Joan and Preston Robert Tisch, two of New York’s most prominent civic leaders, were as passionate about the arts as they were about philanthropy. Highlights of their collection are offered from 15-18 May at Christie’s in New York
In 1986, at the height of America’s AIDS crisis, Joan Tisch walked into the offices of New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis and asked to volunteer. It was a simple declaration that characterised her extraordinary spirit.
Born in Manhattan in 1927, Joan Tisch met Preston Robert Tisch, a fellow student and Brooklyn native, while studying at the University of Michigan. The couple married in 1948, and across nearly six decades became two of New York’s most prominent civic and philanthropic leaders.
Today, the Tisch name can be found throughout the city. ‘You could ask what would New York be without the Tisches,’ MoMA trustee Marie-Josée Kravis mused upon awarding the family the museum’s David Rockefeller Award in 2010. ‘I think a lot of institutions would be different.’
Of Joan Tisch’s many achievements, it is her work during the AIDS crisis with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis that remains most notable. ‘When Joan Tisch walked through the doors of GMHC in 1986,’ noted Marjorie J. Hill, the organisation’s former CEO, ‘no one could have predicted the impact she would have... let alone the influence she would exercise as one of the world’s most visible AIDS advocates and philanthropists.’
‘Across the Tisch collection there are moments of great figuration, but also fabulous abstract compositions by artists who are dealing with figuration and abstraction at the same time’
Tisch had lost several friends to AIDS, and understood the importance of personal volunteerism in fighting the virus. Whether she was stuffing envelopes or counselling patients, Tisch was a truly hands-on supporter. ‘For the first time in years of volunteering,’ she said of her early involvement with GMHC, ‘I had become emotionally involved.’
Joan Tisch’s appreciation for fine art was evident at the couple’s New York homes, where they lived surrounded by a striking collection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper. From bronzes by Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore to boldly coloured canvases by Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and others, their collection was a dynamic lesson in 20th-century creativity.
Tisch and her family sought to share this same visual and intellectual delight in the public sphere, as they contributed leadership and financial support to institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, home of the Tisch Galleries, and the Museum of Modern Art, where Joan Tisch served as a trustee and posthumously donated works by artists including Léger, Braque and Giacometti.
From 15-18 May, works from The Collection of Joan and Preston Robert Tisch will be offered in auctions across 20th Century Week at Christie’s in New York.
Joan Miró’s Femme entendant de la musique (above), a key highlight of the Tisch collection, will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale. ‘Painted just three days after Victory in Europe Day, on 11 May 1945, it represents a new and optimistic vein in Miró’s art,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York. In the animated calligraphy of Miró’s figures in Femme entendant de la musique, one senses the artist’s joy at the welcome, long-awaited news of peace.
A further standout from the collection is Fernand Léger’s Les trois femmes au bouquet (1922) — ‘a dazzling example of Léger’s neoclassicism’, according to Jordan. For Sara Friedlander, Head of Postwar and Contemporary Art in New York, the painting’s ‘breaking up of forms’ brings to mind the work of Roy Lichtenstein.
While previously Léger had concentrated on the mechanical aspects of modern city life, from 1920 the artist gave pride of place in his work to the female figure and the domestic interior. Les trois femmes au bouquet, which centres on the modest luxury of a floral bouquet, is a key signpost in this development.
‘Across the Tisch collection,’ notes Friedlander, ‘the conversation between figuration and abstraction is particularly interesting. There are moments of great figuration, but also fabulous abstract compositions by artists who are dealing with both of those issues at the same time.’
Alberto Giacometti’s La Clarière, cast between 1950 and 1952, is a good example. Between 1948 and 1950 Giacometti had embarked upon a series of astonishing multi-figure compositions. The figures were predominantly female, establishing the paradigm to which he would generally adhere for the rest of his career: woman as muse, modelled full-length, upright, immobile, viewed as if from a distance.
Giacometti initially conceived of these pieces as the representation of encounters between figures in a street setting. Composition avec neuf figures — better known as La Clairière (The Glade) — is the most populous of three multi-figure groupings.
Works from the collection by Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, offered on 17 May in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, veer more directly towards abstraction.
Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII was created during a highpoint of the artist’s career, the years between 1975 and 1978. Displayed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in 1978 — in what was his first solo museum show in New York in nine years — Untitled XVIII belongs to a select group of only about 20 paintings that the artist deemed worthy of exhibition.
Richard Diebenkorn merged formalist colour fields with more traditional subjects to revive a legacy of figurative depictions championed by the likes of Henri Matisse. In Untitled, painted in 1965, the central female figure is perched at the edge of a large yellow and ochre chair. With her body contorted and her gaze directed downward, her form dissolves into planes of colour and blends with the surroundings. Although the work is clearly figurative, it is easy to draw comparisons to Diebenkorn’s earlier landscape works which dissolved and divided Californian vistas into patchworks of colour.
Each in their own way, the exceptional Impressionist, modern and contemporary works offered from the Tisch collection in May are signature pieces.
‘Whether it’s the poetry of Miró, the sense of structure that’s always there with Léger, or the sense of the modern urban environment that’s inescapable in Giacometti, or how urgent was Picasso’s need to create art, in each case the Tisches chose very carefully,’ says Conor Jordan. ‘With this collection, you have a very representative example of the artist’s worldview.’