Contemporary Art

Rita and Morry: For the Love of Artists

By Charlie Scheips
MORRIS AND RITA PYNOOS, MARRIED FOR 60 YEARS, STANDING IN FRONT OF WILLEM DE KOONING’S UNTITLED (TORSO) AGAINST A WALL COLOR SELECTED BY DAVID HOCKNEY.

A rt collectors come in all shapes, sizes—and motivations. Some are discriminating connoisseurs; others addicted accumulators or simply speculators. Rita and Morry Pynoos were great art gatherers and custodial shepherds. Yes, they were inspired collectors, but I think most of all they cherished the friendships they lovingly cultivated with the artists. The great artworks that filled their Beverly Hills home were tangible testaments to their close ties to such artists as Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Louise Nevelson and, most intimately, David Hockney. The Pynoos’ supported their friends’ new work—often they bought fresh works, soon after creation. Though in the case of Hockney and de Kooning they also acquired earlier works, this was only after the bonds with these artists came to full blossom. Rita and Morry absolutely loved artists.

Rita and Morry both moved to Los Angeles from New York as young children. Each supported their families while growing up. Following her older brothers, Rita sold newspapers at Sunset and Western at the old 20th Century Fox Studio and so charmed comedian Will Rogers that he took her on occasional drives through the studio backlots. Morry bought produce at the LA’s Grand Central market before school and made deliveries for his father’s grocery store after class.

FROM LEFT: MORRIS PYNOOS WITH WILLEM DE KOONING AND DAVID HOCKNEY IN DE KOONING’S STUDIO IN SPRINGS, EAST HAMPTON, 1987. PHOTO BY EDVARD LIEBER

As a child of about nine, Rita first spotted her future husband from the rumble seat of the family car as they picked up her older sister’s friend—Morry’s older sister from their home in the Florence area of South Los Angeles. Rita never forgot her first sight of Morry, even into her late 90s. He was dapperly dressed in his tennis whites; tennis would be another passion they shared for the rest of their lives. They began dating years later, just as Morry was completing his degree in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Wed in 1941, at the onset of World War II, Morry designed wartime aircraft for aviation companies, while Rita volunteered for the Red Cross, helping to shape a mental health program for returning soldiers for the Westwood Veterans Administration. Their two sons Jonathon and Robert came along in time.

COPYRIGHT:JOSHUA WHITE/JWPicture

Morry shifted gears after the war into the building and developing commercial and residential property in Los Angeles. He found creative outlet by working with such notable architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Williams, to name just two. He combined his talent for building and love of art in such endeavors as the construction of a modern factory designed by A.Q. Jones and Frederick Emmons for ceramicist Sascha Brastoff in 1953 and, in 1954, the temporary exhibition pavilion for the exhibition Sixty Years of Living Architecture under Wright’s direction at Barnsdall Park adjacent to the architect's landmark Hollyhock House.

MORRIS PYNOOS WITH FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AND HIS GRANDSON, ERIC WRIGHT, BREAKING GROUND ON THE TEMPORARY EXHIBITION HALL AT BARNSDALE PARK FOR 60 YEARS OF LIVING ARCHITECTURE, 1954. PHOTO CREDIT: LOS ANGELES TIMES

Rita created large-scale weavings and later Lucite furniture as her sons grew up. During the 1960s and 1970s, she was a strong advocate for Women’s Rights and the fight for the passage of the Equal Rights amendment, working closely with her friends Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, and Betty Friedan. The scarves Rita designed for participants of the 1978 ERA march on Washington, D.C. are now part of the National Archive. Her interest in fashion and textiles also led to the couple’s support of Los Angeles’s Otis School of Design, then a satellite of New York’s New School of Social Research on whose board Morry served for many years. Textile designer and Hockney muse Celia Birtwell, who shared the same birthday as Rita, recalled both Rita and Morry being “always grateful for their self-made good fortune and so joyfully gave back with great generosity.”

DAVID HOCKNEY, PORTRAIT OF RITA PYNOOS FROM 82 PORTRAITS AND 1 STILL-LIFE, 2014. PRIVATE COLLECTION. ART © DAVID HOCKNEY

Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, retired long-time director of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, remembers during Rita’s time as a Smithsonian trustee that she “once persuaded her good friend from the fashion world, Isaac Mizrahi [and Otis alumnae], to create satin-edged lab aprons for our visible Lunder Conservation Center! He came to our opening dinner, where Rita was resplendent in her floor-length red silk Mizrahi-designed skirt!” Years later, she would wear that same Mizrahi skirt when she sat for David Hockney (Portrait of Rita Pynoos, 2014) featured in Hockney’s 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life exhibition at the Royal Academy in London and the Los Angeles County Museum in 2016. (Hockney told an interviewer recently that his portrait subjects were his “celebrities” and had Morry still been with us he would have been among them, right there with his beloved wife.) Broun also recalls Rita as “a fierce friend, working every angle to help us” and that she was the one to connect the museum with Hockney, “leading to several inspired collaborations and to the landmark acquisition of his multi-media artwork called Snail’s Space with Vari-lites: Painting as Performance (1995-96.)”

DAVID HOCKNEY, HENRY, READING, PARIS, 1975. ESTIMATE: $100,000 – 150,000.

In the 1960s Rita and Morry first began collecting art by contemporary California-based artists: John McLaughlin, Joe Goode, Norman Zammitt and John McCracken, among others. Their neighbor, Los Angeles art dealer Betty Asher, introduced them to fellow dealer Nicholas Wilder who helped to shape their early collection and introduced them to Hockney. The couple quickly became friends with the artist and would soon purchase Hockney’s Ravel’s Garden with Glow (1981) and Self-Portrait on the Terrace (1984), as well as his drawing Picasso Masks (1974) and his colored pencil portrait of curator Henry Geldzahler (1975).

I met Morry and Rita Pynoos just a few days after moving to Los Angeles in April of 1986 to become assistant to David Hockney. Since I didn’t know Los Angeles at all, I moved into Hockney’s house in the Hollywood Hills and threw myself into the new job and an exciting new life. And it was a very exciting time. Hockney had a slew of projects in the works: two retrospectives and the design of Tristan und Isolde for the new Los Angeles Music Center.

THE HOME OF RITA AND MORRY PYNOOS. COPYRIGHT: JOSHUA WHITE/JWPICTURE COPYRIGHT:JOSHUA WHITE/JWPicture

In those days before mobile phones and emails, the land lines at the house and office down the hill in West Hollywood were our main connections to the world. Invitations and correspondence arrived courtesy the US Postal Service; once in while we received an express mail package, but they were rare. David was in his mid-forties at that time, but already his deafness was apparent. So, he rarely answered the constantly ringing phone, and it was left up to whichever one of us was nearby.

MORRIS AND RITA PYNOOS AT A GALA

I soon learned that Rita and Morry were going to be a big part of my life, too. Rita was always calling to say she was bringing up some food in the late afternoon which more often than not became an extended visit. David, forever consumed by his work in the Studio, would tell me sometimes to keep people away. Easier said than done where the Pynoos' were involved. (And if Rita set her mind on something she was determined to follow through, always in her lady-like fashion.) I can’t count how many times I’d go to the garden gate to receive Rita’s deliveries of food or gifts, only to have David come down the path from the Studio to say hello and invite them in. On these occasions Rita, as always impeccably dressed (as was Morry)—yet both had relaxed style suited to the temperate climate of Southern California. Morry had a great instinct for when their visits should come to an end, but only after gently nudging Rita with a smile and softly saying “C’mon Reet let’s get going.” Indeed, Rita had David in the number three spot on her land line phone’s speed dial, after her two sons, Jon and Bob. She considered David very much like an esteemed member of the family and David’s own mother, Laura, shared that she felt like Rita and Morry became not only deep friends, but something like David’s California parents and guardians.

RITA PYNOOS AND DAVID HOCKNEY STANDING IN FRONT OF HOCKNEY’S RAVEL’S GARDEN, 1980.

David’s hearing loss made going to events, parties and restaurants more difficult for him to manage, but Rita and Morry could coax us out for an occasional weekend lunch at their beloved Beverly Hills Tennis Club or dinner at one of our favorite restaurants: Spago, the Bistro Garden or Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills, or David’s favorite Japanese—the Imperial Gardens on Sunset Boulevard—which he loved because it was always quiet. The first mention of Rita and Morry that year in my Smythson diary (also the non-digital way business was conducted back then) notes a dinner they hosted at the speakeasy-like Steak Pit on Melrose Avenue, and we went along with our friends Ann Upton and David Graves, visiting from London. The restaurant’s owner was a former tennis pro who boasted of his “good old days” playing with stars such as Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzalez and Jack Kramer, who were also pals with Morry. Another memorable meal that Rita and Morry hosted there included Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz and her father Tom Reddin who had been the LAPD chief when the showing of Kienholz’s provocative Back Seat Dodge ‘38 (1964) almost shut down the LA County Museum in 1966.

In 1987, Hockney and I traveled to New York. We had met Elaine de Kooning at a dinner given by Rita and Morry earlier that year. The de Koonings, long separated, had reunited in 1976 and were then living and working close to each in East Hampton. Rita set about to plan a visit to both their studios in the Hamptons. On May 10, Morry and Rita picked us up at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West for the two-hour drive. The trunk of the chauffeur-driven town car was packed with an enormous lunch for seven that Rita had ordered from Zabar’s.

FROM LEFT: MORRIS PYNOOS, RITA PYNOOS, WILLEM DE KOONING AND ELAINE DE KOONING IN DE KOONING’S HOME IN SPRINGS, EAST HAMPTON.

We first stopped at Elaine’s studio, joined by artist Edvard Lieber who documented the day by taking photographs. Then our growing caravan traveled a short distance to Willem de Kooning’s home and studio in Springs, East Hampton. It was a lovely, sunny spring day, and we were greeted by his daughter Lisa who led us inside the barn-like structure that de Kooning had designed with a two-story, light-filled, expansive studio supported by painted white-steel girders and an entire wall of north-facing windows. An open steel and wood staircase led up to his living quarters.

WILLEM DE KOONING, STOWAWAY, 1986. ESTIMATE $6,000,000–8,000,000.

Rita's smorgasbord was laid out at the top of the stairs, from where one could look down onto the entire studio filled with paintings, supply carts, and worktables. De Kooning soon appeared, dressed in baggy gray trousers and an orange-and-blue plaid wool shirt. The silvery-haired master greeted us with a warm smile and shook everyone’s hand, his large, dark-brown eyeglasses balanced gingerly on his nose. As Hockney lit up a cigarette de Kooning chuckled: “I’ve given up, but I cheat a little,” and then promptly took one and lit up.

Afterwards, de Kooning invited us all to go downstairs to see the studio. He sat in one of the two enormous caned and wood rocking chairs as we looked around. Recently he had had designed an ingenious system for making his paintings: long and deep rectangular troughs cut into the floor and a motorized structure that allowed him to rotate the canvas 360 degrees at the touch of a switch. We all took turns sitting next to him in the other rocker as Lieber captured the moment. Although de Koonings’s dementia had already been diagnosed, it was obvious to all of us that he this had in no way impaired his work. He was still making remarkable paintings. He and Hockney had an easy rapport When I spoke to David recently about the visit after three decades, he immediately replied: “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

WILLEM DE KOONING, UNTITLED (TORSO), 1960. ESTIMATE $700,000 – 1,000,000.

Two days later, David spoke at the Metropolitan Museum on "Painting, Photography, Printing and Seeing." Rita and Morry had invited their friend, artist Louise Nevelson and her long-time companion Diane MacKown, as well as Elaine de Kooning and Lieber to come for the Hockney lecture. At the Russian Tea Room afterwards--the Pynoos’ always the consummate hosts—I was seated directly across from the regally turbaned and mascaraed Nevelson, I asked if she minded if I smoked. “Young man, I’ve lived in New York for 65 years; do you think I care about the air I breathe? You may smoke,” she imperiously intoned. A year later, at 88, Nevelson died.

You could be sure that Rita and Morry would be at any exhibition or opera production featuring David’s work. When he turned 50, and again at 60, the Pynoos’ hosted dinners in David’s honor at their art-filled home in Beverly Hills, which Morry had built. Hockney even chose the wall colors for many of the rooms. They followed David’s work with a passion. In 1986, when he launched his “Home Made Prints,” created on an office-copying machine, Rita and Morry bought the complete set of thirty-three prints. The next year they bought Caribbean Tea Time screen soon after its release by Tyler Graphics, followed a couple years later with the purchase of Ian Watching Television (1987). Blue Pot with Purple Flowers (1989) was the last Hockney painting to enter the Pynoos collection, yet the friendship endured for decades to come.

DAVID HOCKNEY’S IAN WATCHING TELEVISION (1987) AND BLUE POT WITH PURPLE FLOWERS (1989), INSTALLED IN THE PYNOOS HOME, LOS ANGELES. COPYRIGHT: JOSHUA WHITE/JWPICTURE.  

I moved back to New York in 1991 but never lost touch with the entire extended Pynoos family. Either on visits to LA or when meeting at the opening of a myriad Hockney exhibitions around the world, we connected regularly. Shortly before he died in 2002, Hockney gave the wheel-chair-bound Morry a personal tour of his retrospective of photo work at MOCA/LA—a testament to the love they shared for each other.

Rita soldiered on. She may well have missed David during the decade he moved “on location” to paint the landscape of his native Yorkshire, but they never lost touch. I was staying with Hockney in LA during the time he painted her portrait in 2014, and we had a chance to catch up, and then again in 2017, at David’s 80th birthday celebration at the Getty Museum. That was the last time I got to see Rita and she still greeted me with her eyes sparkling and a huge smile, gripping my hand tightly as I bent down to kiss her. Rita died at age 97 in 2019, surrounded by the great work of all the friends she and Morry so cherished.

Looking at the collection on offer that Rita and Morry assembled, one ponders the connection between the lyrical abstraction of de Kooning, assertive physicality of sculptors Nevelson and Mark di Suvero, and minimalist formalism of John McCracken and John McLauglin, all contrasted with Hockney’s intimate paintings of his confident and personally observed personal world view. Each work endures on its own merits but for four decades, under Rita and Morry’s care, they were brought together as evidence of lives filled with friendship, love, and partnership between the pair and their favorite artists.

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