Modernist Masterpieces: The Alexander Kaplen Collection

Offered in New York, a superb collection of photographs, sculpture and design assembled by Alexander Kaplen


Alexander Kaplen’s home

In 1988, Alexander Kaplen launched a magazine called Wigwag — his aim was to create a publication to rival The New Yorker. It would include fiction, reviews and features, yet look beyond the city of New York to ‘hometowns all across America’.

Kaplen was still in his late twenties. Wigwag  would go on to reach a circulation of 200,000 and share newsstands with not just The New Yorker  but Esquire  and Vanity Fair, too. Though on a limited budget, he was able to commission writers of the stature of Ralph Ellison, Garry Wills and Alice McDermott.

The story of Wigwag  reveals a lot about Kaplen (1959-2015), notably his determination to strive for the best. This would also be reflected in his approach to buying art, insofar as he acquired only what he considered to be the finest works by a given artist.

This autumn, Christie’s in New York will offer for sale Modernist Masterpieces: The Alexander Kaplen Collection, featuring photos, sculpture and design pieces. The collection will be offered across three separate auctions: Photographs on 2 October; Post-War and Contemporary Art on 13 November; and Design on 13 December.

The Collector

Born in the city of Englewood in New Jersey, Kaplen — or Lex, as he was known to his friends — studied at both Harvard and Yale Universities. He started his career as a fact-checker at The New Yorker  before launching the venture with Wigwag. After the latter closed, Kaplen took on a number of other high-powered roles, including speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore; and strategic planning executive at Time Inc.

Alexander Kaplen’s home. Artwork: George Nakashima (1905-1990), Two Early ‘Straight’ Chairs, circa 1947. Walnut and oak. Each: 28½ in (79.4 cm) high; 24⅜ in (61.9) cm wide; 18¼ in (46.4 cm) deep. Estimate: $3,000-5,000. Offered in Design on 13 December at Christie’s in New York. Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), Untitled S.387 (Three Lobed Continuous Form with Two Interior Lobed Continuous Forms) circa 1955. Hanging sculpture: copper, brass and gold wire. 34½ x 15 x 15 in (87.6 x 38.1 x 38.1 cm) Sold for $4,095,000 on 14 November at Christie’s in New York. © Estate of Ruth Asawa

He also offered philanthropic support to organisations ranging from Film Forum and the New York Philharmonic, to the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

In 2003, he helped underwrite live, monthly broadcasts by the New York Philharmonic to more than 250 radio stations nationwide — making it the only symphony orchestra to be heard live across the USA on a regular basis.

As an art collector, Kaplen’s primary interest was modernism. In photography, that meant European modernism from the interwar years, by the likes of André Kertész (1894-1985) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).

Moholy-Nagy’s From the Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928, above, is one of the standout works in the collection. It was included in the landmark Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics, in 1940. The print sold for $275,000 on 2 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York.

The Hungarian painter and photographer had moved to the USA in 1937, having served as a professor at the Bauhaus school before that. From the Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928, was one of a series of plunging views he shot, looking down at the ground from atop one of Germany’s most exciting new buildings, the Berlin Radio Tower. The series was arguably the boldest of Moholy-Nagy’s entire career.

Another standout work is Untitled S.387 (Three Lobed Continuous Form with Two Interior Lobed Continuous Forms), a hanging sculpture by Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa. Made from a combination of copper, brass and gold, it’s an example of the abstract wire pieces for which Asawa is best known.

The sculpture boasts a richly complex structural arrangement, with six interlocking orbs woven together: three larger spheres enclose the remaining forms like a translucent cocoon, endowing the space in which it hangs with a ghostly presence. when it came to auction it realised $4,095,000.

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), ‘Banquette’ no. 356, circa 1954. Painted steel, original leather upholstery. 32½ in (85.6 cm) high; 59⅜ in (150.8cm) wide; 26¾ in (68cm) deep. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Design on 13 December at Christie’s in New York

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As for Prouvé, he’s renowned for furniture that combines beauty and visionary design, qualities found in two of Kaplen’s purchases: the ‘Banquette’ no. 356 and the ‘Direction’ model no.353 Swivel Chair.

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984) ‘Direction’ model no.353 Swivel Chair, circa 1951. Painted steel, diamond point sheet aluminium, original leather upholstery, oak. 28¾ in (73 cm) high; 26½ in (67.3 cm) wide; 24½ in (62.2 cm) deep. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Design on 13 December at Christie’s in New York.

When Kaplen started his collection, modernist figures such as Moholy-Nagy, Asawa, Prouvé and Jouve were little or barely known in the USA. Rare was the person who was aware of these artists, let alone had the vision, the taste and the foresight to acquire their work. The late Alexander Kaplen was one such individual.

For more, read our special publication on Modernist Masterpieces: The Alexander Kaplen Collection.

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