A Way of Life: The Collection of Barbara & Ernest Kafka

By Sotheby's
Barbara Kafka in her kitchen in 1990.

S otheby’s is delighted to present works from the Collection of Barbara and Ernest Kafka as highlights of the Spring and Summer sale seasons, featuring a selection of works on paper in the Contemporary Day Auction on May 20 and Magnificent Jewels auction. The Kafkas are remembered as exemplary intellectuals and passionate supporters of the arts who befriended artists on the cutting edge of the 1960s and 1970s Contemporary Art scene such as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Lucas Samaras, as well as legendary gallerist André Emmerich.

Barbara and Ernest Kafka having dinner with Helen Frankenthaler.

As admirers of the arts, the Kafkas enriched their lifestyle through art, food, and music. Their collection pays homage to the lifelong artistic visions and patronage at large, reflected in Barbara's career as a renowned author and culinary tastemaker, rooted in her early love for poetry and writing and Ernest's great talent as a photographer and concert quality pianist. Wonderfully unconventional and deliciously eclectic, the works in the Kafka Collection are a clear extension of Barbara and Ernest's unabashed originality.
Barbara, a prominent food columnist and cookbook writer, and Ernest—or “Ernie” as he was lovingly referred to by those in his circle—a distinguished psychologist and ex-President of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, lived in New York City and spent their summers in the artistic enclave of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they quickly became ensconced in the artistic and cerebral circle that characterized the charming seaside town. Coined as the “Summer Center of Abstract Expressionism,” Provincetown became a place where artists, dealers and collectors gathered to not only gain inspiration from the enchanting landscape and exchange intellectual ideas, but also where life became simpler. (Christine McCarthy in Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown”, New Haven, 2018, p. 5). Dinner parties, beach picnics, and barbecues were frequent affairs where the Kafka family continued to develop their strong friendships with so many of the great American artists of this generation.

A signed copy of John Elderfield's Frankenthaler, personally dedicated by Helen Frankenthaler to Barbara and Ernest Kafka.

Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell in their upstairs downstairs joint studio in Provincetown, 1961.

Leading the Collection is an important work on paper by Frank Stella, entitled Untitled (Study for MoMA Poster), executed circa 1969. Given as a gift to the Kafkas by the artist himself, the work is a gemlike and bold study for the official poster for Stella’s 1970 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—an exhibition which, to this day, represents the youngest artist ever to have a retrospective show at the museum. Untitled (Study for MoMA Poster) harkens back to Stella’s most iconic series, the Black Paintings of 1958-1960, which shocked the art world with their subversion of gestural abstraction in favor of machine-like, repetitive stripes of reduced color. The Collection also features a number of intimately scaled works on canvas and paper by Helen Frankenthaler, many of which were gifted and dedicated to Barbara and Ernest. Deeply personal and exquisite, these works are testament to Frankenthaler’s singular painterly prowess. Also included in the collection are articulate works on paper by Robert Motherwell and Lucas Samaras, all of which speak to the strong bonds of friendship the Kafkas formed with their contemporaries in Provincetown. Each work comes to auction this spring after remaining in the Kafka’s esteemed collection for nearly a half century, and each work wonderfully evinces the joy and passion for art that Barbara and Ernest modeled throughout their lives.

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