Property from the Alex Hillman Family Foundation
Rita Hillman, By Steven S. Lash
My connections with Rita Hillman were many and varied. I was first introduced to her as a great collector, during my early years at Christie's. Rita and her beloved Alex had collected during the 1950s and 1960s, when today's rarities were available in the market. They bought often during their annual visits to Europe, with judgment, discernment and an instinct for quality, and without ever addressing the investment potential of the works they loved.
At a certain point early on we became friends. We shared a lot. First of all, we were neighbours on East 79th Street and would often meet on the street. Rita personified the quintessential indomitable New Yorker, travelling by foot everywhere and soaking up the life, energy and culture of the city as she went. She had very specific thoughts on everything, including the way New Yorkers walk, shifting their itinerary North, South, East or West, depending on their destination and prevailing traffic lights. In fact, it was her view that one could easily distinguish a real New Yorker from a tourist by observing the way a person traversed Uptown, Downtown or Cross-town! On my way to Christie's at Park Avenue and 59th Street in the early years, I would often see her going to and from her office in Rockefeller Center, which, as destiny would have it, became my own route to Rockefeller Center when Christie's moved there years later. Rita had a way of being in the center of the action long before everyone else.
We also shared a philanthropic interest in the Israel Museum, where Rita, who was an early supporter, would gather along with other friends and clients such as the late Mrs. Siegfried Kramarsky. Her commitment to philanthropy led her to sell Picasso's Mère et enfant in 1989 in support of her particular concern for nursing, thus evidencing her devotion to service and the priority she placed on charitable giving.
My wife and I used to visit Rita and her beloved grandson, Ahrin, during the summer at a very basic New England inn, which did not seem to measure up to what I viewed as Rita's Park Avenue standards. At one point I asked about her acquiring a more permanent and comfortable country perch. She responded that she had looked for a house for years, but had never been able to find one with a doorman! I quote that remark often (particularly when trying to survive as a weekend warrior in the country) and think of Rita even more often.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the fascinating work that we do at Christie's is not only the exposure it provides to outstanding works of art, but also the relationships we develop with outstanding people. High on my list is Rita Hillman--a real New Yorker, a collector, a true philanthropist, and a friend who approached life with humor, good sense and generosity. Christie's is honored to be selling her collection.
(fig. 1) Alex and Rita K. Hillman. BARCODE 24411400
Hillman Introduction by Christopher Burge
Amongst our old collection notes we have several of the checklists of important New York collections produced by the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Surprising as this may seem today, these were given out to museum members when they toured the collections in situ, and they carefully recorded every single work of art in the apartment, room by room.
The MOMA tour of the Hillman collection took place on May 7, 1963 by which time this remarkable assemblage of 19th and 20th century works of art was fully formed. The checklist brings their elegant Park Avenue apartment vividly to mind as it guides us past the superb de Chirico Composition metaphysique and the Renoir landscapes in the hall to the drawing room with Manet's enchanting Fillette sur un banc over the fireplace and Toulouse-Lautrec's elegant portrait of Henry Nocq on the opposite wall; then on to the library to catch a glimpse of the fine Modigliani portrait of Anna Zborowska and into the dining room with its Rouaults, the big Dufy oil, and the superb Léger composition of 1912.
Then we are steered upstairs to the sitting room with its wonderful drawings by Picasso, Seurat, Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec; and even into the bedrooms, gray and pink, to see more Picasso and Pissarro works on paper.
My copy of the MOMA checklist also proudly records the date of my first visit to the collection in March 1974. This mouthwatering list of important works of art had given me the courage to write to Rita Hillman and, characteristically, she had immediately invited me, a complete stranger with limited credentials at best, to see the collection and to have tea with her.
This was the first of many, many delightful visits not only to admire the collection but also to enjoy Rita's well-informed, often outspoken, and always intelligent conversation on a wide range of topics. She was always gracious, always straightforward and always welcoming: of all the collectors of her generation in New York, it was she I most enjoyed calling on.
I am therefore proud and honored to play a small part in giving a new generation of collectors a chance to vie for these beautiful works of art that Rita and her husband Alex had sought out in their ardent and intelligent collecting life; and in so doing, to be reminded again of Rita's many kindnesses to me.
(fig. 1) Interior of Hillman Family home. BARCODE 24411455
(fig. 2) Interior of Hillman Family home. BARCODE 24411462
The Hillman Collection by Emily Braun
A comprehensive history of American collecting during the two decades following World War II has yet to be written. The number and sophistication of art patrons expanded in these years, in tandem with the nation's increased role in international politics and culture. It was also a period of transition, as the old guard who had established preeminent collections of early French modernism was replaced by a younger generation supporting the new and homegrown movements of Abstract Expressionism and, even more adventurously, Pop art. Today it is difficult to remember that financial speculation was not the only motivating factor in acquiring art: in those heady decades of Cold War politics, cultural diplomacy, patriotism, social status, blue chip investment, the need to support fledgling public museums, and the humanist belief in the educational value of high art all came into play. But ultimately, the quality and personality of the most memorable collections depended on the eyes and means of those individuals who created them.
This future history will include the collection of Rita and Alex Hillman, which was formed over the years 1943 to 1964. Born in Chicago in 1900, Alex Hillman studied law and then made his career in book and magazine publishing in New York City. In 1932 he married Rita Kanarek (b. 1912), and after the war the two began to acquire Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters in earnest. While this aspect of the Hillmans' taste is best known today, during the 1950s they also followed more unconventional paths. Hillman worked for the United States government on the Marshall Plan and the couple traveled regularly to Europe, buying works by the French Informel artists Fautrier, Dubuffet, Soulages, Mathieu, and Wols. Later in the decade they delved into the contemporary British sculpture of Moore, Chadwick, Hepworth, and Armitage. Along the way, the Hillmans commissioned public sculpture by Moore for Yale University and Antoine Pevsner for the University of Chicago Law School.
The Hillmans looked to their friend Theodore Rousseau, chief curator at the Metropolitan Museum, for advice on French modernism, as well as to Alfred Barr Jr., who kept them abreast of contemporary art in Europe. The Hillmans regularly emptied their walls for the Metropolitan's Summer Loan Exhibitions in the 1960s. When the museum and Rousseau were criticized for purchasing the Velàquez portrait Juan de Pareja in 1971 for what was then considered the exorbitant sum of five and a half million dollars, Rita funded a film on the painting. This first "masterpiece film," a prescient understanding of the role of the fine arts in the mass media, helped spawn the museum's department of Film and Television. For MoMA, the Hillman Periodical Fund was used to acquire such canonical works as Giacomo Balla's Street Light, Francis Picabia's See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, Franz Kupka's Mme Kupka among Verticals, and James Rosenquist's F111.
Alex claimed that he worked to buy pictures and told the dealer René Drouin "I can't buy all the things that I love - I can only buy some and at the price that I can afford." By the mid 1960s their pace of acquisitions had slowed down and the Hillmans felt out of step with Pop art. Their French modernist collection hung in their Park Avenue apartment decorated by Billy Baldwin and the contemporary European works filled their New Hampshire farmhouse. After Alex Hillman's death in 1968 -- which followed less than two years after the tragic loss of their only child, Richard, in a highway accident on the way back from New Hampshire -- Rita sold the country residence and, in the 1970s, sent the bulk of the contemporary works to auction. She considered the Hillman collection a joint and finished project and turned her attention to overseeing the Alex Hillman Family Foundation.
In 1989, Rita decided to part with one of the Foundation's masterpieces --the neo-classical Picasso, Mère et enfant--and use the auction proceeds in order to implement her groundbreaking vision in health care. She had recently survived a grave illness with a new understanding of the critical importance of nursing, both to an individual's well being and to the efficiency and morale of hospitals on the whole. And so in 1990, the Hillman Scholarship Program for Nursing was founded in order to address staffing shortages, raise the status and salaries of the profession, and insure that the scholarship recipients serve their final semester of clinical training in New York City. The pilot project at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing was soon followed by similar initiatives at the Phillips Beth Israel School of Nursing, Lenox Hill Hospital, and the New York University College of Nursing. In addition to training nurses on the highest level, the Hillman Foundation supports summer internships, postgraduate clinical mentoring, and recruiting efforts to attract pre-college students as well as candidates from other fields intent on a second career. To date 1,200 nursing students have been funded and nearly 700 graduates proudly belong to the Hillman Alumni Nursing Network (HANN).
In the early 1960s the Hillmans were on "top collectors" lists in magazines like Art News and Esquire, but their true historical impact is best measured by the extent to which their collection was seen by the public -beyond individual canvases included in major loan exhibitions. Beginning in the early 1970s a core group of the pictures was lent to smaller museums and university galleries in regional centers across the country that otherwise had only limited access to great works of art. The Hillman Collection continued on tour from 1979 to 1985 as part of the American Association for the Arts exhibition program, educating audiences in ten different states in the South, Southeast and Midwest. Since the early 1990s, several of the most important pieces have been regularly installed in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matisse, L'Ananas; Soutine, La petitie fille à la poupée; Gris, Arlequin; de Chirico, Composition métaphysique, Modigliani, Hanka Zborowska) and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (Bonnard, Les boutiques, boulevard des Batignolles; Braque, Nature morte à la corbeille de fruits; Dufy, Hommage à Mozart; and Picasso, Femme en gris). Rita was grateful to the curators, preparators, and conservators at these two museums who, over the last eighteen years, cared for the pictures while millions of people enjoyed them. In 2008, the Alex Hillman Foundation donated the Gris Arlequin to the Metropolitan and Picasso's Femme en gris to the Brooklyn Museum.
The Alex Hillman Family Foundation is committed to Rita Hillman's legacy at the forefront of the nursing and the health care system. While it may hurt to think that some of our favorite paintings will no longer be on the walls of public museums, it is no small consolation to realize that their sale will be used to help assuage and cure the pain of countless numbers of people. And who is to say that they may not yet return to the public domain, since in the history of collecting, the trajectory of individual works of art is long and outlives their possessors. Rita Hillman, with her grace and pragmatism, likely calculated this potential for a double return on her philanthropy.
Distinguished Professor of Art History, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Curator, the Alex Hillman Family Foundation Collection
(fig. 1) Rita Hillman. BARCODE 24411431