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Contemporary Art

Magnificent Gestures: The Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection

The collection of works on paper assembled by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and Carl Spielvogel is a thrilling homage to the first drafts of 20th- and 21st-century art history.
 

Drawings, sketches, pastels and watercolours are the gymnasiums of the artist’s imagination. It is in those formats where their experiments are let loose, their dexterity honed, and their problem-solving abilities – or their refusal of those skills – bared for all to see.  

It requires no great effort to appreciate the polished splendour of a finished work of art; but the work-in-progress is an acquired taste. The true art lover can find greater fascination in the anguished scribble, the bold prototype, or the carefree line, than in the fully realised product.  

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MARK ROTHKO, UNTITLED, 1968. ESTIMATE $5,000,000–7,000,000. © 1998 KATE ROTHKO PRIZEL & CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO/ ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.

Two New York collectors who have embraced these forms are Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and Carl Spielvogel. Over time and with a rare devotion to the art form, the couple has meticulously built unprecedented holdings of masterworks on paper. Ninety extraordinary examples from their collection comprise the major highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art and Contemporary Art auctions at Sotheby’s New York this November.  

The collectors have focused on works on paper because “they are the most profound expression of the artist’s intent,” says Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, who has held many prominent positions in US cultural life and is currently chair of the New York State Council on the Arts. She found herself drawn to the works’ “intimacy and immediacy,” qualities she likens to those of a successful literary essay, “an underappreciated but much admired form.” In fact, Diamonstein-Spielvogel finds many parallels between the visual and literary arts. “Both require discipline and astute thinking in order to successfully articulate the author’s intent,” she says. 

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JOAN MIRÓ, FEMMES, OISEAUX, ÉTOILES, 1942. ESTIMATE $1,500,000–2,000,000. © 2017 JOAN MIRÓ / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK. 

Among the treasures of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel collection are Jasper Johns’s first meditations on the American flag and numbers, which would become famously recurring motifs in his work; the explosive black, yellow and amber ink marks of Jackson Pollock’s 1951 Untitled, which foreshadow Blue Poles and Convergence, two of his masterpieces completed the following year; René Magritte’s witty yet mysterious La Réponse imprévue, 1963–64, in which a closed door fails to fulfill its function, as we peer into the artist’s mischievous imagination. 

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CY TWOMBLY, UNTITLED (ROMAN NOTE), 1970. ESTIMATE $1,200,000–1,800,000. © 2017 CY TWOMBLY FOUNDATION.

Here, too, are the finely delineated subjects of Picasso’s love life: five works from the collection, ranging from 1901 to 1970, depicting his lovers Marie-Thérèse Walter, Jacqueline Roque and Dora Maar. Marie-Thérèse features in Women and Horses (Combat de taureau et cheval), a chaotic 1935 scene of love and conflict from pre-war Europe that cannot help but remind us of Guernica, created two years later. 

Talking about Picasso’s Women and Horses, Diamonstein-Spielvogel recalls an encounter with another great artist: Salvador Dalí. “He was holding one of his discourses, talking about other artists, and I remember him saying, with a wave of the hand, that the way to judge the talents of other artists was how well they could draw a horse’s head and nostrils,” she says. “It is remarkable what Picasso manages to capture here.”  

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JACKSON POLLOCK, UNTITLED, 1951. ESTIMATE $3,000,000–4,000,000. © 2017 POLLOCK-KRASNER FOUNDATION / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.

Diamonstein-Spielvogel was exposed to art early in life (her mother was the founder of a 1,500-member “Culture Club”) and in her career. Notably, she helped arrange the first White House Festival of the Arts in the 1960s, at which she chose to sit next to Jasper Johns on one side. She was impressed by the quality of  his thought and reticent demeanor, and it is impossible not to detect something of the artist’s intellectual rigour and understated brilliance that permeates this most scholarly collection of groundbreaking works. 

The collection hung in the Diamonstein-Spielvogels’ New York residence in a carefully considered arrangement. “Because of the singular artistic abilities of the artists represented, we have enjoyed years of undiluted pleasure living with the collection,” she says. As a natural extension of her interest in art history, Barbaralee was deeply involved in the acquisitions, and Carl, an advertising magnate who went on to become US ambassador to the Slovak Republic, brought his “laserlike focus” and his ability to get right to the “heart of the matter.” 

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RENÉ MAGRITTE, LA RÉPONSE IMPRÉVUE, 1963–64. ESTIMATE $2,000,000–3,000,000. © 2017 C. HERSCOVICI, BRUSSELS / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.

As befits a couple at the centre of cultural and political life over the past five decades, their collection portrays a vivid narrative of the last tumultuous century: a philosophical journey is described, from the humble peasant depicted in Picasso’s 1901 pastel Village Castillan, to Andy Warhol’s worldly portrait of Golda Meir – a melancholy moment for the Pop artist. 

After five years of discussions with Sotheby’s, Diamonstein-Spielvogel considers it the right time to pass the collection to a new generation of art lovers, without remorse. Full proceeds from the sales will benefit the couple’s charitable foundation.   

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JASPER JOHNS, NUMBERS, 2006. ESTIMATE $2,500,000–3,500,000. © 2017 JASPER JOHNS / LICENSED BY VAGA, NEW YORK, NY.

“It has always been a fundamental belief of mine that we are, each of us, temporary custodians of all we possess. We must be faithful stewards. The thought that the full potential proceeds will benefit many people for many years to come is a great reward.”  

The Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation’s work is focused on science and health, educational innovation and reform and projects of cultural merit, including American history and the study and knowledge of public affairs. “The foundation is the evolution or extension of our lifelong concern for the public good,”  says Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “To try to address the critical issues of today, and to be nimble  and resilient in these perilous times.”  

 

Peter Aspden is arts writer for the Financial Times

Masterworks from The Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection will be on view at Sotheby’s New York  from 27 October–17 November.

 

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