Ben Heller, who died in 2019, amassed a legendary collection of Abstract Expressionism, supporting artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and others at a time when few else would. But before he dispersed his works to some of the world’s top museums, in particular the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he kept them in his Central Park West apartment. Thousands of visitors made the pilgrimage each year to his home to see masterpieces by the likes of Pollock, Rothko, Franz Kline, and Barnett Newman, with Rothko even referring to Heller’s apartment as “the Frick of the West Side.”
When he began seriously collecting Abstract Expressionism during the ’50s, museums like MoMA largely ignored the movement. Heller rushed in headlong. “He wasn’t someone to say, ‘Let me take a gamble on this small picture so that I don’t really commit myself.’ He committed himself a thousand percent, which is what he believed the artists were doing,” Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, said in an interview.
Though Heller was never formally a board member at MoMA—“I was neither WASP-y enough nor wealthy enough,” he once recalled—he transformed the museum, all the while maintaining close relationships with artists and curators in its circle. His goal was a simple one that, during his day, was radical: to collect the best art of his time. “He was unerringly spot on all the time,” said Andrew Fabricant, chief operating officer of Gagosian gallery. “The guy was the last of his kind. There’s nobody else in that league.”
‘Totally Spent Money’
Heller was born in New York in 1925 and attended the New York prep school Fieldston in the Bronx, where he garnered an interest in music and literature. Throughout his life he was also an avid sportsman, playing football, basketball, golf, squash, and track, and later becoming an accomplished horseman. He attended Yale University for a semester and then enlisted in the Army during World War II. After the war, Heller attended Bard College where he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1948. Then, he joined the family family textile manufacturing business, succeeding his father as its president in 1953.
During college, Heller purchased a few works from friends of his, but it wasn’t until shortly after he married his first wife Judith in 1949 that he caught the collecting bug. (Judith died in a car accident in 1970 and Heller remarried in 1971 to Patricia Rosenwald Sedgwick, the mother of actress Kyra Sedgwick.) While on honeymoon with Judith, Heller saw exhibitions devoted to Georges Braque and Paul Gauguin. After returning to New York, he made his first purchases: a Braque still life and a Congo fetish figure.
Heller’s parents viewed his collecting differently; they called the first Rothko he bought “the diarrhea painting.”
He started out collecting European modernism but eventually turned his attention to contemporary art. (He continued buying African art and artifacts, and sold several at Sotheby’s in the early ’80s.) During the early years, Heller was somewhat of a frugal collector. He had a cap of spending $1,000 on a single artwork, although he would sometimes make exceptions, like when he paid Rothko $1,350 for one painting (discounted from $1,500). “Once I started buying art,” he said in an oral history with MoMA, “I was never out of debt so I had to recognize that if I was buying contemporary work this was totally spent money.” Heller’s parents viewed his collecting differently; they called the first Rothko he bought “the diarrhea painting.”
Acts of Faith
In the postwar era, New York ascended as the new art capital of the world, replacing Paris. Rothko, Pollock, Kline, and others were among the artists pushing the experiments of the early 20th century even further, in a style that would eventually be called Abstract Expressionism. While Abstract Expressionism has now been canonized as a major turning point in the history of art, it once was the subject of heated debate. This meant that Heller’s choice to begin collecting it was a substantial risk. Heller’s risk was the artists’ reward. “The truth of the matter is that throughout history it is often a few single individuals, rather than institutional support,” Temkin said, “that is what’s most important for an artist early on.”
Heller frequently bought major works by the artists he collected shortly after they were completed. At times these purchases required “an act of faith,” he once wrote. He took a chance when he bought Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51), then the largest painting the artist had ever made. Measuring 8 feet by 18 feet, Vir Heroicus Sublimis features a color field of deep red, which Newman accented by five unevenly spaced vertical lines of paint known as “zips.” The painting’s size is meant to engulf viewers as they peer closely at the canvas. It now resides at MoMA.
Heller was also close to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and would often visit their home in East Hampton, New York, which is where he saw One: Number 31, 1950. The painting’s name came from Pollock’s feeling of being at one with the world and with nature which was the topic of a dinner conversation between the artist and Heller. “I was bowled over,” Heller recalled in a MoMA interview. He paid a a very large sum in order to obtain it: $8,000, at that time a record price for Pollock’s work. And it wasn’t the only major Pollock Heller owned. In 1957, he purchased the drip painting Blue Poles (1952) from Fred and Florence Olsen, and hung it in his living room, where it remained for almost 20 years.
Heller was friends with many of the artists he collected, and he was able to observe when change was afoot in their practice. His collection, he believed, should capture those developments. Just after Pollock broke away from his drip painting technique, Heller purchased Echo: Number 25, 1951, which was made by applying black enamel paint onto an unprimed canvas, creating an all-over abstraction of undulating lines and shapes. “It’s totally unstructured and totally structured,” Heller said of how Pollock controlled the paint. “How you can do the two together is remarkable.”
The Stuff of Legends
In April 1959, three Pollock works—One, Echo, and Blue Poles—returned to Heller’s apartment in the most unusual way, at the time, through a tenth-floor window. After a tour that saw them travel 20,000 miles as part a MoMA-organized Pollock survey that went to Brazil and several European cities. The grand finale of their tour, a press release announced, would be their installation in Heller’s home—a task that would take nine hours. Their crates weighed over 1,600 pounds, and they had to be lifted 10 stories to be moved into his apartment on Central Park West.
That apartment and Pollock’s paintings always bore out a close relationship. Before Heller moved there, he lived on Riverside Drive in a unit that barely held Pollock’s gigantic art. When he purchased One, he realized it wouldn’t fit, and that he’d have to move to properly exhibit it—the artist and Heller, who had ridden on the roof of the building’s elevator to get into the apartment, worked together to install the large canvas only to realize, when it was unfurled, that the painting was simply too large. They opted to staple the un-stretched canvas to the ceiling.
Such close relationships between Heller and the artists he loved shaped his collection over the years. They also wound up influencing the work of others, too. In 1958, when Alfred H. Barr and Dorothy C. Miller were planning an exhibition of Abstract Expressionism at MoMA, Heller convinced the pair to visit Barnett Newman’s studio because he felt that Newman had to be included in the exhibition. He also lent a Franz Kline to “Twelve Americans” (1956) and a Jasper Johns to “Sixteen Americans” (1959), and loaned works for various important retrospectives at the museum.
In 1961, Heller’s collection would be the subject of its own exhibition. The MoMA-organized survey traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Portland Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Barr wrote, “I have rarely known an amateur more deeply and intensely involved in his collecting than Ben Heller. Enthusiasm tempered by critical anxiety and patient, empirical study mark his passionate search.”
He continued working in that manner for the rest of his life—even when it took him in new and unexpected directions. In the years after Clyfford Still’s death in 1980, Heller began advocating for the importance of the artist, whose work he had collected. In 1990, he organized an exhibition of Still’s art at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, and published an essay in Art in America dissecting Still’s complicated will and estate. “Still’s will established us, the public, as his heirs,” Heller wrote in an Art in America essay. “I suggest that we, that public, have some sort of obligation to consider the issues, to express ourselves, and to participate, at least in a limited way, in the process of resolution.”
From Central Park West to Australia
From the start, it would seem that Heller’s collection was destined for museums. “He was convinced that these artists were important in the same way that Matisse and Picasso clearly were important, for example, and therefore he was convinced that their most important works needed to be the ones that he got,” Temkin said.
Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, one of the iconic works associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, was given by Heller to MoMA in 1969. (He had to tried to get the museum to buy it from him, and failed.) Typically, artists want their work to enter the permanent collections of a major museum like MoMA, but Newman was different, and when he found out about the acquisition, he got upset. “Barney was furious with me,” Heller recounted. “He could have sold it. He had a buyer. I said, ‘That wasn’t the point.’ I said, ‘It belongs there.’”
Heller’s goal had been, in part, to help MoMA build out its holdings of work by Abstract Expressionist artists, many of whom Barr had refused to collect in depth. (In a 1961 article in Art in America, artist Robert Motherwell once said that it was impossible to see new American art at MoMA—one would have to go to other museums, or better yet Ben Heller’s apartment, to do that.) William S. Rubin, who had joined MoMA as a curator in 1968, took it upon himself to help expand MoMA’s Abstract Expressionism holdings. “I would say the center of the drive to develop an Abstract Expressionist collection was the acquisition of a group of pictures which Ben Heller had that I highly admired,” Rubin said in an oral history with MoMA.
Of the works from Heller’s collection that MoMA purchased around that time were Pollock’s One and Echo, and Arshile Gorky’s Summation (1947), an eight-foot-wide drawing in pencil, pastel, and charcoal on buff paper.
But there was one key work that never made it to MoMA, or any U.S. museum at all: Pollock’s Blue Poles. In 1973, working with art dealer Max Hutchinson, Heller sold the painting for $2 million (about $11.8 million today) to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which was still under construction. “It changed the price of everything,” Heller once recalled. The New York art world decried the work leaving the city, and in Australia, where Hutchinson also had a gallery, many felt that the price tag was too high.
At that time, such a price was only afforded to Old Masters paintings. But something was shifting, and that same year, Sotheby’s auction of Ethel and Robert Scull’s collection helped make contemporary art valuable. “Art was becoming big, and collectors were becoming big, and all that stuff was becoming bigger than the work of art,” Heller, who had advised the Sculls on how to build a collection when they were just starting out, recalled in 2001.
“Art was becoming big, and collectors were becoming big, and all that stuff was becoming bigger than the work of art,” Heller once said.
The price for the Pollock required a vote by Australia’s Parliament to approve the purchase; when the museum was given the nod, the painting essentially brought down the prime minister at the time.
Although the acquisition had initiated a scandal in the country, it has now proven to be a national treasure to Australians, proving that Heller’s impulses had been right all along. “One of the reasons why he was eventually persuaded to sell it was because he was very instrumental in fighting with the artists for their role internationally as a movement,” Heller’s daughter Patti Adler said. “He felt that … Australia would take it and make it into something.”