Generosity of Eye: William Louis-Dreyfus, 1932 to 1984
Countless individuals, institutions, and causes lost a remarkable and irreplaceable friend earlier this fall with the passing of collector and philanthropist William Louis-Dreyfus. He literally transformed the lives of artists whose works he amassed. A stalwart campaigner for social justice, he pioneered ways of fusing his twin passions for art and for serving the underprivileged in the novel plans he laid for the dispersal of his collection. And, it can now be revealed, he was a significant and gracious supporter of artcritical magazine and its programs, a generous enabler who made no editorial demands and chose to keep a low profile.
I first got to know William in his capacity as a collector. He was a benefactor of the New York Studio School where I spent a decade as gallery director. The solo show of new sculpture by John Newman that I organized could fairly be judged a success on all fronts, starting with the quality of the work and its spectacular, architect-directed installation. Although John had enjoyed major attention at the outset of his career, attested to by the star-studded school lobby on opening night, his fortunes had taken a dip since the halcyon days of the 1980s. That changed with a steady flow of visitors and a review in the New York Times. But what totally galvanized the situation was a visit one evening to the galleries from Louis-Dreyfus. He evidently flipped on seeing Newman’s whimsical, fearless inventions. Quirky almost to a point of willful vulgarity, yet intense in their miniaturist energy, and heartfelt in pushing sculptural boundaries and chromatic possibilities alike, these intimately sized hybrids struck such a chord in the collector that he all but bought out the show. He would go on eventually to acquire three-dozen of Newman’s pieces and a number of drawings, and helped secure gallery representation for the artist. John is unabashed in declaring that William’s patronage turned his career around.
Alerted to William’s largesse – not to mention his appetite – I began to take proper note of him as a collector, especially when Christina Kee, who had been my work-study assistant at the School and later began to write for artcritical, joined William’s curatorial team. Nothing could quite prepare one for a first visit to his warehouse-cum-museum in Mount Kisco, NY where one could see room after room of efficiently stacked but artfully displayed works, often with one artist per room, although not a few artists needed more space than that. He had a penchant for outsider artists, amassing unparalleled holdings of James Castle, Bill Traylor and Thornton Dial (over 200 works by Castle and over a hundred each both Traylor and Dial). Tellingly, he preferred to avoid the term “outsider,” perhaps intuiting that all the artists he collected, well known or marginalized, academically trained or self taught, were equally charged by independence of vision and authenticity of touch.
His catalogue was a liberating and shameless mix of “big ticket” and oddball reputations, of conservative realists and outlandish mavericks, of modernist giants and student unknowns, it being very clear that the collector had his own criteria of worthiness. He had dozens of drawings by Giacometti; a massive early stain painting by Helen Frankenthaler among several other pieces from the same hand—an outlier in his tastes, this was a work whose quality he swore by; and literally hundreds of works each in different media by the social realist polychromatic sculptor Raymond Mason; the painter of hieratic and mysterious figures on beaches and blazing sunsets, Graham Nickson; the ethereal miniaturist Eleanor Ray; and others. He had more than 200 artists in his Mount Kisco Pithom and nearby estate. His collecting in such depth almost had an outsider, OCD aspect to it, as he would only half jokingly aver.
Eclectic as his holdings were, there were most definitely consistent qualities. He made no bones about the fact that he appreciated skill, hard work, individuality, authenticity, traditional mediums and a visceral sense of connection with the human story. Some of these were traits, it could be argued, that others were blessed to value in him, as a patron.
I realized that William was especially generous to take the interest that he did in artcritical. Although he was a literary man (for a decade he had been chairman of the Poetry Society and was a published poet himself) he was not in natural sympathy with art criticism. He was conscious of his alienation from prevailing art discourse. Although he obviously devoted enormous resources to collecting and supporting his collection, he knew that much of what he valued in art was out of fashion. That he was as maverick and “outsider” as many of the people he collected.
He knew about The Review Panel, having come to hear Christina Kee when she appeared in the series, but he wanted to know if we ever discussed more general issues or problems in art, rather than always focusing on shows. I argued that “meta” subjects often come up, but that to my mind it is better to have critics engage with specific bodies of work, and allow broader issues to emerge organically. Later, Christina shared her interpretation of this exchange, confiding with characteristic humor her sense that William’s dream was of one definitive, landmark debate, with someone arguing with the passion he felt on the subject, which would somehow dissipate all the misunderstandings that had arisen around art. He told me that he particularly liked the criticism of Jed Perl.
In “Generosity of Eye,” a film about William co-produced by his daughter, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, William outlined his audacious plan for the dispersal of his collection. Rather than leave it all to a museum, perhaps a new-built institution or a wing bearing his name, he would be donating it, for the purpose of sale, to a favored philanthropic project, the Harlem Children’s Zone. The creation of Geoffrey Canada, this is a cradle-to-college educational support system for an impoverished, at-risk community. Obviously, many of the artists William collected have or had little market beyond his own patronage, making the liquidation of his holdings problematic for artist and beneficiary alike, but the venture is a long-term one and will hopefully be handled with sensitivity and skill by trusted parties. Modest and self-effacing though he was, William didn’t shy away from the egotism underlying the altruism and risk in his gesture. The poet-philanthropist-collector-humanist was also—after all—a venture capitalist. He wanted the market to vindicate his taste.