed dealers." Perls, also an art historian, was one, and he helped Mr. Sherman to develop "a certain aesthetic sensibility." That also involved spending "hundreds and hundreds of hours museum-going, reading, and going to auctions" to acquire what he calls "visual literacy."

Like other collectors, he didn't set out to be a collector: "I didn't know the disease was so fatal."

Fatal enough that now the collection numbers about 100 works, but, also like other collectors, he says "numbers are not important." Rather, individual artists and individual works are important to him. One of his favorites is the American-English artist R.B. Kitaj. Standing in front of a wall of four Kitajs, including three pastels, he speaks of how "Kitaj may handle pastels as close to Degas as anybody -- even his oils look like pastels." Turning to the Kitaj painting called "The Immoralist," Mr. Sherman speaks of its antecedents in the Gide novel of the same name and in a John Singer Sargent chalk drawing, and of the influence of T.S. Eliot on Kitaj.

He is equally responsive to Melissa Miller's "surreal and symbolist metaphors for human concerns." But he also responds to the "gaps and pulls of paint" in a completely abstract work by Gerhard Richter, and one whole living room wall is given over to a series of prints by the minimalist Donald Judd.

His response isn't all serious, either. Standing in front of a creamy, pastel-colored painting by Francesco Clemente, he says its "luscious field makes me think of Baskin-Robbins; I want to take a lick."

The compulsion to collect, Mr. Sherman thinks, comes from "love of creation, love of beauty, and wanting to live with some of it."

Price-conscious collectors

Jim and Suzie Hill describe their collecting impulse somewhat the same way. "We both looked at art when we were young," says Mr. Hill, "and it seemed a natural progression to buying -- from looking on museum walls to looking on our own walls."

Like the Shermans' collection, the Hills' is both contemporary and figurative. But it's largely (though by no means entirely) made up of prints, which, because they are multiples, cost far less than paintings by the same artists. What above all characterizes the Hills as collectors is that they have put together a large collection of art with the relatively modest means of a middle-class working couple -- he is a teacher, she is a librarian. Unlike the stereotype of art collectors, the Hills can't buy in the five and six figures.

"We couldn't go $10,000 for anything in a million years," says Mr. Hill. They have paid $3,000 for a work, they have at times fallen so much in love with a work that they have borrowed to pay for it, but they have also bought art for $25 and $50.

They have works by well-known artists. Alex Katz is their favorite and they have seven works in different media including a painting, a drawing, a cutout and four prints. They also have works by, among others, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close, Bruce Nauman, Alexander Calder, Grace Hartigan.

But a significant part of the collection consists of works by artists they have found in the communities where they have lived and who cannot be called big names: Tom Toner, an artist working in St. Louis when the Hills lived there in the 1960s; Acha Debela and Skunder Boghossian, African artists whose works they found at Morgan State; Thomas Lewis, a social protester who was one of the Catonsville 9 back in the 1960s and who has made art in prison; Connie Imboden, Carmen Robb, Stephen John Phillips, James Voshell.

Not for sale

Since they have no interest in selling their art, they don't buy for investment purposes.

"We will buy something we really love even though we know another thing will appreciate two to three times," says Mr. Hill. The other side of that coin is that they don't even intend to sell one print now worth 15 times what they paid for it.

And they don't, they say, collect with any particular plan in mind. "We don't collect stamps, so we don't have to have a set," says Mrs. Hill. "We don't have to fill in the gaps."

In terms of how they buy, "We both tend to react emotionally, and it's a visual response, it's not very intellectual," Mr. Hill says. "We don't try to figure out what things mean." The husband's taste, they both say, is narrower than the wife's. "I think I can enjoy abstract and minimalist art more than Jim," she says. And he acknowledges that "I have a strong figurative and expressionistic taste."

As they both respond to that kind of work, the collection tends in that direction; it also includes a strain of socially conscious art, such as prints from Sue Coe's "Porkopolis" series about animal slaughtering.

The Hills began buying art in the mid-1960s, and realized they were collectors "probably when we started to have more than one thing by an artist, and probably with Katz," says Mr. Hill. "We started using the word collect about him in the late 1970s. We also started going to more galleries."

They have bought from about 15 galleries, mostly in New York but also in Baltimore and Washington, and Mr. Hill's advice to beginning collectors is quite pragmatic. "Be price-conscious. We were, from the very beginning." That means find out what things cost even if you don't intend to buy them; it also means deal. "We pay cash," says Mr. Hill, "and for anything over $500 we expect a discount."

He also advises, "Read as much as possible in art journals. Read everything, not just about prints and photos, or 20th century art. If you don't have a lot of money, one of the worst things is to look just at prints. If you do that, you learn technique, but not art. Our big love is art."

Extraordinary collection

A love of art that began in one direction and later grew in another is reflected by the holdings of a collector who started out, he disarmingly admits, "with no knowledge, awareness, established direction or taste."

As he began to learn, his taste ran to impressionism "because it was easiest, most understandable and pleasing at the visceral level." He built a collection of 19th century impressionists, and pre- and post-impressionists, with a surprise here and there, such as a pastel by the symbolist Odilon Redon.

A Gauguin sketch

His living room is filled with this collection, including two paintings by Monet (one of which was in the celebrated 1990 show of Monet series paintings at the Boston Museum of Art), works by Corot, Courbet, Boudin, Renoir, Pissarro, and items by less familiar names: an oil by Lucien Pissarro, the son of Camille; a pointillist painting by Maximilien Luce, "La Cuisine," which is also, its owner says, "a work of protest against the condition of servitude of women." This part of the collection is rounded out by a Gauguin sketch, an early van Gogh drawing, a small Cezanne watercolor study.

Two small Picassos

Then, just at the doorway from the living room to the rest of the house, there are two small Picasso drawings, one pre-cubist from 1902 and one cubist from 1912. As thoughtfully placed as everything else, they provide the perfect transition to the rest of the collection, devoted to avant-garde movements of the early 20th century.

These are roughly divided into three groups. The first is cubism (Braque, Leger, Gris) and what followed more or less directly, including futurism (Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla) and lesser known movements such as orphism (Frantisek Kupka) and purism (Amedee Ozenfant). Then there is a group of works by artists related to the Bauhaus, including Klee and Kandinsky.

Russian avant garde

The largest group, however, are works of the Russian avant garde, which the collector became interested in 20 years ago when he saw an exhibition in Paris of Russian avant garde art from Western collections. He has collected this work assiduously ever since, even though it offers particular difficulties due to skimpy documentation. "It [avant garde art in Russia] wasn't supposed to exist officially, so they didn't keep records, they didn't have libraries -- there is no scholarly archive."

Nevertheless, much of the house is filled with works by a pantheon of names: Kasimir Malevich, Lazar (El) Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Ivan Kliun, Naum Gabo, Olga Rozanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Alexandra Exter, Alexander Vesnin, Liubov Popova, Ilya Bolotowsky, Warwara Stepanova, Vasily Ermilov -- the list goes on and on. The collection has been represented in major museum shows in this country and elsewhere, and three of the Russian works will go to the exhibition "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in September.

On a tour of his Russian works, the collector guides the visitor through the thickets of the isms -- cubo-futurism, suprematism, constructivism -- so that the process becomes a mini-education in the subject.

A section on de Stijl

This extraordinary collection doesn't end there, however. There is a section on de Stijl, which the collector points out was influenced by cubism, constructivism and the Bauhaus; in a single room there are artists related to this movement from Holland (Van Doesburg, Mondrian), Belgium (Vantongerloo), Germany (Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart), Hungary (Vilmos Huszar), Switzerland (Fritz Glarner), America (Burgoyne Diller).

And there are works by artists associated with none of the collector's areas of concentration, from Jasper Cropsey and John Marin to Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. It is a collection that reflects a mind in

which the rigorously art historical approach is combined with the leavening element of the unexpected diversion.

Oh yes, the collectors are still out there.

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