NEW YORK - The opening date of The Triumph of Love, a major exhibition of her collection at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, is fast approaching, and Beth Rudin DeWoody still has no idea which works will be plucked from her extensive holdings of contemporary art.
“They have been culling,” DeWoody says, referring to a team from the Norton led by curator Cheryl Brutvan. Between residences in New York, Southampton, West Palm Beach and Los Angeles, there is clearly much to cull from. “It’s a lot,” is the answer DeWoody gives, with a mock sigh, when asked for a numerical tally of her holdings.
Beth Rudin DeWoody photographed by her husband, Firooz Zahedi, in their Palm Beach home. Photograph by Firooz Zahedi.
According to a report from the Norton, the figure is 10,000 – paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs as well as new media. So Brutvan clearly faced a daunting though enviable challenge in her mission to select approximately 300 works for the show.
DeWoody’s enormous Manhattan living room, overlooking the East River, seems to have at least that many pieces by artists ranging from Reginald Marsh, Jamie Wyeth, Sol LeWitt and David Smith to the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Roxy Paine, Matt Johnson and Lee Bul. “It’s a mixture of young and old,” says DeWoody about the assemblage.
The daughter of the late real estate mogul Lewis Rudin, DeWoody credits her early education at Manhattan’s Rudolf Steiner School for opening her eyes to art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark show New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970 (the institution’s first contemporary art show, curated by Henry Geldzahler, which opened in 1969), was hugely influential, too. “That show really sparked my love of contemporary art.”
But after her studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she majored in anthropology and cinema studies, DeWoody worked for a time in film, as a production assistant on such movies as Hair and Annie Hall. When the latter was shooting in Los Angeles, DeWoody demonstrated her ingenuity and charm. “I was staying with my mom and stepfather, who lived there. He had a really cool old Mercedes that I used to drive Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts around in. One day I took him shopping at J. Magnin. I saw a really great canvas jacket. I said to him, ‘Oh my god, you have to have that.’ He ended up wearing it in that scene when he’s in the car and flips his hood. Every time I see the movie and get to that scene, I laugh.
“Then when they were shooting a big party scene for two days, they wanted to get all these fancy cars. I borrowed my stepfather’s Mercedes, and called all my parents’ friends. Through Tina Sinatra I got Frank’s Maserati; from the Wilkersons, who owned the Hollywood Reporter, I got their Rolls Royce. After it was over, the production office gave me their standard rental fees for each car – $75 a day – in cash. Of course, none of those people wanted the money, so my husband and I used it to go on a trip.”
Beth was married to artist James DeWoody, with whom she has two children – Kyle (cofounder of Grey Area, the shop and site for artist-made wares) and Carlton (an artist and designer whose company, Reunion, recently designed the Hotel Tivoli, owned by artists Brice and Helen Marden). “So our family is just immersed in art,” says DeWoody, who since 2012 has been married to the renowned celebrity photographer Firooz Zahedi.
KARL BENJAMIN’S #4 (1967). © BENJAMIN ARTWORKS, REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION, MONICA MCGIVERN PHOTOGRAPHY.
DeWoody’s career as a collector began in the 1960s, when she started buying memorabilia and ephemera. “I always had a sense of history, that some things would be important to future generations.” And while her collection today is notable for its mixture of works by both established and younger artists, it seems clear that she has particularly enjoyed discovering new talent. “A lot of times I find young artists years before they get on the radar of the museums,” she says. “A lot of collectors wait until an artist gets a bit of fame. I think it’s important to help young artists. Even if you look at something when it gets to your house and you say – why did I buy that? Well, you buy it to help the artist.”
DeWoody laughs when asked to describe her methodology as a collector. “I’m very unscholarly, very spontaneous. I just buy what I like.”
Notwithstanding her modesty, she has achieved much. “Beth is a collector par excellence,” says Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “She has a voracious eye, and boundless curiosity. Her range of interests is astonishing.”
Weinberg also lauds DeWoody’s longtime work as a patron and philanthropist. At the Whitney, where she has served on the board for 30 years, she is something of an institution herself. “I love the Whitney and have been devoted to it all these years,” she says. “It’s a family museum. It feels like a family. And it’s an artist’s museum – it has so many great relationships with artists.”
In addition to serving as President of the Rudin Family Foundation, she also sits on the boards of such institutions as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Creative Time, The New School University, Design Museum Holon in Israel and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
For some time now, DeWoody has also distinguished herself as a curator. “Being a collector is fun, but I felt a bit stifled creatively. I wanted to express another side of myself. On the inside, I’m a curator.” Her résumé includes shows she has assembled at galleries in New York as well as in New Orleans, Vermont and London. All of them have been thematic group exhibitions; noteworthy shows in New York include Inspired at Steven Kasher, In Stitches at Leila Heller Gallery and I Won’t Grow Up at Cheim & Read. This past autumn, she organised Please Enter, at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – a show of door-themed works by artists including Richard Artschwager, Do Ho Suh and Rachel Whiteread. “I like thematic shows because they tell stories,” says DeWoody, whom Parrasch describes as “a force of nature.”
When The Triumph of Love opens this February at the Norton Museum – where a major renovation designed by Foster + Partners of London is in progress – there will surely be a fascinating story to be gleaned from the works on view, whichever they might be.
“It’s a total mystery to me what’s going to be there,” says the collector. “I’m excited to see it.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.