Gael Neeson with Eric Fischl, Stefan, 1999. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork © Eric FischlARS, NY and DACS, London 2020. Rabbit © Jeff Koons

Collecting stories: Gael Neeson

Gael Neeson and her late husband Stefan Edlis began their adventures in art in the 1970s, creating what would become one of the world’s greatest collections of modern masterpieces. Here she offers us a tour of the artworks in her Chicago home

Gael Neeson is walking me through her expansive home in a landmark tower on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, showing me the art that she and her late husband, Stefan Edlis, amassed over almost half a century. It’s an assemblage that James Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has called ‘one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art’ in existence.

We’re in what Neeson calls the Richard Prince bedroom. Or rather we’re not, because owing to restrictions on international travel, I am in London and we’re talking on WhatsApp. She points the camera on her phone to a Nurse  painting above the bed — one of a series of images that Prince took from the covers of hospital-set trash fiction — and the surgical masks assume an additional resonance.

‘This used to be a Lichtenstein bedroom,’ she says. ‘But we gave the Lichtensteins to the Art Institute.’ A single drawing remains. ‘I was the drawing collector. Stef didn’t like collecting them. You know, because they can fade.’

‘Stefan came to the States as a refugee with five dollars, but he was always generous. Giving to people was always his way’

Today, the galleries housing their collection are almost a museum within the museum, a chapter in the story of art as the Art Institute tells it, shaped by two civic-minded Chicago citizens in the tradition of the great 19th- and early 20th-century collectors who shaped American museums.

A sitting room with works by artists including Robert Rauschenberg (Retroactive II, 1963), Tom Wesselmann (Great American Nude #41, 1962), Jeff Koons (Rabbit, 1986 and Gazing Ball (Esquiline Venus), 2013), Richard Prince (Back to the Garden, 2008) and Ron Mueck (Dead Dad, 1997-97), and a table and chairs by Diego Giacometti. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks © Damien Hirst and Science
A sitting room with works by artists including Robert Rauschenberg (Retroactive II, 1963), Tom Wesselmann (Great American Nude #41, 1962), Jeff Koons (Rabbit, 1986 and Gazing Ball (Esquiline Venus), 2013), Richard Prince (Back to the Garden, 2008) and Ron Mueck (Dead Dad, 1997-97), and a table and chairs by Diego Giacometti. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020; © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020; © Jeff Koons; © Richard Prince; © Ron Mueck; Diego Giacometti © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

‘Stef would say everybody got a good deal,’ she says. ‘We wanted the collection to stay together because it reflects our life. And it means so much to us to share it. We get lovely notes from people who’ve been moved by it. And that’s very rewarding. Stefan came to the States as a refugee with five dollars, but he was always generous. Giving to people was always his way.’

Celebrated as much for their philanthropy as their collecting, in 2015 the couple made an unprecedented donation of 44 works to Chicago’s pre-eminent museum — nine stellar Warhols as well as works by Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Brice Marden, Takashi Murakami, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Ugo Rondinone, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and others, together worth in excess of half a billion dollars.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Esquiline Venus), 2013 (detail). Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork © Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Esquiline Venus), 2013 (detail). Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork: © Jeff Koons

The Art Institute hasn’t been the only beneficiary: the organisations supported by the couple’s foundation embrace a range of causes, but the arts — especially visual art — are its raison d’être. ‘We wanted to give back to those institutions that have given us so much in our lives,’ says Neeson. 

The Whitney in New York has named its sixth-floor outdoor gallery after them. There can’t be a cultural institution in Aspen that hasn’t benefited. And it’s thanks to them that the MCA Chicago has Jasper Johns’s seminal 1961 painting In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara  and a Jeff Koons Rabbit, another of which Christie’s sold last year for $91 million.

Charles Ray, Study for a sleeping mime, 2012. Artwork © Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Charles Ray, Study for a sleeping mime, 2012. Artwork: © Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

As Neeson said in the 2018 film The Price of Everything, they bought it in 1991 for $945,000 at ‘a time when the market was not very strong, and everybody was saying you’re crazy paying that much. But Stef and I felt that no matter what the value, it was going to belong to us, and that was the most important thing. So we snapped it up.’

Does she miss it? ‘We kept a percentage for ourselves, so that we can have it back whenever it’s not on show or out on loan. So I can enjoy it here when it’s not travelling. But I’m happy that the museum has it whenever they need it for whatever they want to do with it. It’s for them.’

A similar condition explains how Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II, the poster image from Tate Modern’s 2016 retrospective and now in the MCA Chicago’s collection, is hanging in her apartment when we speak, just one of more than 100 stellar works she lives with day to day.

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, and Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks © Jeff Koons; © Robert Rauschenberg FoundationVAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020
Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, and Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks: © Jeff Koons; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020

We’ve begun in her study, by Eric Fischl’s portrait of Stefan, who died in October 2019 aged 94 and who embodied the American dream. Born in Vienna, he came to the USA as a refugee in 1941, served in the Navy during the war, then got a job making moulds for a toolmaker. By 1954 he was running the company, and 11 years later he set up on his own, establishing what became the Apollo Plastics Corporation.

Neeson’s story is scarcely less extraordinary. Born towards the end of the war, in Melbourne, Australia, she trained as a medical technician, operating equipment that scans electrical activity in the brain. Before embarking on a career, however, she left Australia to see the world — then as now ‘a rite of passage’, she says.

There was a lot of emigration to Australia from Greece and Italy at the time, and inexpensive fares were available on ships returning to Europe. ‘So all the immigrants would arrive, and the young graduates would leave. Most of them returned. I’m one of the ones who didn’t.’ 

She sailed alone, on a voyage that took her first to Perth, then to Cape Town, the Canary Islands and eventually through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. ‘I disembarked in Naples,’ she says. ‘That’s where the adventure began.’

Gael Neeson with My Wife, 2006, and Double Nurse, 2001, both by Richard Prince. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks © Richard Prince
Gael Neeson with My Wife, 2006, and Double Nurse, 2001, both by Richard Prince. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks: © Richard Prince

In Rome, she found work as a stenographer and translator for an American film company that was making spaghetti westerns. (‘I actually met Anthony Quinn!’ she says.) In time, she travelled north to Switzerland, and thence to London, where she was hired by the Cunard Line just as the Queen Elizabeth 2  was about to make its maiden voyage. ‘And then, on my way home to Australia, I came to the States where I got stuck, and here I am still.’

In the winter of 1974 she met Edlis, skiing in Wisconsin. He, she recalls, was ‘the Skimeister  and I was a beginner. His control and style downhill were superb. And after that he whisked me to Aspen, where I became a Skimeister, too, and earned my  medals. That’s real skiing!’

Back then, Edlis was just starting to collect. He had a painting by Norman RockwellSpring, Man and Girl Hiking, says Neeson unexpectedly — the artist had been a client of a lithographic printer’s Edlis had a business interest in. 

But it was meeting the collector Gerald Elliott that changed everything. ‘It was an education,’ she says. He introduced them to a collectors’ group at the MCA Chicago. ‘We would meet once a month in someone’s home, and there would be a critic or an artist.’ Neeson took classes at the museum, too. ‘Ira Licht was a great teacher,’ she recalls.

Ron Mueck, Big Baby 3, 1996-7. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork © Ron Mueck
Ron Mueck, Big Baby 3, 1996-7. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork: © Ron Mueck

Elliott wasn’t just a friend who advised Edlis, however. ‘Gerry also fancied himself as a dealer,’ says Neeson, ‘so if he tired of something, he’d sell it to Stefan.’ 

She points her phone towards a painting by Larry Rivers called The Four Mollys. ‘He thought we should start with that,’ she says. ‘So he told us to look up the artist in the Encyclopaedia Britannica  and recommended a lot of other books. And we pored over them.’ Satisfied with their due diligence, they bought it, and here it hangs to this day.

Another turning point came when Christie’s opened in the US in 1977. Among the lots at its first Impressionist and Modern sale was a Mondrian, Large Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow.  ‘And Stefan became so excited by it,’ she recalls. ‘He happened to have some money at that time, and he wanted to buy it.’

But again, he was careful to take advice. ‘What do you think?’ she says he asked the Chicago gallery owner Donald Young. ‘Is Mondrian here to stay?’ Reassured that he was, Edlis paid $675,000 for it. Suddenly, the couple were major collectors. 

‘That painting opened a lot of doors to us. It certainly made our name, and we saw loads of fantastic art. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot more money, but we couldn’t resist and kept on buying.’

Ed Ruscha, How Do You Do, 2013. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork © Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha, How Do You Do?, 2013. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork: © Ed Ruscha

Back then, she says, ‘Most of the sophisticated collectors were buying Abstract Expressionism.’ Their tastes, however, tended to modern European and Pop art: Warhol, Johns, Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist. ‘We discovered you could buy art that had just been painted, not just work out of books. And that was even more exciting.’

So they sold their modern paintings and decided to focus on Pop, limiting their collection to a maximum of 200 works by no more than 40 artists. ‘So whenever we decided to bring in a new artist, we would deaccession: one in, one out. We were very strict. It’s sad, some of the things we’ve sold. But it had to be done.’

Inevitably, friendships developed with those whose work they kept buying. ‘Artists and dealers and collectors have always socialised together,’ she says. ‘But Stef would always say he didn’t want to be really friendly with artists, because he would be openly critical of some of them. He never let friendship influence what we bought.’ 

Even so, several were regularly invited to Aspen. ‘Eric [Fischl] would come. And we really clicked with John Currin and Rachel Feinstein.’ Cindy Sherman, a room of whose work we have entered, is another artist she got to know.

Maurizio Cattelan, Good Versus Evil, 2003. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork © Maurizio Cattelan
Maurizio Cattelan, Good Versus Evil, 2003. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artwork: © Maurizio Cattelan

Our tour continues, past works by George Condo, Urs Fischer, Claes Oldenburg, Charles Ray, Tom Sachs, Ugo Rondinone, Luc Tuymans, Cy Twombly, Warhol. There’s a Glenn Brown sculpture, a Lisa Yuskavage. She pauses before Ed Ruscha’s huge canvas, How Do You Do?, which she describes as a really great painting’, and again by Maurizio Cattelan’s Good Versus Evil  chessboard, noting that ‘Sigmund Freud is the only figure who appears on both sides’.

We spend time with the Koons works: two Gazing Balls, a Popeye  and a miniature Seated Ballerina. ‘Stef loved that little ballerina,’ she says. ‘He bought it the summer before he died.’

‘I spend a lot of time looking at my art and thinking about it. It seems that art is more important than ever now’

‘And here’s Damien,’ she says as we arrive in a corner hung with Hirst’s spot paintings and cabinets, flanking a formaldehyde-filled tank. Black Sheep  was a work they first encountered while in Venice for the Biennale and paid $5 million for. ‘That was quite a project to install. Stef was really the shepherd of that Black Sheep,’ she says.

There’s also a spin painting. ‘Damien sent me this after Stefan died, which I thought was really so sweet of him.’

Gael Neeson with Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2011-13, and a partial view of Prince’s Double Nurse, 2001. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks © Richard Prince
Gael Neeson with Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2011-13, and a partial view of Prince’s Double Nurse, 2001. Photograph by David Kasnic. Artworks: © Richard Prince

We finish where we’d started in her study, among the Fischls. ‘And there’s my little cat,’ she says, pointing to a circle of fur on the edge of her desk. ‘Is it a real one?’ I venture, expecting to be caught out. The bag of litter I’d seen in another room I knew to be the Robert Gober sculpture Cat Litter.

‘Well it’s not a Maurizio Cattelan,’ she laughs. There’s been a lot of laughter, and there is a lot of Cattelan in the apartment, including his unnerving Hitler figure, Him  (2001), which kneels between the stacks in the library (though even that is not as shocking as Ron Mueck’s hyper-realistic sculpture Dead Dad, beneath a glass coffee table in one of the sitting rooms).

‘No, she’s a real kitty-cat. A Birman. She’s been a great companion. She’s helped me, she really has.’

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And the faintest of cracks in Neeson’s bright, brave demeanour begins to reveal itself. ‘I knew with Stefan gone I would be spending time by myself, but the pandemic was a little more than I was expecting. It was frightening at first. 

‘Like everybody, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I spend a lot of time looking at my art and thinking about it. And I’ve managed to calm down and find peace. It seems that art is more important than ever now.’