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Remembering Wynn Kramarsky: Friends and Colleagues on the Storied Art Collector and Patron

Wynn Kramarsky

Wynn Kramarsky.

Over the course of more than 50 years, the late Wynn Kramarsky assembled one of the great collections of postwar drawings and shared them widely, through loans and donations, while earning a reputation as a generous and independently minded connoisseur. But once people know you as a collector, he told the poet William Corbett, they start asking questions about collecting (how much you spend and so forth). Kramarsky did not care for that. “You know, that’s all unimportant; the work is important,” he once said. After a life spent in public service while supporting artists, serving on museum boards, and talking about art, Kramarsky died in August at the age of 93. Below, friends and colleagues share remembrances. —Andrew Russeth

Mel Bochner, artist
I was surprised to read in a Brooklyn Rail interview, that Wynn said he had learned a lot from me.
The truth is, I learned more, much more, from him.
From New York City mayoral politics to car racing.
From how his father came to own Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr Gachet.”
To how he came to buy the only drawing sold from Jasper Johns’s first show.
For $175.
And then there was his unforgettable laugh…
Wynn always lived the moment.
In the moment.

Michael Straus, chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, member of the Whitney Museum’s drawings and national committees, president of the Art Fund of Birmingham, Inc., and member of Brooklyn Rail’s board of directors
Wynn was very much my mentor, first through our shared interests in drawings from the ’60s on. That friendship led to him introducing me to the Andy Warhol Foundation as a potential board member when he stepped down as chairman. I succeeded him in that post, holding it until I term-limited out. I am deeply indebted to him for that opportunity and for others to which it led. But beyond that, he was—and, for me, always will be—the quintessential example of a deeply serious, committed, and at the same time passionate supporter of the arts. He inspired me in his stewardship of a number of major arts-supporting organizations and through his fearless collecting, heedless of others’ views and faithful to his own eye. Thus he and his beloved wife Sally acquired and then, with breathtaking generosity, shared through donations to myriad institutions a stunningly important and essential collection of drawings ranging through key moments of the 20th century into the present. There is no way I can ever equal or measure up to that example in my own collecting and giving, yet I will always try. He was a true and faithful friend—and he is, in a word, irreplaceable.

Brice Marden, artist
Wynn Kramarsky used to drive a beat up old car around the city. He also bought drawings. I don’t know why he drove that car but he bought very good drawings.

Christophe Cherix, chief curator of drawings and prints at the Museum of Modern Art
Wynn famously said that he never had much tolerance for grown-ups. Drawing was all about the act of looking and needed little explanation. Focusing on a mark or a stroke, he saw through the eyes of those he most admired—artists. A work’s capacity to pull you in—often for hours at a time—mattered most to him. Wynn handpicked some of the most extraordinary drawings in MoMA’s collection. These works stand out not for their scale or bright color, but the way they invite you to come close and follow with wonder and abandon an artist’s hand.

Sara Sosnowy, artist
I have always said that everything I have accomplished in the art world can be attributed to Wynn Kramarsky. He exposed my work to museums, galleries, and collectors worldwide. His philosophy of collecting went much deeper than just purchasing art. He nurtured the careers and enhanced the lives of the artists whose work he collected.

He understood the psychology of the collector. By hanging my work in between the work of Richard Serra and Jasper Johns, the value of my work immediately increased in the mind of the collector.

There are countless artists in New York with more talent than me who did not have the good fortune of knowing Wynn. I have been one of the lucky ones and will always be grateful to the man.

Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum
Wynn was a truly unique and remarkable person. I met him in 1990 when I was named executive director of the Drawing Center, where he was chairman of the board. He remained chairman for the entire nine years of my tenure. The truth is that I really had no business becoming the director of such an institution at that time, but Wynn took a chance on me and became my mentor, teacher, and partner in crime. What I observed over many years of friendship (he joined the board of the Hammer Museum at UCLA when I came west) was that Wynn was a deeply passionate collector who believed collecting should be, first and foremost, about art and artists. In an age of high-profile collectors and philanthropy, Wynn always sought to downplay, if not banish outright, the association of his name with his collection. This humility and desire to avoid the spotlight meant that a couple of dozen superb exhibitions of his collection which traveled the world were discreetly attributed to a “New York private collection.” His name never appeared in the scholarly catalogues that accompanied these exhibitions, not even in the footnotes.

Wynn’s collection was unusual for its consistency. He focused not only on American drawings of recent vintage, from about 1950 to the present, but also on specific stylistic tendencies—abstraction, conceptual, and minimalist works almost exclusively. Since his acquisition in 1958 of a Jasper Johns drawing purchased from the artist’s first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery for $175—a small sum today but Wynn paid it off over time—he was an intrepid and tireless collector. For many decades and well into his later years, Wynn ventured into artists’ studios long before most dealers and curators discovered them. Supporting emerging artists was by far his favorite activity, and once in the collection the artist became a longterm member of Wynn’s extended art family.

Fittingly, significant portions of his collection have found their way into a handful of museums across the country through curators and directors that shared his passion and appreciation for the drawing medium. His treasured works on paper now reside in MoMA, the National Gallery, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, Harvard University, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Hammer. These works have entered, engaged, and transformed the public sphere, and Wynn will remain an inspirational model for all who value the lives of artists and the works they create.

Jane Hammond, artist
When artists talk about Wynn, there is commonality to what they say: Wynn was a consistent person who operated out of a deeply ingrained set of values.  He treated everyone he chose to be involved with well.

He read about art, he looked at a lot of art, and with a few people he talked about art. But most importantly, his collecting was a private internal affair. He collected art that spoke to him, and he gave it the time and attention required to make those decisions himself. He collected with his eyes, his own eyes and with his mind, but never with his ears. The opinion of others—the concept of “hotness,” or trajectory, or profit—meant nothing to him. Moreover, he held it in low esteem.

He looked long and carefully when he came to the studio. He arrived on time, and he only talked about the work. He sometimes didn’t speak for a long time.  He never asked when your next show was or who else was buying your work, none of that stuff. When he gave your work to a museum, he told you, usually in a matter-of-fact letter. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He was never self-aggrandizing.

A specific anecdote that details his largesse: When I made Fallen, an installation consisting of thousands of handmade leaves each inscribed with the name of a U.S. soldier killed in the war in Iraq, he attended my gallery opening and I saw him talking to a Whitney curator. At the dinner after, we sat together, and he said “I think Fallen should go to the Whitney—it is a museum of American art after all, and this is very much an American piece. I have told the curator I will give the first money, I will give the last money, and I will help him raise the money in the middle. I will call Adam next week.” A year later, the piece was fully funded and entered the collection of the Whitney. It has now been shown in six museums. This would have never happened without Wynn taking the lead and following through.

Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
I had been interested in drawings over many years but it was after meeting Wynn in New York in the early 1990s that I began to more fully acknowledge and sharpen my interest. Wynn had a beautiful small exhibition space with an adjacent office discretely tucked away at 560 Broadway in SoHo. I have so many wonderful memories of looking closely at drawings there with Wynn, lunches punctuated with unrestrained laughter, sitting across from him at his desk surrounded by drawings he loved, and unassuming conversations filled with wise observations about art and life. In 2000 I accepted the position of chief curator of drawings at MoMA, where Wynn had been chairman of the acquisition committee, and even after he had stepped down as chair, he was a constant source of counsel and the right questions at the right time. He could be crusty and tough but leavened by genuine concern and care—always in the spirit of ending up in the best possible place. His commitment to drawings was passionate but so was his commitment to artists and wanting to understand as fully as possible the process by which a drawing came to life in our shared world. Wynn’s generosity was extraordinary, and he was exceptional in his commitment to artists whose work he loved and in sharing his observations and knowledge with anyone who was interested. He was also exceptional in giving drawings to museums where they would be cared for and shared for decades to come with as wide a public as possible. 

Carole Seborovski, artist
Wynn was a larger than life figure to me, and our friendship lasted close to 35 years. He first bought drawings of mine in 1985 from Manhattan Art, when I was 24 years old. Some months later, my dealer at the time, Damon Brandt, told me that Wynn would like to meet me. I recall visiting Wynn’s office; I think it was Midtown at that time. He was very down-to-earth. We had some sandwiches, looked at his collection, and we talked about art.

When I would show him my drawings, he liked to take a seat and hold them in his hands, to get a feel for the weight of the paper. Then he would lean in to get a closer look, and he would turn the drawing over to take a look at the backside of it. He liked how my drawings would be worn through to the backside.

He was very engaged and curious about the creative process. One time in my studio, I showed him how I work with two hands, drawing with charcoal in my right hand against a metal square I held in my left. He likened my working with both hands simultaneously to playing a violin.

In 1987, Wynn introduced me to Lorence-Monk Gallery. I suspect that in part it was due to his enthusiasm that they began to show my work. For the opening of my solo show he had delivered some beautiful potted yellow tulips. It was the dead of winter and snowing. I carried those tulips up the Bowery to my rather dismal basement live/work studio on Fifth Street, and I recall just how special those yellow tulips made me feel—not only to be appreciated as an artist, but also to be cared for as a friend.

Wynn was a very generous person. Sometimes during the holidays he would send cakes in these beautifully decorated tins, and I still have and use those tins to this day. His generosity was contagious, as I found the people in Wynn’s circle to be very supportive and giving toward one another.

There were many famous artists in Wynn’s collection, and many lesser-known artists like myself that had really benefited from his inclusion of our work into exhibitions that were formed around his collection. Some of these shows traveled for years to various venues, exposing our work to many people who would not otherwise have seen it. These shows often had beautiful catalogues.

At the openings of these shows, Wynn was always so welcoming. He enjoyed introducing people in the art world to one another, as well as introducing people to art made by lesser-known artists they may never have heard of before.

It is such a wonderful feeling to have had Wynn’s long-lived friendship, and his backing. I will miss him a great deal, and I often think about him when working in my studio. When I hold up my drawing, and turn it over and see how it has been worn through to the backside, I think to myself, “Wynn would really like this!”

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