How I Collect

Interview Magazine Owner Peter Brant on the New "Renaissance" in American Art

Interview Magazine Owner Peter Brant on the New "Renaissance" in American Art
The collector Peter Brant (Photo by Patric Demarchelier)

Not many collectors can claim to have embraced the art of his time as devotedly, multifariously, and successfully as Peter Brant. A latter-day industrialist who has made his fortune through his paper company, canny investments, and real-estate savvy, Brant is also the owner of Interview magazine (which he bought directly from its founder, Andy Warhol), Art in America, and Antiques; the connoisseurial amasser of a blue-chip collection of American art; and the creator of the deluxe Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut, which lures the art world's A-list to its exceptional by-appointment-only shows. Last November, he also made art-market history when he sold Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) at Christie's for $58.4 million, setting a new record for the highest price fetched by the work of a living artist at auction.

A lifelong collector whose taste was edified early on by such mentors as Warhol and the fabled dealer Leo Castelli, Brant is today intent on cementing his legacy as an art patron and philanthropist through his foundation, which held a historic Warhol show (curated together with Francesco Bonami) last year that this week has just toured to Rome's Museo Fondazione Roma - Palazzo Cipolla. We spoke to Brant, who is about to open a new show of work by Dan Colen at his foundation, about how to be a great collector, his world-record auction sale, and why this is a more exciting time to be involved in the art world than even the glory days of 1950s New York.

You were 19 years old when you bought your first Warhol, using winnings you made while playing the stock market in college. Considering you were a well-bred aspiring businessman with a father who collected rococo paintings, what was it that drew you to this deeply subversive artist's work?

Well, I was very interested in art history at the time and shared that with my dad. At 15 and 16 I was interested in the Impressionists, and then as I got older and learned more I naturally progressed through art history from Impressionism to Modernism and then Abstract Expressionism and the postwar New York schools. At some point, I asked myself the question, "If I were collecting artists working today, who would be the most interesting ones?" And that put me on a journey to be more involved with what was going in New York. I also had some European friends who were interested in American art and pointed out certain things that were happening in New York that I found interesting and then pursued.  

A year or so after buying your first Warhol, Leo Castelli introduced you to the artist at the point when he was recovering from his attempted assassination at the hands of Valerie Solanas. How did you get that entrée?

Leo actually introduced me to both Andy Warhol and Fred Hughes, who was very much a part of the Factory at that time in 1968. And the person who introduced me to Leo was the Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger—Bruno was really the person who first introduced me to this scene. 

What did you first make of the artist, and of his milieu? What was he like?

I was interested in his artwork and his vision of what was happening in our culture at the time. He was a very sensitive, intelligent man who was incredibly shy and soft-spoken. I just instantly liked him, and I loved the fact that he was not in-your-face about art history or culture. He was really more interested in simply seeing the best in his surroundings. Since he lived in New York, he found the best and most creative side of New York. And being his friend, he introduced me to that side.  

One piece of common ground we had was that he was of European descent, and so was I. He was from a family of coal miners and very artistically inclined, and after being a great student at Carnegie Institute of Art he came to New York and was a great commercial artist from the beginning. So, knowing all this and seeing the work that he was doing and the movies he was doing, I immediately got the picture that I was in the presence of a genius.  

What did it mean to be friends with Warhol?

We shared a lot of the same interests. I was very interested in film at the time, and he was the avant-garde filmmaker of the moment. He was also very interested in antiquities, as I was too, so we collected antiquities together. My first wife and myself and Andy and Fred Hughes spent a lot of time in Paris together and going antiquing for art deco furniture and silver in Europe, and also for 19th- to 18th-century American furniture in New York. And then we did several films together. I produced two of his films [L’Amour in 1973 and Andy Warhol’s Bad in 1977] and instantly got involved with Interview. I think my first publishing of Interview was in 1969—that was pretty early. 

You have said that you learned a lot about art from your time with Warhol. Can you talk about the way he changed the way you looked at art, and the other insights you took away from your relationship?

He drew wonderfully and was a great colorist—he had all the skills of a great artist—but I think his real reference point came from the Dada, Duchampian philosophy that beauty is all around us, and can be found in an object that we take for granted every day, like Duchamp’s urinal, or a rack, or a bicycle wheel. Andy very much noticed what was made by creative people who were artisans or designers or whatever else, and he looked at the world as being filled by artistic and beautiful things, like a Campbell's Soup can. So I think what I learned from Andy is that beauty is all around you, and you just have to open your eyes and look at the architecture and the clothes and the magazines and the movies—that’s the culture. Creative things are being done every day in all of these mediums, and if you're aware of it then your life will be more beautiful. 

Over the period of your friendship with Warhol you also energetically collected his art, eventually building a museum-sized trove of 200 works spanning his entire oeuvre. How did you go about piecing together this collection?

I never really stopped, and what I have been most concerned about is the quality of the work. Andy was a prolific artist and his quality meets a pretty high standard on the whole, but I've tried to focus on choosing only the most important works that relate to his career and to my own life. I've been collecting them since the '60s, and I still collect. It's been a lifelong process—and I don’t know exactly how many works we have, because I never counted them. Now our show of the collection has just opened in Rome, but after it left our foundation it was at the Palazzo Reale in Milan and attracted almost 300,000 visitors, which is enormous for a museum show and something I'm very proud of. For the work to able to connect with 300,000 visitors is a great accomplishment for Andy, and a great accomplishment for what his art means.  

Would you say there are any gaps in your Warhol collection that you need to fill?

I don’t really think there are any gaps, but there's always something that you see that you think, "Boy, that is interesting." Whether it's an early piece or a commercial drawing or whether it's a later work, if an example comes up that's superb and I can afford it, I will certainly take a look at it.  

It's interesting that you met Warhol just at the time of his shooting, which for many people marks a hinge in his career, between the museum-ratified and hugely marketable earlier work and the rarely exhibited, not critically beloved later work. In fact, the most recent biography of the artist, Pop, ends in 1968, despite Warhol living until 1987. Now, the critic Blake Gopnik is writing a new biography that will encompass the entire arc of Warhol's career. What do you make of the critical consensus that his importance begins to diminish in 1968?

I really disagree with that. First of all, you have to accept the fact that Andy Warhol was an artist who never really got good reviews while he was alive. There are so many great artists who have not gotten reviewed well but who are really important—I'm sure Jean-Michel Basquiat never got really good reviews either. So, while it's nice to say that the shooting marks the end of Warhol's great period, no one ever acknowledged Warhol's great period from the beginning—there were bad reviews of the late work, and there were also always bad reviews of the early work. The only work that ever got reviewed well and that became very popular was probably the Brillo Boxes, which Arthur Danto wrote about in the mid-'60s. 

That said, I consider some of his later pictures to be masterful works. It's kind of like looking at Picasso. Late Picasso was always considered to be too facile and uninteresting, and the pictures that are most coveted now and certainly bring the highest prices are the ones from the '30s—the geometric portraits of women that are considered among his best works today—but at that time it was the Blue Period that everyone considered to be important. With Andy it's the same. In the '70s he did the shadow paintings and the oxidation paintings, but they were not that popular because Andy was such a prolific artist and it was sometimes hard in the '80s to get anyone to show his work.

That's why when he passed away a lot of his great work was in the estate and the foundation, because it was really difficult for him to sell works at the end. People always think that Andy Warhol was famous and successful from the very beginning, and I guess he was always successful enough to have the money to make the Factory go, but for a long period he was really not that popular. 

Considering the vagaries of the critical consensus and the way that the market reacts to different periods of work, how can a collector find a path that allows them to acquire great work while it's being made and recognize its importance even when nobody else does?

You have to zero in on the artists that you really think that can make major contributions to art history and, if you can, just continue to collect them and go with what you really believe and feel, not what an art dealer or an auction house tells you. I think it's really important to focus in on the artists that you are confident about—you're not going to hit every one of them, but you're going to put yourself in a position where you are collecting quality. You need a huge amount of money to collect an artist in depth who's the most popular guy of his time, of course. But there are a lot of artists who go through periods where they're really popular and everyone wants to buy their work, and then they overproduce and their work becomes less attractive in the market and their prices take a decline—and that is a good opportunity to buy. There are a lot of great artists who are around today whose prices are not that high and who are really important artists. 

Your ability to judge the market seems to have paid off last November, when you sold Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) at Christie's for a world-record $58.4 million. What made you decide to sell it when you did?

I sold that work—which is a really great work, no doubt—to raise money for the foundation. You know I always liked Jeff, and I still liked him. I think he's one of the most talented artists in the world and an incredibly gifted man. I have a lot of his work, and I'm very happy to have been a collector early on. But, as is so often the case, there are considerations of supply and demand. If an artist overproduces as they become popular, it's because there are many people who want to collect their work—the pressure is to produce. And that's okay if that's what they want to do. But if their market comes down, which happens, you shouldn’t judge the artist by the market, you should judge the artist by what you think.

For instance, if I look at Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel, I see three very important artists of the '80s. One of them passed away, the other two have continued to go on, and Schnabel has become a great filmmaker and a great painter. But, if there's a difference in the prices of their work by 10 times, I say to myself, “Jeez, that is totally out of line,” you know? The best works of Julian Schnabel should be in the same realm as the best works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

It's remarkable to think that, for such a famous artist, Schnabel's work has never crossed the million-dollar threshhold at auction.

Yeah, it's amazing. I think the reason for that is because a lot of his very greatest paintings have never gone off at auction because the people who own them don’t want to sell them, so there aren't any transactions. But I think if a great painting of Julian’s went off, I think it would bring far in excess of a million dollars.

Going back to the Koons, the New York Times reported that you were able to secure an exceptional arrangement in that sale, where Christie's not only waived the seller's commission but also gave you a large chunk of the buyer's fees. It sounds like an absolute coup in the history of the market.

But not really. What happened was that I didn’t really want to sell that work, and Christie’s and Sotheby's came to me and they each said they had a client who would really be interested in the work and two or three other clients who are really interested as well, and that they thought it was going to bring a huge record price—they gave a much higher price than what it actually brought. I thought if it really could bring such a large price, then I could use it to set the endowment for my foundation going forward, and right now I'm looking at the long-term goals of what I'm trying to achieve with the foundation. So I said I'd do it, and that I'd be happy to give them a full commission if you reach the point they promised—or even close to that point—but that if they didn't they shouldn't get anything.

They thought it would be around $75 million, is that right?

Yeah, around $75 million. So they said, “For sure, we'll do it.” Both of them said they would do it, because they thought they had nothing to lose, since it was such a slam-dunk that they were going to get more than $75 million. And then Christie's didn’t. So it wasn't really about my great skill at negotiating—it was about the fact that they were trying to get the work and that they knew that they weren’t going to get it with any kind of low estimate or low guarantee. 

So, is the Balloon Dog sitting in the sands of Dubai or Qatar at this point?

No, it is not. They thought that's what was going to happen—that Qatar and Dubai or several others were going to compete for it. But I think that since everybody thought that Qatar was going to buy it, it scared a lot of people away, because nobody wants to go up against them. And Qatar ended up not getting it. 

Do you know whom it did go to?

I do, but I'm not at liberty to say. 

The auctions are such an interesting aspect of the market, because they're obviously the most public and highly visible marketplace, and there are a few people—Alberto Mugrabi, Larry Gagosian, and others in your circle—who can be relied on to go after works by certain artists when they go to auction. So it's a very successful field for getting high prices.

Well, those guys are not usually signing the tickets on the highest-priced works. Most of the highest prices are going to the biggest collectors in the world—the Russian collectors, certain Asian collectors, certain Mideast collectors, certain American collectors, and some of the European collectors. There are more now than there were 10 years ago, but I think it's still probably just 50 collectors in the world who are there to buy works that are in excess of $10 million. 

As a participant and observer of these auctions, do you believe these market high-wire acts are pulling the art world forward in a very productive way? And do you think it's viable for the market to continue operating at the record height it currently occupies?

I am not a soothsayer who can say that, but I really believe it's like my 19-year-old says: “It’s all good.” Basically it is all good. Anything that increases people’s attention or devotion to art, whether it's a commercial consideration or an intellectual one, is good for humanity. It's good for us, and it's certainly better than weapons or wars or anything like that. It's an honor to be an artist, and it's an honor to be a collector of artists' work, and I just think that whatever encourages people to show interest is great, because what begins one way so often ends up a different way.

So somebody can come in because they are commercially interested and think they can make a good living professionally off of art or just make a quick dollar and everybody hates that, but I don’t hate it because those people can turn out to be the biggest collectors in the future, and those people can turn out to be the biggest sponsors of museum shows in the future. You always want more people interested in art, and the interest in art has grown tremendously. There are more programs in universities, there are more art departments in private and public schools, and it all trickles down to build a much higher form of culture. 

The Brant Foundation, which is directed by your daughter Allison, has staged a series of landmark shows for rising young artists, often perfectly capturing them at the moment their careers are about to take off—and just as often helping them get to that point. Urs Fischer, Josh Smith, David Altmejd, Karen Kilimnik, and Nate Lowman are among the artists who had significant shows there. How do you decide who you will exhibit at the foundation, and who curates the shows?

As for the curatorial side, I basically try to do that myself—though I try to confer with people that I respect and really feel contribute. My daughter is a young lady, but she certainly learns more every month and she's doing a terrific job. But we're not only looking at younger artists. Last year we had the Warhol show, which was one of the biggest shows we put on. Next fall I'll have a show of four artists: Christopher Wool, Larry Clark, Richard Prince, and Cady Noland, all accomplished artists in their 60s who have very strong, important works in our collection. I obviously know a lot about these four artists, because they are four of my favorite artists, so I can put together a show that really has never been seen before and hopefully will travel.

It's was the same with our David Altmejd, and now works from that show are going to Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for an exhibition that opens next fall. That's a big accomplishment for us, since we initiated that show and David Altmejd is one of the artists we're really interested in, and now a major museum is choosing to empower that artist by taking our works.

It's terrific that you're going to show Cady Noland, since she's such a spectacular artist but is so rarely exhibited, partially because it's said she can be very challenging for institutions to work with.

She sort of stopped working in the '90s, but I still see her and she's a lovely and really interesting person and a great artist, and so many young artists today are really inspired by her work. I'm going to ask her to install her work in this show and I think she is a wonderful artist. So I think it will be a good chance to see it. We're going to have some really great pieces there, from all over the world. 

What responsibilities do you feel you have as the steward of such a large and significant collection, and what kind of future do you envision for your foundation?

Eventually my intent is to pass my collection onto the foundation. Every year I pass works to the foundation based on what it makes sense for me to do, which involves the considerations of how you would give anything away. I think ultimately my dream is that my family would be doing the same thing when I'm not here. I have nine kids, and they're all very interested in art. Literally all of them. A lot of them collect, even the younger ones, so they can say that they started collecting at an even younger age than I did. That's a really positive thing. I try to take my kids with me to shows, and a lot of my kids are very close friends with the artists. As a family I think that we are interested in art. 

Do you ever see the foundation expanding or becoming permanently open to the public, as opposed to being accessible by appointment only?

We have two shows a year and I think I'd like to keep it that way, so I don’t want to expand the space in Connecticut. I like the size of it—it works very well for our program. But I would like to have a foundation space in New York City, because we have a lot of works at my place in New York, and after something is exhibited in Connecticut it would be nice to be able to take works from the show and display them in New York alongside pieces by artists of the same period. That is really my plan, and I have been looking for a space. 

As a keen observer of the course of art history of the postwar era, what emerging directions in contemporary art are capturing your attention today? Where do you think the most exciting things are happening in the field?

I try to focus on American art or at least artists who live in America, because I love so many things and I have to stop somewhere. So I'm really looking all over the United States, or actually North America, because I collect some Canadian artists. I'm very interested in a wonderful artist from Vancouver named Steven Shearer who I am going to do a show with. I like him a lot—he's a great painter and a great artist.

But this is the way I see it. When I was going to college, the New York School was pretty big—you had the Pop artists and you had the Minimal artists and you had the Abstract Expressionists, a lot of whom were still around, including de Kooning. So there was a lot going on in New York, but today there's so much more going on than back then. I think that we are witnessing a real Renaissance of artists working in North America especially. They might come out of Tennessee or they might come out of Texas or they might come out of Vancouver, but they all somehow wind up in New York or Los Angeles.

If you're a young collector today and are seriously interested and invest your time like I did, the cultural rewards for you will be immense. You don’t have to be the richest guy in the world. You can buy things at an early age and collect the younger artists who are just starting in some of these galleries, on the Lower East Side or the East Village. You just have to look around—there is so much happening.


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