State of the Art

Col­lec­ting is a pas­sion that be­gan ear­ly for Leo­nard Lau­der, even if it was on­ly post­cards that were wi­thin reach for the six-year-old Es­tée Lau­der heir. But as an adult he gra­dua­ted to pain­tings worth mil­lions of dol­lars, and has just do­na­ted a se­lec­tion

Numéro Homme - - English Text - In­ter­view by Matt Tyr­nauer, por­trait by Andres Ser­ra­no

Col­lec­ting is a pas­sion that be­gan ear­ly for Leo­nard Lau­der, even if it was on­ly post­cards that were wi­thin reach for the six-year-old Es­tée Lau­der heir. But as an adult he gra­dua­ted to pain­tings worth mil­lions of dol­lars, and has just do­na­ted a se­lec­tion of them – a col­lec­tion of 78 Cu­bist mas­ter­pieces – to New York’s Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art. In­ter­view by Matt Tyr­nauer, por­trait by Andres Ser­ra­no

In April of this year, Leo­nard Lau­der, the chair­man eme­ri­tus of The Es­tée Lau­der Com­pa­nies (foun­ded by his mo­ther and fa­ther, Es­tée and Jo­seph Lau­der, in 1946), do­na­ted his as­to­ni­shing col­lec­tion of 78 Cu­bist works to New York’s Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art. Amas­sed over 35 years, the col­lec­tion is among the world’s grea­test, ri­val­ling those at the Mu­seum of Mo­dern Art and the Her­mi­tage. It in­cludes 33 Pi­cas­sos, 14 Lé­gers, 17 Braques, and 14 pieces by Gris, and has been va­lued by Forbes ma­ga­zine at $1.1 bil­lion, ma­king it one of the lar­gest gifts ever to a mu­seum, as well as one of the grea­test phi­lan­thro­pic acts in his­to­ry. In one fell swoop, Lau­der trans­for­med the Met’s Mo­dern col­lec­tion, ma­king the mu­seum one of the lea­ding re­po­si­to­ries of the ear­ly Mo­dern form. He has said that he will conti­nue to col­lect Cu­bism, and he will conti­nue to do­nate new­ly ac­qui­red works to the Met for as long as he col­lects. Lau­der’s roots in the New York and in­ter­na­tio­nal art world run deep, and he has long been a Grand Poo­bah of the Ame­ri­can con­tem­po­ra­ry art scene, as a board mem­ber of the Whit­ney Mu­seum, where he now serves as chair­man eme­ri­tus. At the height of one of last sum­mer’s New York Ci­ty heat waves, Nu­mé­ro Homme sat down with Lau­der – whose first job at the fa­mi­ly com­pa­ny was de­li­ve­ring cos­me­tics on his bi­cycle be­fore school – in his pri­vate di­ning room on the exe­cu­tive floor of Es­tée Lau­der’s head­quar­ters, across from the Pla­za Ho­tel. The court­ly but down-to-earth phi­lan­thro­pist was ve­ry dap­per in an Ita­lian-cut seer­su­cker suit from Berg­dorf Good­man, and was sur­roun­ded by con­tem­po­ra­ry art by the likes of Mo­ther­well and Ch­ris­to, which hang in the ele­gant Lau­der of­fices.

Nu­mé­ro Homme: You star­ted col­lec­ting at a ve­ry young age, with Art De­co


Leo­nard Lau­der: I was six, pro­ba­bly six to ten, with post­cards of Mia­mi Beach Art De­co ho­tels.

I take it you were va­ca­tio­ning there?

No, I went to boar­ding school there, the Nor­man­dy School on Nor­man­dy Isle in Mia­mi Beach.

And what fas­ci­na­ted you about Art De­co and the post­cards?

The de­si­gn, the ro­mance of it, and the vi­vid co­lours. I mean they were real­ly ro­man­tic vi­sions. Here’s a ho­tel on a beach with a blue sky and the sand be­hind, and some um­brel­las on the sand – and there it is all alone in beau­ti­ful sun­shine. It was to­day and tomorrow all at the same time.

Do you have a fa­vou­rite ho­tel that you re­mem­ber in par­ti­cu­lar?

Ar­chi­tec­tu­ral­ly, it was the Shel­borne.

It’s one of the more De­cons­truc­ti­vist loo­king ones with ho­ri­zon­tal lines.

Would you say that you had a fas­ci­na­tion with ar­chi­tec­ture that conti­nued

throu­ghout your life? Or just the Art De­co per­iod?

It car­ried through my en­tire life. I was able to un­ders­tand ar­chi­tec­ture and fol­low a lot of ar­chi­tects, and I found them all fas­ci­na­ting. But to be a great ar­chi­tect in to­day’s world, you have to be not on­ly crea­tive but a great sa­les­man.

I as­sume one of your fa­vou­rite buil­dings is the Whit­ney Mu­seum? As

chair­man of the board you fought to pre­serve Mar­cel Breuer’s buil­ding.

I did.

Did you know Breuer? And what do you ad­mire about his de­si­gn?

I ne­ver knew him. I ad­mi­red what he did. I went to the buil­ding in the day. It was 1966, and eve­ryone cal­led it a “bru­tal de­si­gn.” I found it, on the contra­ry, ve­ry simple with clean lines – clean, clean, clean – and large open spaces. A friend­ly place. I’m a contra­rian. Eve­ryone ha­ted the buil­ding. I guess I love the ugly du­ck­lings.

The Breuer buil­ding has al­ways been in dan­ger it seems.

Eve­ry time you turn around it’s been in dan­ger from one year to ano­ther.

It seems as if you, al­most alone, of those who could ac­tual­ly have done

so­me­thing, were the per­son who real­ly rea­ched out to pro­tect that buil­ding.

That’s cor­rect.

And when Mi­chael Graves’s scheme was pro­po­sed in the 1980s, which

would have de­se­cra­ted the ele­gance of Breuer’s buil­ding, what were you

thin­king? And what did you do?

Most of the people who were in­vol­ved with that are still ve­ry much alive. Not all, but most. I would ra­ther not say. I can tell you la­ter on when the ma­chines are off.

Let’s move on to the art it­self. You made news re­cent­ly by do­na­ting

what people call per­haps the grea­test pri­vate col­lec­tion of Cu­bism in the world

to New York’s Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art. Why did you de­vote your­self so

tho­rough­ly to col­lec­ting Cu­bism? What at­trac­ted you to it?

I love the in­tel­lec­tual as­pects of it. It was a birth of abs­trac­tion, and you could see where [the ar­tists] came from, where they were and where they were going. It was that sense of trans­for­ma­tion about it that I lo­ved.

And when you star­ted col­lec­ting, did you stu­dy the his­to­ry of it and the

re­la­tion­ships bet­ween the ar­tists?

I al­ways stu­dy his­to­ry. You can’t un­ders­tand art wi­thout un­ders­tan­ding who pain­ted it, and their pri­vate lives and where they came from. And there are so ma­ny great sto­ries.

What are your fa­vou­rite sto­ries from that ve­ry dra­ma­tic per­iod?

Well, ac­cor­ding to Bill Ru­bin – who is a great scho­lar of art and a lo­ver of Cu­bism – Braque was one of the great pain­ters of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Pi­cas­so was one of the grea­test pain­ters in his­to­ry. Braque was the in­no­va­tor, ho­we­ver, and in the [1989 Mu­seum of Mo­dern Art] show, Pi­cas­so and Braque: Pio­nee­ring Cu­bism, Ru­bin made the point that Pi­cas­so ba­si­cal­ly co­pied Braque and did it bet­ter – to the point that Braque war­ned ma­ny of his fel­low ar­tists that if Pi­cas­so comes to your stu­dio, co­ver your pain­tings.

Who do you like bet­ter, Pi­cas­so or Braque?

Well, I have two chil­dren. Five grand­chil­dren. I love them all equal­ly. Look, can I tell you so­me­thing, each one of them brings so­me­thing to the table. And what I love about them is se­ve­ral things. Num­ber one: eve­ry year is dif­ferent. Eve­ry pain­ting is dif­ferent. Eve­ry mo­ment is dif­ferent! So that you can see their pro­gres­sion, you can see their mo­ve­ment, and at the same time you ce­le­brate the in­no­va­tion. That’s what I love about it.

That mo­ment in par­ti­cu­lar was among the most dra­ma­tic in terms of the

for­mal and in­tel­lec­tual shift. Did that at­tract you – the re­vo­lu­tion of it all?

Well, I’m a re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry in my heart. And most re­vo­lu­tio­na­ries know what they’re against. Ve­ry few, if any, know what they’re for. Con­ver­se­ly, I didn’t real­ly care what they were against, but I saw what they were for, what they were trying to do. Se­cond­ly, you can’t look at Cu­bism in the abs­tract. You have to re­mem­ber where it sprang from. That Im­pres­sio­nism was there, then you had the Ger­man Ex­pres­sio­nists, and then at the same time you had the Fau­vists in France. And Braque was a Fau­vist ar­tist. And so out of that soil of vi­vid co­lours and Fau­vism and Ger­man Ex­pres­sio­nism came Cu­bism. And Cu­bism then be­gat Fu­tu­rism. It’s like rea­ding the Bible, all the be­gats. So, when you consi­der where Cu­bism came from and what it gave birth to, there’s this whole in­tel­lec­tual mo­ve­ment that I love.

You said in your heart you’re a re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry. I find that so­mew­hat sur­pri­sing.

You don’t look like a re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry. What do you mean by that?

Well, I have red un­der­wear! Look, if you do the tra­di­tio­nal you are bo­ring to the ut­most. And so you should al­ways try to push the en­ve­lope. Now one of the things that I’ve al­ways li­ked was an ex­pres­sion in En­glish, which is “Maya.” People think it’s like the Mayans in Mexi­co. No, MAYA: “Most Ad­van­ced Yet Acceptable.” So if you keep on pu­shing the en­ve­lope and keep on trying to re­vo­lu­tio­nise – not by killing people like in the French Re­vo­lu­tion, but by al­ways pu­shing for­ward one way or ano­ther to al­ways make pro­gress – then you’re doing great things.

How have you tried to do that in your own life?

In my own life? Do we have about an hour or two or three or four?

Give me the top one.

Okay, well let’s start with what I’m col­lec­ting. No­bo­dy col­lec­ted Cu­bism. When I star­ted, people were col­lec­ting Im­pres­sio­nism. And then they were col­lec­ting Ab-Ex – Abs­tract Ex­pres­sio­nism. And then they were col­lec­ting Pop Art. I re­mem­ber being in one of the auc­tion gal­le­ries – I be­lieve it was Ch­ris­tie’s – and they had a few Cu­bist pic­tures up, and they had other things. A group of pa­trons ar­ri­ved at Ch­ris­tie’s loo­king in­tent­ly at the pain­tings they could un­ders­tand and wal­ked right past the Cu­bist works. Then I was in St. Petersburg, went to the Her­mi­tage, and there I saw a whole group of tou­rists mar­ching through the gal­le­ries with a flag up. They wal­ked right past the Cu­bists as if they didn’t exist. They didn’t see what I saw. No one saw what I saw. Ve­ry few people saw what I saw.

What year did you buy your first Cu­bist work?

I think it was 1976.

How did your friends react when you hung it on the wall in the li­ving room?

Did they di­sap­prove?

No, no. I’ll tell you this, ho­we­ver: I had an art group come up, and I took them on a tour. And then as they were lea­ving, one of the la­dies came up and shook my hand, and loo­ked lo­vin­gly in my eyes and said, “I want to tell you so­me­thing. I’ve been to ma­ny col­lec­tions and seen ma­ny, ma­ny great pain­tings, but you have the ni­cest frames I’ve ever seen.”

Tell me about the pieces you do­na­ted to the Met. If you had to pick one as a

fa­vou­rite, which would it be?

Well, again, I can’t pick a fa­vou­rite. Be­cause eve­ry one is a fa­vou­rite. But I did give them one that I ha­ven’t ful­ly do­na­ted yet. I gave one to an ex­hi­bit. That’s the one that was on the front page of The New York Times. It’s cal­led Eva [ Wo­man in an Arm­chair

(Eva), 1913, Pa­blo Pi­cas­so].

And what is it about it that you find so cap­ti­va­ting?

Well, Eva is sort of a sum­ma­tion of Pi­cas­so past, present, and fu­ture – all at the same time. And it is a por­trait, I be­lieve, of his mis­tress. And she’s sit­ting in an arm­chair, na­ked, with her breasts sho­wing. And there are Cu­bist ele­ments. There are al­so Sur­rea­lis­tic ele­ments. And she’s hol­ding in her hand a co­py of the news­pa­per, Le Jour­nal, which was one of the fa­vou­rites that ma­ny of the Cu­bists put in­to their pain­tings. Yes, I have pain­tings by Braque, Pi­cas­so, and Juan Gris all of which had the mas­thead of the news­pa­per So that it’s like one pic­ture that’s a sum­ma­tion of all that had come in the past and all that would be in the fu­ture.

Are there going to be blank spaces on your walls now?

Well, it’s a pro­mise gift. If there are blank spaces, it will be af­ter I’m gone. Things al­ways cir­cu­late, by the way. I’ve lent a lot over the years. I love len­ding be­cause I think col­lec­tors don’t own or pos­sess – they’re on­ly ever ca­re­ta­kers. So any­time there’s a mu­seum show of any kind, I lend.

So it’s ac­tual­ly a great joy for you to give this away.

The joy of li­ving is the joy of gi­ving.

Do you have a sto­ry about one of the “steals” you were able to find?

So­me­thing that has real­ly be­come an ack­now­led­ged mas­ter­piece and that

you were able to nab?

You don’t steal great things. You can get lu­cky by fin­ding great things, but you ne­ver steal great things. People of­ten talk proud­ly of what they’ve found here and there. I’ve ne­ver found any­thing where I chu­ck­led, “Oh, I’ve got so­me­thing for no­thing.” Ne­ver.

There is a sto­ry that I read quo­ting you, where you said that maybe 40 to 50 years ago you could walk in­to a gal­le­ry and buy a pain­ting for $1,000. I don’t think you were re­fer­ring to Cu­bist works, were you? I think it was in re­fe­rence to the New York art scene of the time which you found ve­ry ex­ci­ting. Yeah, that’s true.

Can you tell me about that mo­ment of ex­ci­te­ment in the art world?

Be­fore I was mar­ried, my pa­rents had a house in New York Ci­ty on East 77 th bet­ween Fifth and Ma­di­son. And right across the street from them was a new gal­le­ry cal­led the Leo Cas­tel­li Gal­le­ry. And eve­ry time I went there, there was so­me­thing new and in­cre­dible. I re­mem­ber going there when they had a show of lead re­liefs by an ar­tist I li­ked na­med Jas­per Johns. And they were, if I re­call,

Le Jour­nal.

$1,000 or $2,000 each. I said, “What? Pay all that mo­ney for a mul­tiple?” I’m sor­ry I didn’t buy them all! But I was ne­ver able to buy a pain­ting there, not be­cause I couldn’t af­ford it – be­cause I pro­ba­bly couldn’t have, any­way – but be­cause they didn’t know me and they on­ly sold to people they knew so they could build a col­lec­tion. So, for example, Ro­bert and Ethel Scull built a great col­lec­tion from Leo Cas­tel­li.

Why did you set­tle on the Met for your col­lec­tion?

Well, be­cause I felt that this col­lec­tion would trans­form them. I’m al­ways in­ter­es­ted in trans­for­ma­tions. If I had gi­ven this to ano­ther mu­seum it would have ad­ded strength in some places, but in the case of the Met, I felt that this gift would at­tract so ma­ny other people that it would be ex­tra­or­di­na­ry.

Did your mo­ther and fa­ther col­lect art?

They did, yeah.

What was their taste?

Ger­man Ex­pres­sio­nism.

That’s sort of a sur­prise to me, ac­tual­ly. Es­tée Lau­der seems like a Mo­net

per­son to me.

I’m here to sur­prise you.

Did their col­lec­ting influence you?

Not at all. I’m my own per­son.

Most people would ans­wer that by dis­hing up a nice anec­dote.

You were ve­ry ab­so­lute about that. Why did you have an op­po­site reac­tion?

Be­cause I star­ted col­lec­ting well be­fore they did.

You were col­lec­ting when you were six.

I col­lec­ted post­cards, then pos­ters, then prints, then pain­tings, etc.

So you were al­ways a col­lec­tor, but they we­ren’t un­til la­ter in life?

They al­so col­lec­ted the Vien­na Se­ces­sion. Klimt and Schiele, too.

Next year, the Whit­ney moves down­town. Are you sad to see it leave your


Well lis­ten, life goes on. You can’t be a mu­seum of con­tem­po­ra­ry art wi­thout ta­king risks. But the Breuer buil­ding will still be a great art mu­seum be­cause it’s being ta­ken over by the Met [to dis­play its Mo­dern col­lec­tions].

And you ar­ran­ged that, didn’t you?


Ren­zo Pia­no is the ar­chi­tect of the new buil­ding. Did you talk to him about

his de­si­gn be­fore he sho­wed it to you? Did you ask him to do any­thing in

par­ti­cu­lar? Did you re­quest any­thing?

You do not ask any­thing in par­ti­cu­lar of a great ar­chi­tect. But we’ve got­ten along ve­ry, ve­ry well. I’ve vi­si­ted with him here and there. I’ve seen him in Pa­ris. We took a tour of the buil­ding just a few weeks ago.

Is there any­thing about his de­si­gn that you think is par­ti­cu­lar­ly great?

Eve­ry­thing. But when it opens, I think that pro­ba­bly even more than the de­si­gn, the pre­cast concrete – I’m a de­tail per­son – is one of the most ele­gant things you’ll ever see.

When the Whit­ney opens it will be ve­ry far, com­pa­ra­ti­ve­ly spea­king, from

your apart­ment. How of­ten do you ex­pect to go there, and how will it feel,

psy­cho­lo­gi­cal­ly, for you to have it so far?

It doesn’t mat­ter where the Whit­ney lives be­cause that’s where art lives. And there are a lot of people down­town who have not had that ea­sy ac­cess to the up­town mu­seums, so even though it may be less conve­nient for me per­so­nal­ly, it’s going to be far more conve­nient for a whole host of young people who need that in their neigh­bou­rhood, and that’s going to be great for them. I’m hap­py.

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