The Artist and the Collector


It was 1978. I was in Captiva Florida working with Bob Rauschenberg. I was filling in for his regular assistant Peter Wirth who had fallen in love with Ellen and run off to Los Angeles. I never saw someone fall in love so fast. Quit his job, dropped his long time Captiva girlriend and was out the door in two days. One day Joe Hirshhorn showed up with his secretary (read: mistress) in a black limo. He visited Bob’s studio and expressed interest in buying some work.

Joe Hirshhorn was an industrialist who had made his money in uranium mining in the 50’s and 60’s and had become a big time art collector. He was in his mid 60’s at this time, about five foot nothing and dressed like a carnival barker in brightly colored checkered jackets and pants with white shoes and a white belt. In the 60’s and 70’s Joe was known for buying out entire exhibitions in one fell swoop but substantial discounts were always part of the deal. Later he founded the Hirshhorn Museum in DC and started its collection with his own. He was a wheeler-dealer of the first order.

He and Bob bantered and parried. Both were being stubborn and neither was happy. There was laughter but it was a strained kind of laughter. There was a lunch with the prerequisite drinks. His secretary had a new Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone. He wanted one of me with him. Just before she snapped the picture, I leaned over and rested my elbow on top of his head. “Damn you, you son of a bitch.” he said, but when he gave me the photo it was inscribed, “With deep affection, Joe Hirshhorn.” He offered to buy some of my paintings, never having seen any. I’m sure he thought I was Bob Petersen, an artist that was Rauschenberg’s #1 at the time. He was doing all he could to make this deal. The visit ended in the late afternoon with Joe storming out to his waiting car with apologizing secretary in tow. As the car passed by us, the window rolled down and Joe’s face appeared followed by a shaking upraised “bird”. “Fuck you.” he yelled and disappeared in a cloud of dust. It was the last time I saw him but I still have the Polaroid.

What Joe had forgotten was that we had met once before.

Around 1974 I was working as the director of Castelli Graphics in uptown Manhattan at East 77th St. We were showing Bob Rauschenberg’s handmade paper prints “Pages and Fuses” by Gemini. About ten or so pieces. Some minimalist off white shapes. Others made with brightly colored paper pulp in different shapes with images fused to the paper.

Joe Hirshhorn came in one day when I was there alone. He took a quick look around and announced “I’ll take them all. What’s my discount?’ I told him I’d have to talk to the owner Toiny Castelli and get back to him. When I talked to Toiny, she said she had paid so much for them that she couldn’t afford to give anyone a discount. I called Hirshhorn and told him the news. He yelled and swore at me. I said I was sorry but that was the way it was. He said, “You don’t like me, do you?’

I said, “Joe, it’s not a matter of like or dislike. It’s just business.”

“Well, you wouldn’t like me if I kicked you in the balls, would you?”

I laughed and said, “Joe, you can’t kick that high.”

He laughed and said, “Alright you son of a bitch, send me an invoice.”

And those are my Hirshhorn stories.