Long before art became an asset and buyers flipped paintings for huge profits, Don Marron let an untutored passion lead him to become one of the great postwar collectors of contemporary art. His sudden death this month at 85 feels like the end of an era, one in some ways more fun than our own.
Shy, intense, and very tall, Marron loved giving tours of the art-filled Upper East Side home he shared with his wife, Catie, and their children, William and Serena. He made collecting seem simple: all the artists were well known. The surprise was how many he’d bought early on, and how untypical many of the works were.
The tour began in the living room with a classic Cy Twombly: white poppies against a light green backdrop, with the artist’s signature scribble. Nearby hung a small Twombly from 1961 that looked almost blank, with the faintest grays and gossamer pinks. Back when almost no one was buying the artist, Marron bought this one for Catie as a wedding present. He knew what he liked.
The dining room held more classics, among them a pink-palette de Kooning—but not a 1950s de Kooning, which would have already been worth a fortune when Marron started buying. In the 1980s he had taken a chance on a de Kooning from the 1970s, when the market for that period wasn’t yet clear. Here, too, was an untypical Matisse drawing of a tree. The artist had done it in 1952, when he was bed-bound and dying, and almost all he could do was draw. Like Marron’s other favorites, it resonated with the force to live.
Finally there was the library, where two Picasso paintings faced each other. One was a 1962 portrait of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, Cubist in style, with a palette of gray, black, and white, like a newspaper page. It gazed across at a small, brightly colored head from the mid-1930s: Picasso’s earlier mistress Dora Maar. The earlier painting excited people more, Marron would note, since it was deemed the more valuable of the two. But the later one—the untypical one—was his favorite.
Cubism was where art started for Marron. A product of New York public schools, he found himself drawn by the age of 19 to the Museum of Modern Art’s room devoted to work from 1911. “I’m not a scholar,” he said in the first of several conversations we had for my book BOOM. “I can’t explain art. It was the power of the composition, and the feeling that you were seeing something that hadn’t existed before.”
Marron could hardly afford a Cubist painting, so he immersed himself in the Hudson River School. “It wasn’t hot at all,” he said. “You could buy paintings for very little more than a reproduction—just hundreds of dollars—and I could go to museums and see examples of it!”
Modern American artists were as far out of reach as the Cubists, so Marron made do with prints. One day legendary printmaker Tanya Grossman brought Jasper Johns’s Decoy (1971) to his downtown office. Marron had barely unwrapped it when Grossman said, “Donald, you have to make a decision right now. I’m double-parked.” Marron bought it, along with hundreds of others. “Prints are original works of art by the way, not copies,” he told me earnestly. “So I built a collection.”
As his fortunes rose—he started two small financial firms, selling them to PaineWebber and later merging PaineWebber with UBS—Marron had the money at last to buy top-tier contemporary art. He went directly to 420 West Broadway, where Leo Castelli held court.
“As you entered the back of the gallery, you would approach a velvet rope,” Marron explained. Behind was Leo—it was his office.” Not just anyone could get past the rope. “It took a while,” he said, “but I finally got invited.”
Behind the rope were Castelli’s artists and favorite collectors. Also the latest, great Pop art paintings. Marron had the money now to buy as many large works as Castelli would sell him. But that didn’t mean Castelli would sell him every one he wanted.
“You never knew who you were competing with,” Marron recalled. “Leo invented the ‘thank you for your interest, we will consider it.’ It’s not like you got turned down, but your request was not accepted…” Castelli had to oblige other collectors, too: Aggie Gund, Ronald Lauder, Si Newhouse, Burton and Emily Tremaine, and more. Most ended up as trustees at the Museum of Modern Art, including Marron, who joined the board in 1975 and became its president in 1985. On Saturdays, the whole lot of them would gather at Castelli’s, talking and talking about art.
Marron wanted everyone to see the art he loved, so he filled the walls of his financial firms with it. “Wall Street anticipates the future,” he mused later. “Why limit yourself to financial ways of doing it? Good contemporary art reflects the society, and great contemporary art anticipates. Why not collect, and have our people exposed to it?”
At PaineWebber, where he served as chairman and CEO from 1980 to 2000, Marron bought a few pieces each year with corporate funds, displaying them and ultimately donating most of them to MoMA. “The real leader in that was David Rockefeller,” Marron explained. “He was the model for me. I wasn’t comparing myself to him, but it gave you a license to do it.”
In the tireless search for great new art, Marron came to eschew studio visits. They made him feel bad. “It’s the work of a year or two—and you make a judgment in five minutes,” he said. “Is that fair to the artist?” Instead, he hired his own full-time curator and had him make the visits.
The key was to cultivate the best dealers and not keep them waiting when treasures came in. “When you get to significant pictures, no one wants them shopped,” Marron said. “Nothing kills the value of a picture faster. So when the dealer says, ‘Who are three names [of collectors to call]?,’ your goal is to be on the list.”
Castelli was king through the early 1980s, but times changed. “The real game was watching Larry take over from Leo,” Marron said. “The reason Larry could do it was his eye.”
Marron made himself one of the names on Larry Gagosian’s short list. He talked to the dealer almost every day. “He had the commercialism to identify artists relatively early after being recognized,” he marveled, “but not fully recognized.”
Marron bought from Gagosian enough to keep his seat at the table. Occasionally, though, he pushed back. “I had been saying I’ll be very interested in Joe Bradley,” he said, referring to one of Gagosian’s most recent star artists. “Then he had a show, and Larry didn’t call.” Marron sent his curator to see the show; the curator came back nonplussed. Gagosian did call Marron as the show was about to close, saying there was one painting left, and Marron should buy it. Marron declined: Bradley’s work reminded him too much of another artist’s work. “On the other hand, when [Gagosian] had a great last Twombly show, he gave me first pick,” Marron recounted. All was forgiven.
As much as he loved acquiring new art, Marron loved giving it away even more. Some 80 works from PaineWebber were donated to MoMA. After PaineWebber was acquired by UBS in 2000, another tranche of some 50 works was steered by Marron from the combined UBS PaineWebber to the museum in 2002. Two years later, the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium opened there as part of its expansion.
Many of Marron’s favorite artists became his friends. Mark Grotjahn, Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Bradford, whose first meeting with Marron was unforgettable. “He opened the door to his studio,” Marron recalled. “We just looked at each other and laughed.” Marron was 6’6”, Bradford 6’7”. The bond was immediate. Two of Bradford’s magnificent aerial abstract paintings hang on the walls of Marron’s last financial firm, Lightyear Capital, high atop 9 West 57th Street, amid many adventurous others.
In recent years, Marron had voiced a lament about where so much contemporary art was going. “What’s been lost is beauty,” he said, “and I think that’s because beauty is the hardest thing to do.” Too often, he felt, beauty was replaced by an “agony of emotion,” naming artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Yet beautiful art could still teach us so much, in his view. “The only things that have survived are wars and art and politicians,” Marron liked to say. “Art is optional, it’s a leisure activity. But it’s one of the most visible aspects of genius.”
Quietly, Marron had begun chasing a new dream: a private gallery of his favorite artists. He felt he needed more Ellsworth Kelly, so he drove up one day with his curator to visit the artist, who was still living and working in upstate New York. “We went to his studio,” Marron recalled. “There was an array of eight or nine works of art.” None were by Kelly. Slyly, the artist asked his visitors what they thought of each one. “It might be a little anti-Nazi drawing by Käthe Kollwitz, or an early painting by Schwitters,” said Marron. “You didn’t have to do well on the exam, but it didn’t hurt.” Marron passed the exam; Kelly opened his vault.
With a nod to 57th Street’s historic place in contemporary art, as the city’s first proper district for contemporary art galleries, Marron leased two rooms in the Fuller Building and hung his personal collection there. Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, Jonas Wood, Albert Oehlen, Richard Prince, and Laura Owens, along with two older classics, Willem de Kooning and, of course, Ellsworth Kelly. Here, too, were younger artists Marron was excited by: Christian Marclay, Djordje Ozbolt, and Harmony Korine.
Marron wasn’t yet sure what to do with this new space, whether to give the art in it to a museum or keep the gallery as a private delight. As of three weeks ago, he was just enjoying the visits he got almost daily from top museum curators and top collectors, and the great, ineffable pleasure they afforded him of talking about art.