The financier William Louis-Dreyfus collected art that reflected America’s complex social history. As 40 works from his collection are offered on 18 January in New York, we look at four artists who inspired his passion for art and justice
William Louis-Dreyfus (1932-2016) was never interested in isms
or categories, says
American Folk and Outsider Art specialist Cara Zimmerman, and it was this egalitarian outlook that enabled
the philanthropist to amass an unusually eclectic
‘If he liked it, and saw there was skill
there,’ says Zimmerman, ‘then he would support that artist
wholeheartedly.’ His collection ranged from blue chip modernists such as Alberto Giacometti to important self-taught artists such as Bill Traylor.
On 18 January, during Americana Week at Christie’s in New York, 40
works from The
William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections will be sold to benefit the Foundation and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Louis-Dreyfus — the father of actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of HBO’s Veep — was attracted to artists whose work had a strong social message.
Four artists in particular, who made work about the black
experience in America, feature heavily in his collection.
Thornton Dial (1928-2016) was born in rural Alabama in
1928 and worked on the Pullman-Standard Railroad. ‘When he
retired in the 1980s he started making things,’ says Zimmerman. ‘And it wasn’t until 1987, after Dial had been making these things for several years, that he began to recognise his output as art.’
Much of Dial’s output spoke of race relations and war. ‘He
used the materials around him — discarded clothing, enamel
paint, old mattress springs —
to bring to life these ideas and to commemorate the materiality of his community,’ Zimmerman adds.
Bill Traylor and Clementine Hunter
‘There is this misconception that self-taught artists operate in isolation,’
says Zimmerman, ‘but in fact they often work within a community.’ This is certainly the case with
Bill Traylor (1854-1949), who would paint on street corners
surrounded by children, and the Outsider artist
Clementine Hunter (1886-1988) who, like Traylor, was
raised on a plantation and remained very much a part of that
Hunter developed a huge following through people coming to
view her art. Her primary-coloured
canvas board paintings depicting plantation life in Louisiana have found their way into the collections of Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers.
Nellie Mae Rowe
Another remarkable Outsider artist in Louis-Dreyfus’s collection was
Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), a painter with a magical
realist sensibility. She transformed her two-roomed home
in Vinings, Atlanta, into a ‘playhouse’, crammed with pastel
pictures, crayon and felt-tip pen drawings and chewing-gum
sculptures. Her neighbour recalls people stopping and staring
in amazement at this ramshackle edifice to creativity.
Louis-Dreyfus was attracted to the work of these artists because
he followed his eye and bought what he loved, paying little attention to whether
an artist was already considered ‘established’ or ‘accepted’ by the mainstream collecting community. That so many of the artists
he admired had been able to overcome their disadvantaged
circumstances to create such art was something he found truly remarkable.