Hopper on the Couch, O’Keeffe Against the Floor Lamp

Elie Hirschfeld grew up in New York, develops real estate in New York, and has long bought art depicting New York—by Rothko, Rockwell, O’Keeffe, Hockney, Lawrence, Hopper, and others—for a collection once kept largely at his Manhattan apartment, across from the Met. He and his wife, Sarah, are donating the collection to the New-York Historical Society. (An exhibition of the works opens on October 22nd.) Before it moved, they gave a visitor a tour. Paintings hung on walls and reclined on couches, like guests. Hirschfeld, seventy-one, is tall, lean, and balding; Sarah, sixty-one, a doctor and a scientist, is shorter, with dark hair. They both possess a serene but exacting demeanor.

The collection has strong architectural themes. Hirschfeld gestured at a painting of snowy, small-town Brooklyn in 1818, by Francis Guy, which they’d chosen for the apartment’s entryway. “We thought about the de Kooning—but this has a sense of home that is very relaxing,” he said. “Don’t you just want to go inside and put on a fire?” The living room featured a fifteen-foot Red Grooms mural: a rollicking Seventh Avenue scene, from 1967, with a groovy couple zooming by on a motorcycle. “Look at the price on a cab,” Hirschfeld said. (“35¢.”) Nearby hung four Warhols of the Brooklyn Bridge, from 1983. “I had lunch with Andy Warhol in his studio that year, in Union Square,” he said. “I said, ‘See there, at the south corner? I’m building the One Union Square condominium tower.’ For the next forty minutes, all he wanted to talk about was real estate.” Hirschfeld owns another Warhol, “a fabulous drawing of Trump Tower,” where Hirschfeld once had an office and befriended Donald Trump. (“There’s a whole story on that, we’ll leave it alone. . . . He actually did appoint me to the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.”) Warhol and Trump “got into a well-known dispute about the final,” he added. (“Mr. Trump was very upset that it wasn’t color-coordinated,” Warhol wrote in his diary. “I think Trump’s sort of cheap, though, I get that feeling.”)

“This is a Calder,” Hirschfeld said, of a tabletop mobile. “We have a couple of non-New York scenes. You see the Stella there?” He pointed to a wall-size painting of colorful squares in the dining room. Next: Romare Bearden, from a series of paintings for a credit sequence in a movie—Hirschfeld had forgotten which. (Sarah, checking a binder: “John Cassavetes, 1980, ‘Gloria.’ ”) Also in the living room were Hopper (“They knocked down this Waldorf-Astoria and built the Empire State Building”), Saul Steinberg, de Kooning (“Totally abstract, but it’s done on the New York Times, so it’s a New York scene to me”). “This is absolutely amazing,” Hirschfeld said, picking up a pastel of a view from a window, from 1958. “A scene of New York City from Marc Chagall.” After Hirschfeld brought it home, he realized that the view was uncannily familiar. In 1958, Chagall had stayed at the Stanhope Hotel, now the Hirschfelds’ apartment building.

Hirschfeld breezed through the kitchen, pausing to admire a line drawing by Hirschfeld (“And not me!”) of the “21” Club, and proceeded into a long hallway featuring Childe Hassam; Lawrence; a Christo sketch of a wrapped Madison Square Garden; Reginald Marsh, of skyscraper construction (“These figures building New York, that excitement about the future”); and a Rockwell of a posh boy and a rumpled worker in Gramercy Park. At the Thomas Hart Benton painting “Washington Square Art Fair,” mounted at the end of the hallway, Hirschfeld got choked up. “This is the piece that started the collection,” he said. On a hall table, unremarked upon, was a small photo of Hirschfeld with Trump, both smiling.

A Louis Lozowick from 1932-36, of an industrial Manhattan waterfront, was unusually tall and thin. “There’s a reason for that,” Hirschfeld said. “I used to own the Hotel Pennsylvania, and my office was there. I would go to that post office”—now Moynihan Train Hall—“to get things out fast.” Moseying around there one day, he turned a corner and saw “a three-story-tall painting of this. So this was a study for that!” He recently sneaked into a construction area at Moynihan to look for it. “Still there,” he said.

In the bedroom, where drapes could be drawn, a few special paintings, usually protected from light, leaned against the furniture. (“I got them out, and I was, like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Hirschfeld said.) They included Bemelmans’s “Greeley Square,” in rich greens, and a small Keith Haring “radiant baby,” with bolts in it, from the Bowery subway station. The couple turned to a stunningly vivid O’Keeffe of the Brooklyn Bridge’s curved interior peaks, propped against a floor lamp. “Georgia O’Keeffe has long been my favorite artist,” Hirschfeld said. “The eroticism of her paintings, and the beauty of them. It pulsates!” Where did they usually keep it? “Turned around—I forget where.” Sarah pointed: “Over there.”

Were they getting a good look at the works while they still had them? Hirschfeld paused. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you. I’m having all of the pieces copied and framed.” (And stamped “NOT ORIGINAL.”) “So I can look at them all the time, and I don’t have to have the shades down.” ♦


pevita pearce

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