For art collectors Dr. Mark and Irene Kaufman, part of the excitement of collecting lies in the stories attached to every piece of art they acquire. Sometimes the story is the painter’s, told on the canvas itself; sometimes it’s the story of how they themselves found and purchased the work, or of the fellow art lovers they met in the process. In every case, their keen appreciation for and curiosity about art is obvious.
Today their Longboat Key penthouse condominium is a gallery of the works they’ve fallen in love with over the years. Yet the couple’s passion for collecting is relatively recent. "We always appreciated art, and were always interested in the opera, dance and theater," says Irene. "I had a music background." (That’s attested to by the baby grand piano in one corner of their living room and the guitar in another room).
But for the first 25 years of their marriage, they focused on raising their three children and their careers in the medical field. He is a retired orthopedist turned Sarasota downtown developer amd she is a registered nurse who worked side by side with him in his practice for years. It wasn’t until they moved from Pennsylvania to Sarasota in 1978 that they met two Sarasota physicians, both art aficionados, who introduced them to the world of collecting.
As Mark puts it, "We got introduced to the history of American art and found it utterly fascinating. And we decided we would take up collecting in that field, especially in the art of the first half of this century."
They went about it with care and dedication. "We did extensive reading and went to museums and galleries all the time," says Mark. "And we became educated a lot by gallery owners who spent a great deal of time with us. They would start out by asking, ‘Do you appreciate so-and-so’s work?’ Or, ‘Do you know of this artist?’ And if we didn’t, they’d say, ‘That’s OK, you will.’ They made us feel very comfortable with it all." In fact, the first painting the couple purchased was a small one of circus lions by John Marin that had previously been owned by a gallery dealer they became friendly with.
"We became totally thrilled by the history of American art, from the Armory show in 1913 on, and the way that it’s changed, all the way from the Hudson River School to modernism," Mark explains. "And when we went into that field, many of those works were still quite affordable. They’re not so much that way now. And the more you collect, the better your eye gets, of course, and so the prices go up, too. But there’s a definite feeling of pride of ownership when you’re at a museum and you can say, ‘We have one of those, and ours is better.’ We only collect major artists who have had a major impact on the art world by virtue of their originality."
A tour of the Kaufmans’ home reveals who those major artists are, and how carefully the couple studies the life and background of each artist they acquire. Many of the 75 works in their collection are on display all the time (when not out on loan to museums); they occasionally rotate some of the smaller pieces. And, they admit, dinner with friends at their home often turns into a discussion of the art.
How could it not? The dining area is probably the best place to start when exploring the collection. Over one end of the table hangs a significant piece by Jack Levine (one of only two artists the Kaufmans collect who is still alive today). "On the Block," dating from 1990, is the artist’s view of an art auction, and it’s chockful of well-known figures in the art world, each making various bidding gestures: dealer Alfred Barry, pop icon Andy Warhol, collector Joseph Hirschhorn, the late gallery owner Leo Castelli, and Museum of Modern Art founding director Alfred Barr. It’s a painting with a joke at its center: The item these experts are all bidding on turns out to be a worthless boot.
Another auction-themed piece, this one by William Gropper, who began his career as a cartoonist, hangs nearby. Here the characters are made even more grotesque, not excluding the artist himself, who’s seen with a very red face.
The Kaufmans are big fans of painter Walt Kuhn, another cartoonist turned artist, and have several of his works in their collection. "He always did circus performers," says Mark, "and their deep-set eyes are a Kuhn trademark."
Also on the walls overlooking the dining area are a painting by Alfred Maurer of twin female heads and one by Raphael Soyer depicting a dancer in leotard and tights. Again, the Kaufmans can tell the story behind the work. "Maurer was a painter who started out doing quite traditional work and switched to modernism, to cubism," says Mark. "His father was a well-known lithographer for Currier and Ives, and he was very opposed to his son’s work as an artist. Alfred eventually became very depressed, and after his father’s death in 1932 he committed suicide."
Stuart Davis is another favorite artist of the Kaufmans, represented here by a 1929 Paris café scene. "Davis spent almost all of his life in the United States, and that was painted the only time he was ever out of the country," says Mark. The couple’s newest acquisition is also a Davis, titled "Mountains and Molehills." Women wearing bright green colors are shown looking out over working miners; the purple/pink hues in the painting’s background are extraordinarily beautiful.
A painting by Social Realist Philip Evergood, "Quarantined Citadel," hangs over the baby grand, and again there’s a tale to be told. "The idea is that all of the generals of all the armies are confined here, to fight out their wars with toy guns," says Irene with a smile. Another work dealing with war and peace is Ben Shahn’s "Apotheosis," a narrow horizontal study for a mosaic the Kaufmans keep behind glass to protect it from Florida sun and humidity. (They also make certain to close their drapes when not at home, temporarily obscuring their waterfront views but extending the life of the artworks.)
"I spoke to Shahn’s widow about that one," says Mark. "When I told her I’d bought it, she said, ‘I envy you.’ I asked her for some help in understanding certain parts of it, but she said Shahn never explained his work to her, or really to anyone. It was always up to the viewer to interpret it."
While the living and dining area is the setting for many of the Kaufmans’ biggest and boldest artworks, every room of their condominium is filled with art, from the hallway to the study to the bedrooms. Among the treasures to be found around every corner: a Will Barnet piece featuring a woman in black and a crow perched on a branch; a couple of small paintings by Oscar Bluemner, showing that artist’s distinctive use of a particular shade of red; a Coney Island piece or two by Reginald Marsh; canvases with the look of stained glass by Abraham Rattner; and several paintings by Byron Browne, one of Irene’s favorites.
Another favorite is artist Charles Burchfield, whose unusual technique of constantly adding paper to the sides of his paintings as he worked-possibly an artifact of his days as a wallpaper designer-guaranteed that his pieces were never quite complete. The Kaufmans tell the story of traveling to Buffalo during part of a longer trip, expressly to see an exhibit of his paintings there. To their dismay, they arrived on the wrong day; the works had been temporarily taken down.
"But when the curator heard how disappointed we were, he made a point of coming out to take us to the back rooms where the paintings were being kept," Irene says. "We ended up having a private showing, and it was wonderful."
Irene deliberately chose subdued colors-neutrals, grays and blacks-for the furnishings and accents of their home, so that nothing would steal attention from the art they love. And, luckily, she says, the couple almost always agrees on what they love. "We enjoy a painting that tells a story, that has a message," says Mark. "We’re more selective now in our purchases; we only buy something new when we feel it really adds to the overall collection. Not long ago a dealer with whom we work had a Burchfield that he said belonged in our collection. We told him we couldn’t afford it, but he agreed to let us pay for it over time. He was right about it, of course."
The two say they also agree with something another collector once told them: "We don’t own the paintings. We’re only temporary custodians of them."