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
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.
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.
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,
$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?
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.