When Natalie Gliedman was asked to name her favourite piece in the collection that she grew with her husband Marvin, she cited Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture, Man. As the name suggests, the work evokes a male figure. Noguchi has deconstructed and reimagined the human form in terms of horizontal planes and perpendicular surfaces — all smoothed, shaped and polished in the mind of a master carpenter.
‘It is unusual because it is wood,’ says Stephen Jones, a specialist in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art department. ‘It shows the grain and it has that deep amber colour, so you see the marriage between the finish and the elemental nature of the material. And Man is an early piece that starts to introduce the idea of the void. Noguchi became very interested in that: the spaces and absences between the parts that you can see.’
Mrs. Gliedman’s husband, Dr. Marvin Gliedman, was a distinguished surgeon, and it is tempting to see the Noguchi sculpture as a kind of lyrical alternative anatomy. Some of the shapes could be stylised bones, and the flattened head is as empty as the skull of a med-school skeleton.
But Jones warns against any kind of real-world reading of the piece. ‘Despite the title, I wouldn’t even want to say that it’s a statue of a man,’ he says. ‘Certainly Noguchi was looking at forms in nature, but it is always dangerous to ascribe concrete meanings to abstraction.’
‘The Gliedmans just went out and bought works that they felt a connection with. They enjoyed the process of acquiring artworks’ — specialist Stephen Jones
And the Gliedmans’ collection was all about abstraction — and about distraction. For Dr. Gliedman, Saturdays spent wandering the galleries of Madison Avenue in the company of his wife were a release from what he called the ‘cut and sew’ of his working life, an escape from the world of flesh-and-blood into something cerebral and ineffable.
‘They are part of a generation that started collecting in the 1960s,’ says Jones. ‘They just went out and bought works that they felt a connection with. They enjoyed the process of acquiring artworks, and they lived with everything that they owned. Nothing was ever in storage. All their art was right there in their Atlantic Beach home.’
As Mrs. Gliedman once put it: ‘We felt so lucky to have been able to live with such wonderful art.’
There is an admirable simplicity in that approach to collecting, but for the Gliedmans there was a definite underlying aesthetic. ‘I see a sense of style within the grouping,’ says Jones. ‘It is abstract, yes, but the collection is also poetic and graceful and elegant.’
Those qualities — poetry, grace, elegance — are all evident in the pieces from the Gliedman collection that are soon to come up for auction. Man will go under the hammer, as will a rare light sculpture also by Noguchi. Then there are two pieces by Alexander Calder, a post-war painting by the Swiss-born artist Fritz Glarner, and a number of works by Richard Diebenkorn. They make an intriguing group, and the threads of connection, the possible arcs of conversation, extend beyond their shared provenance and ownership.
So, for example, the sale includes a Calder maquette, a model of a public sculpture later installed as the centrepiece of Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. The finished work, entitled Triangles and Arches, is monumental and architectural; the maquette, though small enough to stand on a coffee table, is similarly impressive.
The other Noguchi work also has something animal about it (and it is impossible not to see, despite Stephen Jones’s caution against such comparisons). It is a light sculpture made from magnesite — and when the light is switched on, the sculptural form suggests some extinct bioluminescent sea creature. The sculpture has a lobster claw, a proboscis like the nose of a manatee, and from certain angles a distinctly fish-like profile. It is a beautiful and unfathomable thing, like the ocean itself.
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Like the sculptures in the group, the ‘flat’ works by Fritz Glarner and Richard Diebenkorn are engaged in an investigation of geometrical form. Glarner was a long-standing acquaintance of Piet Mondrian, whom he described as ‘my friend… my master’. The jostling quadrilaterals in Glarner’s Relational Painting #70 echo Mondrian’s colours, but they are syncopated and jazzy. They crowd the view like the skyline of New York, which is where the painting was made.
Among the Diebenkorn pieces is a print entitled Blue Loop, in which the triangular shapes and strong lines are reminiscent of the artist’s famous Ocean Park paintings. ‘There is the same suggestion of roads or telegraph lines that have been flattened,’ says Jones.
There is also a 1960 Calder mobile, sparse and delicate like a sapling in winter. It is a shade of vibrant red that Calder often turned to. ‘This piece is quintessential Calder,’ says Jones. ‘A great date, great form, and great colour. It hung in the corner of the Gliedmans’ living room.’
On special birthdays and anniversaries Dr. Gliedman liked to buy his wife pieces of Calder jewellery, so it is fair to assume that this floating, ever-changeable sculpture was another favourite piece. But maybe they were all favourite pieces. ‘I have the impression that they often found themselves standing in front of some work of art and just falling in love with it,’ says Jones. ‘They had no advisers, gave no thought to investment, they just collected for the sheer love of it.’