Melva Bucksbaum developed an affinity for art as a young girl in the 1940s, regularly taking the bus to Washington, D.C., to visit the museums there. ‘I could go downtown with a nickel at eight years old,’ recalled the collector and philanthropist. ‘I just loved being in the National Gallery with all that art.’
Across many years, Bucksbaum would become one of the art world’s most beloved figures, and a staunch supporter of artists and their work. As a collector, The New York Times reported, she blended ‘a private passion for art with an invigorating public altruism’. On 15-16 November, key works from her collection will be offered across the Post-War and Contemporary Art sales at Christie’s in New York.
‘Bucksbaum’s commitment to arts, arts organisation, artists and curators was lifelong,’ says Laura Paulson, Christie’s Americas Advisory Board Vice Chair. ‘Finding things that left an impression was very important to her.’
In 1967 Bucksbaum moved to Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband Martin Bucksbaum. There she became an active supporter of local arts organisations and museums, including the Des Moines Art Center, where then-director James T. Demetrion had made a name for himself as a visionary curator. In Demetrion, Bucksbaum found not only a friend, but an extraordinary mentor.
From 1995, Bucksbaum became closely involved with the Whitney Museum. For some two decades she was one of the Whitney’s most stalwart benefactors and advisors, and was eventually named its vice chairwoman. Her contributions to the museum included dozens of important works by artists such as Dan Flavin, Carroll Dunham, Christo and Roy Lichtenstein.
She also spearheaded the selection of Renzo Piano as architect for the museum's new downtown Manhattan space. In those years, says Paulson, ‘she continued to collect with great insight and passion and really found her own voice.’
Given to an artist every two years in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial, The Bucksbaum Award — the most financially generous in fine art — now defines that institution’s programming
‘We are thrilled that we can call these artists our friends,’ Bucksbaum wrote, 10 years after founding the Whitney’s Bucksbaum Award. ‘Most of all, we are thrilled that this award has allowed each artist, in some way, to continue to create with even greater commitment to his or her work.’
In embracing work from the studios of artists both known and unknown, Bucksbaum became a model for the kind of collecting that pushes against the status quo. Eventually, works by younger and emerging artists joined painting, photography and sculpture by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Agnes Martin, Gregory Crewdson, Kara Walker, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, David Hammons and others.
Among the highlights of her collection is Vija Celmins’ 1969 piece, Lead Sea #2. Originally from Latvia, Celmins, a refugee from the Second World War, settled in Venice, California. In the late 1960s, her work often focused on the night sky, the desert and the ocean — subjects requiring ‘an incredible amount of concentration and integrity’, says Paulson. Lead Sea #2 is ‘a superb example’ of the artist’s skill, Paulson continues, ‘bringing you into a moment of understanding the fragility of nature’.
In the mid 1990s, American painter Mark Grotjahn became deeply interested in perspectival interrogations, and ‘began working with the idea of converging and radiant lines based on Renaissance art,’ says Paulson. The Bucksbaum Collection includes an early work from 2000, whose ‘twisting format keeps your eye moving’ around ‘a very tight composition’.
The collection also features two works by Mark Bradford, including Here (2005). Bradford worked in his aunt’s beauty shop in Los Angeles, Paulson explains, and in Here we have ‘found signage below which he’s collaged permanent weave endpapers, symbolising that experience. There’s certainly a socio-political reference in these works.’
Mickalene Thomas’s Hair Portrait #9 (2013) — composed of untraditional art materials such as rhinestones and resin — addresses notions of female beauty. ‘In many of her works she’s really appropriating the female forms found in Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern art,’ Paulson explains, as well as drawing on the imagery of ‘popular culture, such as the idea of signage’.
The works Bucksbaum acquired reflect both an ‘open-mindedness and a great sense of quality’, Paulson concludes. ‘In both her collection and the Bucksbaum Prize, she leaves a legacy of support for the continuing dialogue of art across generations.’