‘A collector who thought like a curator’: Gerald Fineberg’s panoramic collection

From Modernism to the Pictures Generation and abstraction to figuration, the Fineberg collection offers a comprehensive look at the last 100 years of art history

Few private — and even public — art collections are able to tell such a nuanced story of the last 100 years of art history. But with a scholarly approach and insatiable curiosity, Gerald Fineberg was able to build one. This May, Christie’s is honoured to present A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection. The rich and nuanced collection of modern, post-war and contemporary art will be presented as a standalone two-part auction on 17 and 18 May during the 20/21 Century sales season in New York.

‘Jerry was a collector who thought like a curator,’ says Sara Friedlander, Deputy Chairman of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘When acquiring works, he considered not only what was missing from his collection but what he might not even know about yet. And when he got into a new movement or artist, he really went deep. That’s what makes this collection so unique and special.’ 

The Boston-based real estate investor created a collection that provides a multimedia look at the last 100 years of artistic production. Anchored by masters like Picasso and Calder and incorporating movements from Gutai to Pop art, Surrealism to Arte Povera, abstraction to Minimalism, Mr. Fineberg’s collection charts the evolution of diverse artistic voices across the last century. 

The birth of modernism 

After the First World War, a cultural revolution spread across Europe, epitomised by the artistic enclave of Montparnasse in Paris. One of the artists at the centre of this seismic shift was Man Ray, a pioneer of the Surrealist and Dada movements known for his cutting-edge approach to a variety of media.

His frequent subject and long-time partner Kiki de Montparnasse was a fixture of the postwar scene. Across their relationship, she would appear in numerous photographs by the artist, including the famous Surrealist photograph Le Violon d'Ingres (1924). Portrait de Kiki from 1923 is a very rare example of a painting executed by the artist of his muse.

‘Kiki is this muse of modernity and a symbol of everything that was happening in the beginning of the 20th century in Paris,’ says Friedlander. ‘Kiki is the beginning of it all, 100 years ago.’ 

As fascism spread across Europe in the 1930s, artists began to migrate to the United States, changing the landscape of the art world. After the Second World War, a distinctly American movement emerged: Abstract Expressionism. 

In response to the turmoil of the previous decades, Abstract Expressionists focused on spontaneity and improvisation. While the movement’s reputation is often defined by machismo, there was a substantial and influential group of women in Abstract Expressionism. These artists, collectively known as the Ninth Street Women, achieved acclaim during their lives but were largely ignored by history.

Mr. Fineberg collected extensively within this group, acquiring works by Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Elaine de Kooning. Even during her era, Mitchell was considered one of the most important artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Untitled (c.1958), painted just before she left New York for Paris, demonstrates the characteristic energy and careful consideration of space and colour that made her a breakout star.

Likewise a concurrent moment linked with Abstract Expressionism was born from Black Mountain College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina that counts Josef and Anni Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Ruth Asawa as graduates. The Fineberg collection includes two of the large-scale wire sculptures for which Asawa is best known.

Neither figurative nor abstract, yet reminiscent of both, Asawa’s sculptures defy classification while evoking the soft curves of the human body. ‘Asawa is important within the Fineberg collection because her work doesn’t necessarily fit the story of 20th-century art as it was previously told,’ says Michael Baptist, a specialist in the Post-War & Contemporary Art department. ‘The Fineberg collection is unique and impressive in that its themes and its artists were acquired at a time when they weren’t as popular as they are now.’ 

Rethinking art history’s most enduring themes 

Mr. Fineberg’s forward-thinking collection also spotlighted underrepresented subject matter, as in Alice Neel’s Pregnant Betty Homitzky (1968). Through a series of seven pregnant nudes, Neel repositioned the portrayal of the female body within the canon of art history. She was not just depicting the physicality of pregnancy in the transformation of the body but also the psychological evolution of the expectant mother. With this series, what Neel once described as ‘a fact of life’ that has been ‘neglected,’ was inserted into one of art’s most enduring themes.

Figuration was further redefined by the artist Barkley Hendricks. Through his life-size portraits of Black Americans, Hendricks captured the complexities of identity. 

In Stanley (1971), painted while the artist was still a student at Yale University, the personal style and spirit of his subject, the artist Stanley Whitney, is on full display. Through the simple act of painting, Hendricks was challenging the status quo, embedding people of colour into the artistic canon while also highlighting their long-standing absence. 

A new departure in contemporary art 

The artist Sturtevant would further challenge convention, appropriating artistic masterpieces to question the nature of the artistic voice. In the 1987 work Johns Painting with Two Balls, a reproduction of Jasper Johns’s 1960 Painting with Two Balls, Sturtevant’s conceptual practice is on display. While artists of that era — known collectively as the Pictures Generation — were reappropriating images from advertising and pop culture, Sturtevant went one step further in doing the same with artistic imagery. 

Sturtevant (1924-2014), Johns Painting with Two Balls, 1987. Encaustic and paper collage on three canvases joined by metal brackets with two balls. 65 x 54⅛ in (165.1 x 137.5 cm). Sold for $882,000 in A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection Part I on 17 May 2023 at Christie's in New York

‘Sturtevant represents a departure in contemporary art,’ says Baptist. ‘In the 1980s there was a reawakening and a revision of appropriation art by artists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, but Sturtevant was their predecessor.’

In breaking down conceptions of what constitutes art, Sturtevant helped to usher in the contemporary creators of today, like Urs Fischer and Christopher Wool. Wool’s 1993 painting Untitled (Fuckem if they can’t take a joke), showcases the artist’s exploration of the intersection of text and image. Rendered in a gritty, graphic hand, the painting is reflective of the Punk and New Wave scenes of the 1990s.

From Kiki de Montparnasse to Barkley Hendricks and Sturtevant, the collection of Gerald Fineberg takes us on an expansive journey from the birth of modernism to the foremost artists at work today.

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