Irving Stenn Jr on how he assembled one of the pre-eminent collections of post-war and contemporary works on paper in the United States, offered in New York on 28 September
Irving Stenn Jr’s interest in art began in 1968, when he and his wife Marcia purchased an old Victorian house in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood of Chicago and set about restoring it to its former glory. ‘I didn’t call it collecting,’ recalls Stenn of those early days. ‘I didn’t know it was collecting. This was just filling some walls with something interesting. To bring some life into the house.’
The couple quietly began acquiring works in the early 1970s, starting modestly before building what is now regarded as one of the pre-eminent collections of post-war and contemporary works on paper in the United States. Their first purchase was a print by Frank Stella.
‘My wife had a wonderful eye but was not educated in the art world, so we started out as real amateurs,’ reveals Stenn, who became the Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney before leaving to start his own successful firm of personal injury lawyers.
Over the years the collection has grown to encompass works by Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly. These pieces fill the walls of Stenn’s home and serve as a reminder of the collector’s discerning eye and desire to live with art on a quotidian basis.
As the collection developed, so did Stenn’s understanding of art. By developing a series of close friendships with artists and curators, he was rewarded with advice that helped him to acquire outstanding paintings, sculpture, drawings and works on paper over the course of nearly 50 years.
As it began to take shape, the collection naturally reflected the tastes of its owners, with a clear preference for works created in the 1960s. Under the guidance of mentors such as Mark Pascale, curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and dealer Donald Young, Stenn sought to acquire not only works of supreme quality, but also works that are important within the artist’s oeuvre.
From the start, the collection also mirrored the art of its time — focusing primarily on Minimalism and Conceptual art, with Stenn’s pursuit of an early Black painting by Frank Stella demonstrating his tenacity and hunger for works of quality.
After Marcia’s death in 1999, Stenn began to focus his collection more resolutely towards works on paper, which — for him — demonstrated most clearly both the artist’s conceptual and artistic practice.
‘The immediate visual impact was the thing that took me,’ he explained to Laura Paulson of Christie’s on a tour of works offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in New York on 28 September. ‘Some of these drawing are finished or provided a guide to doing a larger piece. But I see the obsessiveness and I see the hand, what the hand is doing. It’s remarkable.’
A particular strength of Irving Stenn Jr’s collection is his holding of works by women artists, especially drawings and works on paper from the 1960s. Laura Paulson picks out works by Anne Truitt, who rose to prominence alongside Color Field painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, and Hannah Wilke, whose provocative self-portraits and radical, feminist sculpture have reached iconic status.
‘I’m still the amateur,’ protests the collector. ‘To me it was always visceral. The whole thing was visceral. The whole thing was about fun. I had a great time doing it, and continue to have a great time. It gave me a life.’