Any list of American collectors of great masterworks of art undoubtedly includes the late Paul Mellon (1907-1999) and his recently deceased wife Rachel “Bunny” Mellon (1910-2014). In my view, they were without a doubt our nation’s greatest cultural patrons who on many occasions so generously shared their magnificent art collections with the public.
Paul was the only son of banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) and he inherited not only his father’s prodigious wealth, but also his love of art collecting and his dedication to philanthropy. In the last years of his life, Mellon senior set about to create the National Gallery in Washington with a donation of paintings from his personal collection along with US$10 million to fund the construction of the building. Paul took over the project on his father’s death and over the course of his life, he and Bunny donated over 900 works of art to the gallery. And yet this was not his only artistic legacy: he also established the Yale Center for British Art at his alma mater. Bunny, on the other hand, loved art and really, really enjoyed horticulture – she was respected as a great authority on the subject. Having passed earlier this year at the age of 103, Sotheby’s New York will offer more than US$100 million worth of paintings, furniture and jewelry from her personal collection on behalf of charity.
No collector can go wrong acquiring ANY of the masterworks of art in this sale (although professional advice from a seasoned advisor knowledgeable of the market/condition/provenance/literature is a must for anybody purchasing art at this level) yet if I was asked by one of my clients, I would have to highlight four 20th century works of art that really speak to my aesthetic.
Amongst the masterworks of art found in the collection are two Mark Rothko (1903-1970) paintings. Some people may prefer the 1955 yellow and orange Rothko (lot 14) for its coloring, earlier date (and higher estimate!). I, on the other hand, prefer the above majestic piece (lot 6) being just one of three works the artist completed in 1970 before taking his own life. The darkness captured by the deep green swaths of color against the rich purple blue ground have long been seen as reflecting the mind of the troubled artist. I always find that Rothko’s works have to be experienced in person to truly appreciate their beauty. So amazingly elegant and simple, this piece fills a room with it’s presence. This painting hung in Mrs. Mellon’s home for over 40 years and has never appeared on the market.
Another of my favorite pieces is this masterwork of art by Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), the Italian artist known for his fantastically sculptural furniture. Lot 5, titled Table au Dragon a l’Oiseau, is a delightful white painted bronze cocktail table that on its base shows a bird drinking out of a bowl and a little “dragon” emerging from a tiny cave, looking curiously at the bird. Far more than just a pedestrian cocktail table, this is the perfect instance where art meets function. Admired as a work of sculpture, you can have this table in your living room and make full use of it.
Lot 23, Richard Diebenkorn’s monumental Ocean Park #50, had been on loan to the National Gallery in Washington until only just last summer. The painting’s strong horizontal bands of color beautifully contrast with the fluid lines of Rothko above. Here the abstracted landscape can just about be made out: the large expanse of purplish/greenish gray in the foreground that terminates in a deep blue band represents the sea while the bands of yellow and orange hover above as the horizon. I like to use abstract art in client’s spaces because the same piece will speak to different viewers in different ways. Where a classic portrait and landscape are pretty much what they appear to be (this is a vast generalization but serves as a point), a good abstract painting pushes the envelope and invites interaction.
For my final highlight, I merge a landscape painting with abstraction in lot 17, Cap Blanc Nez by Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955). Painted less than a year before the artist’s suicide, this landscape presents the artist’s view of the coastline in Cape Blanc Nez in northern France starkly contrasting plains of color forming the cliffs against the subtle blue of the North Sea beyond. This is classic de Stael with bright and bold colors used in solid blocks. The green jewel tones appear as though they could be lifted directly off the canvas and rearranged like a puzzle.
The Sotheby’s New York sale of the Mellon masterworks of art on 10 November 2014 promises to be one of a few true highlights of the Fall auction art season. Even if you don’t have the deep pockets to bid, I encourage you to visit the viewing that began 31 October 2014. To see these great masterworks of art hung alongside others by Picasso, Seurat, Braque, Klee and O’Keefe amongst others – including fabulous Old Masters of flowers and insects – should be a sight to behold. It’s also a great last chance to admire what’s left of one of the finest private collections of art.
Richard Rabel is a New York Interior Designer and Principal at Richard Rabel: Interiors+ Art, a design studio offering residential design, decorating and art advising services.
image credits: all Sothebys, New York; Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul “Bunny” Mellon Masterworks of Art; (from top to bottom) Lots 6 (Rothko), 5 (Giacometti), 23 (Diebenkorn) and 17 (de Staël). Sale 10 November 2014. Viewing 31 October – 10 November 2014.