Sometimes the story behind private art collections is as interesting as the art itself. More than most, it is true of "Art, Friendships and the New York School," an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. It's a microcosm of abstract expressionism, a mid 20th century movement that changed art history.
And it belonged to Benjamin Gollay, not because he cared so much about the art, but because he cared about those who created it.
The story, like the art, is a uniquely New York one.
Gollay was an attorney there when he met Harold Rosenberg, who was to become an influential arts writer, in the mid 1950s.
Their wives were friends. They had daughters about the same age, so the families became close. Rosenberg knew many artists and drew his friend Gollay into that circle.
"My father had this wise, sage way about him," his daughter, Elinor Gollay, says. "He would help these artists who came to him for advice about ex-wives, gallery owners, whatever, and I suspect he never charged for it."
The artists began to pay him in another way, by giving him art. And if money was tight, he would buy their art, typically handing over money before he even knew what he was paying for.
Canvases began stacking up in Gollay's home, covering the walls, says Elinor Gollay.
"He had taste but I think he was much more interested in the artists as people," she says. In the 1950s her father began buying land in Long Island, including a weekend house. "He loved having house guests, having parties. Many artists had moved out there because it was so cheap and the light was so good. It wasn't the expensive, glamorous place it is now. Lots of farms. They would come over to visit all the time."
Today those starving artists read like an abstract expressionist who's who.
The most famous of the group in Gollay's collection are Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. But there are a number of strong supporting players who are getting deserved new notice, including Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, Elaine de Kooning, Dorothy Dehner, Robert de Niro Sr. and Milton Resnick.
The Gollays divorced in the 1950s, and in 1966 he married Jean Block, a successful editor and freelance writer. De Kooning gave them a painting from his famous Woman series as a wedding gift inscribed "To Ben and Jean." Gollay died in 1983. She now lives in Venice, Fla., which is how the collection came to the museum for a visit.
Jean Gollay has lots of anecdotes about the group. One about painter Herman Cherry, known for his luminous colors:
"Herman was a lively guy," Jean Gollay says, "and he had an eye for a pretty girl. He was at the Cedar Bar, or one of those watering holes they all hung out in, in Greenwich Village. A young woman was sitting at the other end of the bar with a young man. He gets up to do something and she scoots down the bar to Herman. 'Let's get out of here,' she says to Herman. 'What about your date?' he says. 'Never mind him,' she says. So they have a lovely evening together and he wakes up in the morning, smells coffee, goes into the kitchen and says, 'How nice of you to make breakfast for me.' 'Oh, it's nothing for an artist as great as Franz Kline,' she says. 'But I'm Herman Cherry,' he says. She got her coat and left without another word."
Kline, also a friend, is absent from the collection.
"Ben would never ask for art," Jean Gollay says. "An artist had to offer it. Harold (Rosenberg) told him that Kline thought Ben didn't like his work because he never asked for it. So Ben was going over the next day to get a painting but Kline died that same day."
Indeed, who is and who is not in the collection illustrates how charged and competitive the atmosphere was in those days, when daring young American artists caused a seismic shift in how people thought about art, and the sphere of greatest influence moved from Paris to New York. Rosenberg and his rival, fellow critic Clement Greenberg, chose those artists who they believed best incorporated the tenants of this new art, which was based on abstraction and spontaneous method but with an emotional, soul-baring component. So you won't see Jackson Pollock here, for example, since he was allied with Greenberg, and Rosenberg would not have introduced him to Gollay.
Which is why this collection is so interesting and quirky. Because its owner wasn't really a collector. I can't think of a single other collection of this caliber that was built by someone who cared so little about its particulars yet valued it so greatly for what it represented. In his daughter's words, it was "inadvertent."
Thus, there are no great revelations in it, no new insights to be had and no great individual examples, as exemplary as the artists' roster is, since Gollay did not chose specific art with any discrimination or thought as to its merit within an artist's body of work. But it's worth seeing because of its history and provenance and, even more, for the sense that we sometimes miss in exhibitions, of the realness of these men and women.
"I asked my father once why he liked artists and he said it was because they followed an unconventional lifestyle," says Elinor Gollay. "I don't think he loved the law. He grew up very poor and that was the way out."
Though she owns a sizable part of her father's collection, she was for years not a fan of abstract expressionism or of the artists, almost all male, who could be famously chauvinistic.
"It was part of the ethos of the time that no one would talk about the art, certainly not to someone like me," she says. "It was considered gauche to ask about it. It was this 'you get it or you don't' attitude. I found it to be an attitude of incredible arrogance and I think it has done a lot of damage to its reputation. Harold wrote about it but in a way that was opaque to the average reader. These people were breaking rules, pushing limits, exploring the ugly with the beautiful, the deliberate with the accidental. It's interesting whether you like it or not but if you don't understand the context you're not going to appreciate it."
She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and remains close to her stepmother. Her half of her father's collection has been on extended loan to the museum for years. Though she now appreciates abstract expressionism, she has her own contemporary art collection.
And unlike her father, she collects it as a conscious act.
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Jean and Elinor Gollay will join chief curator Jennifer Hardin at 4 p.m. today for a gallery talk. Free with admission.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.