A Collector Triumphs at The Frick

By James Reginato

J. Tomilson Hill at the Frick Collection in New York, where his Renaissance bronzes juxtapose with contemporary works from his collection. Photograph by Ethan Hill/Redux.

NEW YORK - Nature abhors a vacuum. So, too, does a dedicated collector. It’s not surprising then that J. Tomilson Hill and his wife, Janine, moved quickly to fill the gap created in their Upper East Side apartment when they loaned a precious 34-piece collection to the Frick Collection, for the exhibition Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection, which remains on view through 15 June.

Thus today Mr Hill begins a tour of the apartment by pointing out Samson Slaying the Philistine, a 14½-inch masterpiece created circa 1562 by Netherlandish sculptor Willem van Tetrode, which sits commandingly on a console in the foyer. One of the finest bronzes to come on the market in some time, it was snapped up by Hill at Sotheby’s The Courts of Europe sale, in New York in January. There was stiff competition, but as usual that was no deterrent for this gentleman. “The Rijksmuseum wanted it, but we got it,” he says crisply during an early morning chat.

One of Wall Street’s legendary dealmakers, Hill is President and CEO of Blackstone Alternative Asset Management, where he manages some $55 billion in hedge funds. Though he must possess nerves of steel in his business life, he harbours extraordinary sensitivity and passion when it comes to art – feelings shared by Janine, a director at the Council on Foreign Relations. Born in St. Louis, she grew up in Paris with her Belgian family, then graduated from Harvard Law School.

Tom, as he is known to friends, is a Harvard College and Harvard Business School alumnus who was born and brought up on Fifth Avenue in New York, just blocks from the city’s great museums. Their proximity was key to his development. “It was an endless playground of opportunity.”

In the early 1990s, when the couple began to think seriously about collecting, they initially considered focusing on Greek and Roman antiquities but were deterred by the vexing provenance issues rife in that field.

“So I asked myself, what is the next best thing to collecting Greek and Roman?” says Hill. “I knew that the Renaissance began in the 1400s when they started uncovering ancient statues outside of Rome. Then these incredibly talented artists said, ‘aha, let’s see if we can create a derivative of these, but let’s do it for our time.’”

Janine and Tom Hill at the Directors Circle dinner and lecture in honour of the exhibition. Photograph by Christine A. Butler.

Working in bronze, such artists as Riccio, Giambologna and Adriaen de Vries created objects that are at once spectacular and intimate. “They capture emotion as well as action – that’s what bronze can do better than any other medium,” says Hill. “It immortalises a moment, freezes it in time.”

Most bronze artists worked for royal patrons. These monarchs and nobles liked to secret these objects in studiolos or chapels for their private pleasure, but also they used them as high-level diplomatic tools. “When the Medici wanted to curry favour with northern rulers, when the Hapsburgs wanted to curry favour with whomever, they would give a gift of a bronze.”

The Hills’ first major bronze purchase, in the early 1990s – a Venus figure by Hubert Le Sueur – belonged to Louis XIV. Over the next two decades the couple acquired 33 other stellar bronzes. Though the majority of their pieces are products of Renaissance Florence, they span the entirety of the genre, to its conclusion as a European-wide phenomenon during the late Baroque period.

Recently, the Hills received perhaps the ultimate accolade. “A curator friend of mine who is at a museum that has the foremost collection of bronzes said, ‘Tom, you’ve done in 20 years what it took the Hapsburgs 200 years to do.’

Tetrode’s Samson Slaying the Philistine, purchased at Sotheby’s this January, is the Hills’ most recent addition to their collection and has been added to the show at the Frick.

“Whether that’s true or not, if you are focused and you know what you are doing, you can put a world-class collection together.”

The exceptional library he has created has been crucial to his success, he says. “I own virtually every book on Renaissance bronzes ever published. I think I have the most complete library in the world, in private hands, on the subject.”

Clearly, this is a rarefied and clubby field: “In addition to the two major auction houses, there are six dealers in the world, that’s it. And there are fifteen serious private collectors today.”

Although Hill hesitates to name names, he does reveal that this handful includes such modern-day potentates as Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein and Prince Karim the Aga Khan IV.

When a prize piece does come on the market, there is stiff competition among this group. But there is camaraderie, too. “We have play dates with the bronzes. I’ll say, ‘Let’s get together and share a bronze.’ So I’ll put one in a knapsack and take it over to somebody’s apartment.”

When the Hills thought about exhibiting their bronzes, the Frick was the natural choice of venue. “They have done all the major shows of bronzes, and it is a domestic setting that shows bronzes with paintings, the way we do in our home.”

J. Tomilson Hill at the Frick Collection in New York, where his Renaissance bronzes juxtapose with contemporary works from his collection. Photograph by Ethan Hill/Redux.

Rave reviews greeted the show (Roberta Smith in The New York Times called it “sensational”). Aside from the obvious quality of the works themselves, the show’s installation increased its popularity. All the statuettes were taken off their socles (bases) and shown freestanding, without vitrines.

“I didn’t want glass separating the viewer from the object,” explains Hill, who is a trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chairman of the Board of Lincoln Center Theater.

Furthermore, the objects are seen among contemporary works also from the Hill collection, including canvases by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha – the first time late 20th-century paintings have been hung at the venerable institution.

Parallel to their bronze acquisitions, the Hills have also amassed two other distinct collections – Old Master paintings and post-World War II art.

In each field the couple has chosen to collect a small number of artists in depth. Among their Old Master holdings are five pictures by Peter Paul Rubens. In the modern and contemporary arena, they have focused on ten artists, including Twombly, Andy Warhol, Brice Marden and Francis Bacon.

“We do everything together,” he says, referring to Mrs Hill. “I do the research and she is my partner. Janine insists that this is not a museum, it is a home. At the end of the day, she gets a veto. Fortunately, she has not had to exercise it very often.”

Their approach to acquiring pieces in all three fields is the same. “It has to be of the highest quality – an example of an artist’s work that is as good as it gets. We will wait until we find it. It took me ten years to find the right Brice Marden – but finally we got one from his Red Rocks series. I’ve had my eye on a Francis Bacon for the last fifteen years. It’s owned by an individual; at some point this individual will sell. Persistence pays.”

Meanwhile, the Hills already own four top-drawer large-format paintings by the artist, including Study for Portrait (1956), which had previously been owned by film producer Carlo Ponti. (“I’d kill for one of those Bacons,” a collector who lives a couple blocks away told me, sounding like she really meant it.)

With the help of the masterful Peter Marino – who has designed seven residences for the Hills, including an apartment in Paris – the three collections magically spark and riff off each other in the couple’s Manhattan apartment.

“What we want is for the furniture and the works of art to have a conversation,” says Hill. “To give an example of a dialogue, usually our Adriaen de Vries is on one side of the foyer, facing the de Kooning. So you have two Dutchmen squaring off against each other, separated by 300 years.

“We placed a Venus figure by Giambologna in front of a Twombly blackboard piece because the curves of the Venus match the curves of the blackboard,” he continues, citing another example.

Hill ends the tour of the apartment as he began it, picking up again his new Samson by Tetrode. “This Herculean figure echoes many of the bronzes we have. It is so beautifully chased. It has such emotion and refinement. This is as good as it gets.”

A few days later, Frick curator Denise Allen paid a visit and marvelled at the statuette. Hill picked up the hint: “I swallowed hard, and said, ‘Would you like to put in the show?’” In short order the Tetrode joined the exhibition in progress. “It’s only around the corner,” he reasons of The Frick Collection. “I can still visit any time.”


James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.


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