‘He lived in the now’: the legacy of S.I. Newhouse
Christie’s will present 16 masterpieces from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, the third in a series of historic sales from the legendary Condé Nast co-owner who built one of the greatest art collections of the 20th century
S.I. Newhouse Jr. was passionate and driven in his collecting. The late Condé Nast co-owner was willing to go to any length for a painting he truly loved. In 1988, he had his sights set on False Start (1959) by Jasper Johns, one of his favourite artists. He acquired the work for $17 million. The price was the highest paid at auction for an artwork by a living artist at the time, signalling Newhouse’s commitment to the highest-level of contemporary art. Thirty years later, the record would again be broken with the sale of another work from his own unrivalled collection.
Just as Johns’s use of language and abstraction in False Start broke boundaries in painting, Jeff Koons’s iconic Rabbit ushered in a new era of contemporary sculpture upon its debut in 1986. Cast in an edition of three plus an artist’s proof, the stainless-steel balloon bunny holding a carrot melds Minimalist sheen with a seductive, inscrutable playfulness.
By 2019, all but one in the edition resided in major museums. The Rabbit from Mr. Newhouse’s collection, the last in private hands, made a sensation that year, when it sold for $91,075,000 at Christie’s New York, making it the most expensive work by a living artist to be sold at auction. The record-breaking Koons was presented alongside 11 other major works from the Newhouse collection, including Paul Cezanne’s Bouilloire et fruits. The sale realised a grand total of $216,287,500.
This May, Christie’s is proud to present 16 groundbreaking works in Masterpieces from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse, a standalone evening auction during the 20th and 21st Century sale week in New York. This will mark the exciting third chapter of the media magnate’s famed art collection at Christie’s, which began with the sale of Francis Bacon’s incomparable portrait Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing in 2018.
Shaping the culture with fearless instincts
As the long-time chairman of the media empire that included The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and many other leading publications, Mr. Newhouse was a hugely influential figure in American cultural life. Guided by his renowned taste, he became one of the greatest art collectors of the 20th century. His collection of modern and contemporary masterworks remains, as the curator Mark Rosenthal told Christie’s in 2019, ‘one of the most sought-after groupings of art in private hands’.
‘He was mythical,’ says Tobias Meyer, advisor to the Newhouse family. ‘He had the reputation of being very determined, and he inspired others to be determined in their collecting as well. He showed them how to be passionate, which also made many people want to own his paintings.’
Mr. Newhouse became the publisher of Vogue in 1964 after his father purchased Condé Nast publications in 1959. By 1975, he was chairman of the media conglomerate. In the ’60s, he first became interested in colour field painting via Alexander Lieberman, then Editorial Director of Condé Nast, who introduced him to Barnett Newman.
Through his friendship with the celebrated Abstract Expressionist painter, Mr. Newhouse learned about art at its source, engaging directly with the practitioners who were pushing the form forward. He filled his duplex penthouse on East 73rd Street with works by Newman, as well as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Mark Rothko, hanging massive canvases cheek-by-jowl in stunning arrays.
Driven by intellectual curiosity
Mr. Newhouse loved the hunt, and he developed a knack for identifying pivotal works that uniquely reveal an artist at the height of their powers.
‘He would make up his mind incredibly quickly,’ says Meyer. ‘If he made the decision to buy something, nobody outbid him.’
In the 1990s after living in a townhouse with ample room for large-scale works of art since 1969, Mr. Newhouse and his wife, Victoria, moved to the apartment on Beekman Place, which led to the sale of some of his largest pieces, which he replaced with more intimate works by the same artists. At this time, Mr. Newhouse also expanded into collecting the earlier masters of modernism, including Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.
‘I think S.I.’s biggest joy was to stay current. As a publisher, it’s essential to be alert, to live in the present and not dwell in the past. And that informed his collecting, which was always evolving and looking forward’ —Tobias Meyer
In the apartment Jeff Koons’s Rabbit stood facing Pablo Picasso’s Pregnant Woman (1950). The two sculptures share a similar scale and burgeoning, rounded forms, forging an unexpected connection between the master of modernism and that of Post-Pop. Such juxtapositions were natural to Mr. Newhouse, who displayed his collection in striking configurations that brought layered art historical through-lines into relief.
‘All layers of his collecting could co-exist, with individual works competing for interest, or challenging for the approbation of “holding up.” S.I. knew that the act of installation was imbued with the possibility of reinvigoration and discovery,’ Mark Rosenthal reflects.
For example, Roy Lichtenstein’s Rouen Cathedral, Set IV (1969) hung in the sightline of Cezanne’s Bouilloire et fruits, reifying the bridge between Impressionism and Pop art.
Works that defined their artists
Beyond his record-setting acquisition of False Start in 1988, Mr. Newhouse was an enthusiastic collector of other works by Jasper Johns, three exquisite examples of which will be offered in May. Among them, the seminal 1971 painting Decoy combines reproductions of Johns’s early bronzes with the gestural brushwork of his Maps series and his signature stencilled lettering in one of the most complex paintings of the artist’s long career.
Picasso’s painting of Lee Miller L'Arlésienne (Lee Miller) from 1937 represents the most intricate portrait he painted of the American photographer. The canvas depicts Miller in Arlésienne costume — a tribute to Van Gogh — rendered in colourful, striated patterns. Miller was discovered as a model by Condé Nast himself, who put her on the cover of Vogue in 1927.
Another painting from the collection that showcases Mr. Newhouse’s singular taste is a daring 1940s black-and-white painting by Willem de Kooning. Exhibited in de Kooning’s first solo exhibition, Orestes (1947) is arguably one of the most important early paintings by the artist to remain in private hands. It finds de Kooning abandoning the last vestiges of figuration and embracing abstraction, coating the canvas with bold forms in painterly swaths of black.
In addition to his love of AbEx, Mr. Newhouse had much affection for contemporary British figurative painting, especially the works of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. This May’s auction will offer a Chardin-inspired scene by Freud, as well as an exquisite self-portrait by Bacon. Painted in 1969 using the intimate format that became a signature of the artist, the canvas shows an unusually contented Bacon, rendered with distinct tenderness and soft strokes. In Newhouse’s Beekman Place apartment, the Bacon self-portrait hung together with Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, overlooking the East River.
Whether Freud’s homage to Chardin or Picasso’s to Van Gogh, Mr. Newhouse was drawn to works embedded with rich art historical lineages. Rouen Cathedral, Set IV is no exception. The epic three-part painting finds Roy Lichtenstein interrogating Monet’s famous series, translating Impressionism into comic Ben-Day dots in one of the most perceptive compositions of his career.
A legacy of unmatched taste
This latest selection from the Newhouse collection also includes career-defining works by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Arshile Gorky, Brice Marden, Lee Bontecou and George Condo. Works of Newhouse pedigree bear the provenance of an exceptional tastemaker, one who, much like the artists he knew and loved, was a maverick with an eye toward the vanguard of artistic expression.
‘I think S.I.’s biggest joy was to stay current,’ says Meyer. ‘As a publisher, it’s essential to be alert, to live in the present and not dwell in the past. And that informed his collecting, which was always evolving and looking forward.’
Highlights from Masterpieces from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse will embark on a global tour, opening at Christie’s London in February.
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