Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., there were no quirky independent bookstores in town. D.C. had places like Politics & Prose (where you could always spot someone from the Hill) and Kramerbooks (where you could smoke inside while browsing paperbacks), but in Bethesda, Maryland, there was only a Barnes & Noble, the biggest of the national bookstore chains, which took over a massive three-story space in the center of the not-so-happening downtown strip. After opening in the mid-1990s, though, it became a hub of the burgeoning semi-urban community; an entire decade of development—new restaurants, new boutiques, new apartment buildings, and eventually Equinox and SoulCycle—was spurred on by, of all things, a Barnes & Noble. It’s also where, while I was a teenager, I purchased nearly every book that I read, for years.
A few years ago, Barnes & Noble announced it would be closing a third of its stores, because nobody buys books anymore, and spun its sole successful entity, the e-reader Nook, off as a separate company. And though the Bethesda branch still exists, and is still a place for bored teenagers to hang out and maybe accidentally read something, the end of America’s last chain of booksellers seems to be approaching. Next month, nearly 50 years after he purchased the bookstore’s single Manhattan branch, Len Riggio, Barnes & Noble’s executive chairman and empire-builder, will retire.
On Saturday, Riggio offered a hint as to what his post-retirement life looks like, and it has less to to with selling books than it does collecting art and spearheading art philanthropy. For the last two decades, Len Riggio and his wife, Louise, have been amassing an impressive postwar and contemporary collection, some of which is installed at their house in Bridgehampton, New York (Len Riggio also served as the chairman of the board, and primary benefactor, of the Dia Art Foundation, and was the major force behind the creation of its space on the Hudson in Beacon, New York). Most notably, they’ve installed, on their front lawn, Richard Serra’s massive Sidewinder (1999), which can not only be seen from above the hedges that line the property, but also from Google Earth.
Seeing the art that’s installed in the backyard is a bit tougher, as the Riggios don’t usually have large groups over to see the collection. But on the cusp of retirement, a slew of acquisitions in the last few years led the couple to put up works by Serra, De Maria, and Maya Lin, their first major overhaul at the house since installing ten works by Isamu Noguchi near their Koi pond. On Saturday, he invited a few Hamptons-dwelling friends—including former New York Governor George Pataki, artists Glenn Ligon and Mary Heilmann, and dealers Larry Gagosian, Per Skarstedt, and David Zwirner—over to see the new work.
And while there have been highlights at the Riggio home for some time—in addition to Sidewinder, there’s de Kooning’s massive bronze sculpture Seated Woman (1969–81), and Mark di Suvero’s Caramba (1984–90)—the new work are equally eye-catching. Lin, who had previously designed the Riggio-Lynch Chapel in Clinton, Tennessee, earlier this year installed on the Bridgehampton lawn Lay of the Land (2016), a series of rolls in the green grass that dip in a lower but not too dissimilar fashion to her work at Storm King.
Most affecting is the one-two punch of the De Maria Garden and Pavilion and Serra’s Grief and Reason (for Walter), 2013, a steel sculpture of four coffin-like boxes, two each in two columns, that Serra made for his friend upon his death in 2013—De Maria was the first artist Serra met when he moved to New York City, in the 1960s. And just steps away is the chapel-like structure built to house a series of De Maria works—Large Rod Series: Pedestal Rods 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 (1984), Pure Polygon Series (1975–76), The Equal Area Series: Pair Number 25 (1990)—in immaculate fashion. And then there is Large Grey Sphere (2011–15), which rests outside the hut filled with other works, and is visible through the glass.
(Though De Maria died two years before the completion of the sphere piece, a source at Gagosian Gallery, which represents his estate, said the artist had selected the rock to be sculpted into a sphere two years before his death. The other De Maria works installed were shown at Gagosian’s space at 980 Madison Avenue in December 2014—in fact, they were the entirety of the show, and Riggio bought it all. Grief and Reason (for Walter) was also bought at Gagosian, during Serra’s “New Sculpture” show at its West 21st and 24th Street galleries in Chelsea in October 2013.)
After touring the grounds, a Barnes & Noble spokesperson introduced me to Riggio, who was standing near his pool house—there was even work in there, including a sculpture by Jean Tinguely and an apropos Robert Whitman shower installation.
“This didn’t come together quickly, and we’ve always been looking for something to do behind the brick wall,” Riggio said, pointing to the wall on one side of his estate’s backyard, the wall that now surrounds the hallowed space devoted to De Maria. “We saw the De Maria pieces, and we bought a couple, and we went to the foundation and it had others available.”
Then Riggio gestured over to the rolling bumps in the long expanse of land behind him.
“And what to do with the lawn?” he said. “Maya has done projects for us, so I called Maya and I said, here it is. So she put that together, we kinda collaborated, she presented a lot of designs, and then we commissioned her. The actual work, to do the Maya Lin, it’s odd. It’s dirt moving, draining, sand, and sod. So the actual work got done in a month, but it had to be designed.”
A dealer had suggested to me, earlier by the bar, that Riggio had wanted the new De Maria work to be in concert with the Arte Povera works hung inside the main house, as De Maria was a lodestar for the movement—Germano Celant put an image of him lying in the desert on the cover of his 1969 Arte Povera book, and Alighiero Boetti sought out De Maria and eventually met him.
“I don’t know if we were trying to do that, as we’re not always so deliberate,” Riggio said. “I like to buy art by feel more than by sight, and these artists feel a certain way to me. They relate a lot to other artists only because we’re the same collectors. If it turns out that they knew each other, it happens by accident. We don’t try to make a story, the story is the art itself.”
I asked if that, when he installed the Serra and the di Suvero together on the lawn, he knew that they grew up on the same block in San Francisco, where both of their fathers worked on the docks.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s good, that’s nice,” he said.
Then Glenn Fuhrman, the collector and founder of the Flag Art Foundation, came up to Riggio with his friend, the filmmaker Orson Cummings, to ask about who did the landscape design. Riggio said it was Chris Laguardia, a local designer whom he chose because “he understood that it’s not an object going through the environment.”
“Too many people are transactional about art, you know?” Riggio said. “A work, a work, a work, a work, a work. I’m into the space, that’s the way I see it—other people do it different, everyone tells their own story. So it’s a little bit of a competition, to tell our own story.”
“Instead of being locked inside my head, I’m out here,” he went on, reveling in his backyard. “I turn, I see something different. I walk ten, twenty steps, and then I turn around.”
Fuhrman and Cummings then invited him to “a film screening at Larry’s house” and walked off to rejoin the party. I asked Riggio what his plans are for his retirement, which is just weeks away.
“What I’m gonna want to do is spend more time and thought on public art,” he said. “I’m going to orient our collecting with the idea, the specific idea, of putting together collections that can be housed within a single unit, and given to museums and institutions, to do the equivalent of the Rothko Chapel, or the Noguchi Museum. So we’ll give the works, and we’ll give the money to build the building, so the art can been seen in its best light. That’s kind of my passion.”