For the love of prints: the collection of Lois B. Torf
The only thing Lois Torf loved more than prints was sharing the joy of collecting with others
During the early 1960s, Lois Torf entered uncharted territory when she sought to build what would ultimately become one of America’s most significant print collections. Entirely self-taught, the collector and philanthropist possessed a confident eye, powerful intuition, and an expressive voice that rendered her a force in the tight-knit print community and larger Boston art scene.
This autumn, more than 350 prints she amassed during her lifetime will be offered in a series of auctions at Christie’s: A Graphic Dialogue: Prints from the Collection of Lois B. Torf on 15 September in New York and A Graphic Dialogue: Prints from the Collection of Lois B. Torf Online from 2-16 September.
‘What is most impressive to me is that Lois had a very defined sense of self in her collecting and really trusted her own gut,’ says Lindsay Griffith, Head of the Prints and Multiples department in New York. ‘She enjoyed the study and practice of collecting and was extremely methodical.’
Torf’s daughter Adrienne, a nonprofit financial consultant and professional pianist and composer, recalls how her mother’s ‘continuous education and appreciation’ entailed frequent independent travel to auctions, museums, and galleries. ‘It was not a given in the ’60s or ’70s that a husband would feel comfortable with his wife going on the road as she did to put together this collection,’ says Adrienne of her late father, an entrepreneur, who financially and emotionally supported Lois’s devotion to prints. ‘He had tremendous pride in my mother’s accomplishments. There was understanding that it was important for them to each pursue their life’s passions.’
Becoming a collector: collaboration, strategy and discipline
Nearly every inch of wall space in the Torf’s home — a Brutalist-style concrete house designed by architects Mary Otis Stevens and Thomas F. McNulty in 1971 — was covered with prints hung salon style. Downstairs, hundreds more were stored in museum-quality flat files and frequently examined.
‘I think of it as my mother’s ritual: handling the prints, bringing them out of the files, laying them down, removing the glassine to get as close as possible,’ remembers Adrienne. ‘One of the life skills I gained growing up as her daughter was learning how to properly handle prints.’
‘Handling the prints like that also gave my mother a chance to tell the story behind each one. These are really the pages of her life story,’ explains Adrienne, adding how in her later years, her mother’s memory remained remarkably sharp. ‘She remembered when she bought each print, from whom, and could tell a little anecdote about it.’
As a beginning collector, Torf was drawn to prints for their affordability. Even as she became more knowledgeable in the field, acquiring more and more rarities, ‘everything was intentional and studied,’ says Adrienne. ‘There were no impulse buys. She was disciplined and did this on a pre-determined budget.’
Torf worked in conjunction with local curators, dealers, scholars, and fellow collectors, including Dick Caves, a Harvard economics professor whose voracious appetite for prints perfectly complemented Torf’s. The two formed a uniquely collaborative relationship entirely around the medium, where they would study prints and even strategize to co-invest in portfolios at auction that they would then split.
‘It takes somebody with a strong temperament to decide in the 1960s to build a concrete house, or to buy German Expressionist prints because of the power of those images’ — Adrienne Torf
Another treasured friend who further enriched Torf’s collection was esteemed Boston gallerist Barbara Krakow of Krakow Witkin Gallery, which specialises in Minimalism and conceptual art. She writes of Torf:
‘What makes a great collector:
A collector is one who is always sought after to learn from
A collector is one who shares with others their knowledge
A collector is one who museums borrow from
A collector is one who is dedicated, passionate about what they collect
A collector is one who searches, researches in depth, investigates, discovers and falls in love
A collector is one who stays true to her path
Such a collector was Lois Torf.’
The power of prints as a graphic and sensory medium
Torf’s pursuit of prints was both social and solitary. ‘My mother did not identify as a person with a disability, but since her late teens, she had profound hearing loss and only functioned with the use of two hearing aids and lip reading,’ says Adrienne, suggesting that the sensory experience of viewing and handling prints was all the more potent and meditative for Torf. ‘I think that heightened what was already an extraordinary visual capability.’
Above all, Torf believed in the power of prints as a graphic medium. ‘She really responded to the strength of the images and truly believed in printmaking as an expressive vehicle for an artist’s intent,’ says Griffith, who as a specialist for this category, particularly admires Torf’s own appreciation for the technical aspects of the printing process.
‘There’s a Kirchner print where you can see the outline of the uneven stone, or a Munch where the grain of the wood is coming through, as well as a Baselitz linocut where the ink is thick and rich. The collection is in every way an illustration of what this medium can be,’ Griffith adds.
Adrienne, too, believes that beyond their relative affordability, the tactility of prints is also what makes them such a democratic medium. ‘So often we’re told, ”don’t touch the art,” but prints only come into the world through having been touched by someone other than the artist, so there’s no invisible barrier that warns us away,’ she explains. ‘People who know prints well understand that these works have been touched, sometimes very vigorously, during their creation.’
Collection themes and highlights
Because prints are produced in editions, not only can more people experience acquiring them, but they can also collect certain genres or narratives in depth. One of the prominent threads in Torf’s collection stemmed from her love for strong, black-and-white images, which began with early German Expressionism.
‘These works are often viewed as difficult, but their intensity resonated with Lois,’ notes Griffith who, among other black and white images in the collection, highlights Cy Twombly’s Untitled I, a rare-to-market, large-scale print that has already been requested to be part of a show devoted to the artist at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 2023.
Torf also acquired an extensive collection of Cubist prints, such as those by Georges Braque, as well as Pablo Picasso prints from nearly every decade he worked. Prints by Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer are among the contemporary European lots.
In addition to her European works, Torf extensively collected works produced during the American printmaking renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s. Andy Warhol’s Marilyn joins early Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns pieces. Robert Rauschenberg’s Booster, which Griffith says is ‘arguably the most important print the artist ever made,’ is one of numerous portraits in the sale and offers an interesting counterpoint to Max Beckmann’s striking Self-Portrait in a Bowler Hat.
Of course, these names have attained blue-chip prestige since Torf brought them into her collection. ‘That was one of her pleasures — going through catalogues after the sales and noting the prices, not because my mother was looking at this as a return on her investment, but rather because it reflected so favourably on her own instincts,’ says Adrienne.
Philanthropy and education
‘Lois Torf collected prints for over 30 years and during that time gained more from, and contributed more to, the field than any other collector I have known,’ says Richard Lloyd, International Head of Christie’s Print Department. ‘Lois also connected with people as instinctively as she did the works themselves. Artists, printers, dealers, curators, and, of course, fellow collectors, all fell into her orbit, attracted by her personality, her enthusiasm and her desire to show others how rewarding the life of a collector can be.’
In addition to donating and loaning countless works for exhibitions, Torf served on boards and committees of many art institutions in the Boston area. She was a Trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for over 30 years (in 1983, the museum named a gallery in honour of the Torfs’ contributions), as well as Trustee of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston for over 20 years. Additionally, her academic committee involvement included Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Boston University School of Fine Arts and the Rose Art Museum at Brandies University.
‘My mother was absolutely fearless talking to curators. She’d tell them a museum needs to be bolder in its selections,’ says Adrienne. ‘It took people a while to get used to that because she didn’t mince words. She wasn’t cruel or heavy handed; she was forceful, but it takes somebody with a strong temperament to decide in the 1960s, for example, to build a concrete house, or to buy German Expressionist prints because of the power of those images.’
Torf became known as a respected and intrepid leader in the arts. As a fundraiser for the ICA Boston, she offered classes on buying prints at auction. After teaching how to read a catalogue, conduct research, and above all, the importance of buying what you love and want to live with, the course culminated in a ‘field trip’ to New York where students bid in an auction. The impact of this class was significant for those who attended, and many have gone on to have significant collections of their own.
Torf’s impact and daring taste can still be felt on an institutional level as well. ‘It has often been assumed that I advised and guided Lois in her collecting. It was, in reality, a mutual interchange or dialogue about individual artists and works of art,’ remembers Clifford S. Ackley, Emeritus Ruth and Carl Shapiro Curator of Prints & Drawings at the MFA Boston. ‘In point of fact, Lois’s taste in contemporary graphic art was so bold and original that I often learned from her, rather than the other way around.’