Charles H. Carpenter,  Jr. in his living room

The Odyssey of an Art Collector

by Charles H. Carpenter, Jr.

Introduction by Richard Armstrong, Curator of Contemporary Art, Carnegie Museum of Art

Collecting art has been a lifelong adventure for former Pittsburgher Charles H. Carpenter, Jr., and his late wife, Mary Grace.

Born in the small railroad town of Gassaway, West Virginia, Charles Carpenter spent his childhood in a home where art, music and learning were paramount. He began collecting stamps, coins and rocks as a child, intrigued by their far-away and exotic origins. Through his father's job as a train dispatcher, Carpenter and his family obtained passes to visit New York City, enhancing his innate curiosity.

When he was 15 his family moved to the more cosmopolitan Weston, West Virginia, where Carpenter pursued his interest in art.

After graduating from high school, Carpenter enrolled as a chemistry major at West Virginia University, later transferring to the University of Virginia. His plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton University were thwarted during the second world war by the draft board, which ordered him to find work in the defense industry. A job as a chemical engineer at Carnegie Illinois Steel in Clairton, Pennsylvania, did not deter him from his quest for a doctorate, and he soon enrolled in night classes at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt's closeness to Carnegie Institute's Department of Fine Arts (renamed Carnegie Museum of Art in 1986) fostered this new intellectual pursuit.

In 1943 Carpenter married Pittsburgh native Mary Grace Winnett. Growing up in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Mary Grace knew the Carnegie Museum well and was conversant with contemporary art from having seen several Internationals.

"She liked art and had a good eye," Carpenter says of his late wife. We developed our passion for art as a team. I would usually choose the artist, and she would often pick the best example of his or her work."

Carpenter's friendship with Pittsburgh's legendary collector G. David Thompson guided the young couple's first acquisitions. After some initial missteps, they bought early and significant work by a variety of artists throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, their collecting having been facilitated by a move to New York in the 1950s. When the contemporary art market became overheated in the 1980s, the Carpenters sought turn-of-the-century American silver and wrote definitive histories of both the Gorham and Tiffany companies. As a result of his work in restoring a whaler's house, Carpenter wrote The Decorative Arts and Crafts of Nantucket (1987). The Carpenters began collecting contemporary art again in the late 1980s, and collecting absorbed their energies until Mary Grace's death in 1993.

Soon after Mary Grace and I were married, we started looking for paintings to hang in our tiny $32-per-month government- housing apartment in Clairton. The first picture we bought was a bit of a disaster. It was a $20, 19th-century portrait of a lady acquired from Hough and Keenan, a Pittsburgh moving company with household items for sale. It looked great in a faded, brown sort of way, and it had a nice gold frame. On the way back from the shop, we stopped by the Carnegie museum to show it to Acting Director John O'Connor. Fortunately, he was not in. When we got home we discovered on the back a Kaufmann's department store label, and we realized we had acquired a photographic reproduction that had been gunked up with thick varnish to make it look like an oil painting. Here was a depressing, but valuable, learning experience.#

We acquired our first actual artworks around 1944, through a notice in a Pittsburgh newspaper advertising "Oil Paintings for Sale." We bought, for $36, two small 19th-century European canvases in elaborate gilt frames. One was a minor Barbizon school painting of a farm girl and sheep, which is now in my "attic collection." The other, which we later sold, was an unsigned canvas depicting a maiden in a bucolic landscape.

At the Carnegie museum's 34th Annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Exhibition in 1944, we fell in love with a glowing, untitled painting by Samuel Rosenberg, a professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology whose students included Philip Pearlstein and Andy Warhol. We wrote Rosenberg asking if we could buy his picture in several payments. He agreed and graciously reduced the price.

In 1949 at the Carnegie museum I saw a watercolor show that had traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago. I could not afford the [Mark] Tobey in that exhibition either, but there was a wonderful red-and-blue Pollock gouache-on-Masonite, priced at $150. I told John O'Connor that I wanted to buy it. He said, "Why don't we make him an offer first?" When I asked what he meant, he said, "I will write his gallery [Betty Parsons in New York] and offer $100." I was dubious but went along, and the offer was accepted. (As for Tobey, I finally acquired a small tempera-on-paper work of his, Dancer, from the Willard Gallery in New York in 1954.)

In 1947 I acquired a John Marin watercolor from the Downtown Gallery for $750, which at that time represented two months' salary. In the 1940s the gallery held annual Christmas sales for "young collectors," at which nothing was priced above $750. In the 1947 Christmas show were three Marin watercolors. The most expensive of these was Boat with Sun, Deer Isle, Maine (1921). Its colors were fresh and clear, and it seemed to me a fine example of Marin's work; it still does. He was at the time considered to be one of America's foremost painters. (A poll of critics, museum curators, and artists taken in 1948 ranked him as the country's greatest living artist. Neither Pollock nor any of the abstract expressionists made the list.) All this helps explain why I was willing to pay (over a six-month period) such a large sum of money for a picture. Making this purchase meant that we had to drive the old car a bit longer, that we could not take a vacation that year, and that I could not buy the new suit I needed.

. . .

I first saw Ellsworth Kelly's paintings at Betty Parsons' 57th Street gallery in New York in 1956 and liked them immediately for their absolute simplicity. With great economy of means, he stripped away all irrelevance, giving us joyous shapes and colors that seemed to transcend time and culture. Kelly's art was many degrees away from the mainstream abstract expressionism of the 1950s.

I thought about acquiring a Kelly painting but kept waiting for the perfect example. In April 1958 a front-page story in the New York Herald Tribune by the critic Emily Genauer was accompanied by a reproduction of Kelly's Painting in Five Panels (1955). She expressed her dismay that the United States would be represented in the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition, then under way, by such awful avant-garde trash. Not being a fan of Genauer, I figured the painting must be pretty good and decided that if it returned from Brussels unsold, I would try to buy it. I conveyed this to Betty Parsons, and when the painting returned we arranged to acquire it. I thought the price was a bit steep ($1,500), but, as usual, she let me pay for it in installments.

. . .

Ellsworth told me he got the idea for Painting in Five Panels at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He visited the museum in 1954, soon after returning to the United States from his six-year sojourn in France, and saw a group of five smallish paintings of different sizes by the Spanish painter Juan Gris. He said he "liked the way the five Gris pictures worked together, reinforcing each other" and that he immediately started thinking about making a picture of five variously sized panels with related, but different, images in each.

Over the years I have seen Ellsworth occasionally in New York, and we have developed a nice, though casual, friendship. Several times I wrote him from places abroad where I had seen his work, and he sent me invitations to his openings.

I saw most of his gallery shows. His 1971 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York was one I found especially exciting. Kelly had continued developing, slowly and consistently, to the point where it was clear that he was a major artist producing wonderful pictures. There was one picture in the show, the large triangular Two Panels: Green Orange (1970), that I felt I had to have. But I did not have enough money to buy it. What to do? All I could think of was to trade a Mark Rothko painting I had purchased from Janis in 1955. I brought the work to the gallery, and Janis agreed to an exchange.

. . .

I had read an article on Ad Reinhardt in Art News in the early 1950s and knew he was an important member of the New York School. But I was not prepared for the first exhibition of his work I saw at Betty Parsons' New York gallery in November 1956. The show was Reinhardt's first to include only his black paintings. The opening was fascinating. The gallery was filled with young people-it seemed I was the only person over 30 in the crowd-and I could hear animated and approving comments all over the place. But I was baffled. I saw only black paintings. I could not figure out the enthusiasm. That worried me, because I knew that others were seeing something in those pictures that I did not. I am not being arch or naive when I make these statements. The fact that I learned later to appreciate Reinhardt's black paintings, to understand them and see the wonderful, subtle gradations of colors in their surfaces, does not change or mitigate my initial impression of the black paintings. The young artists caught on to what Reinhardt was up to much more quickly than I did.

A few months later, I visited the Parsons gallery and saw a marvelous red painting in the back room that had just been unpacked after an exhibition. I asked who painted it, and Betty Parsons said Ad Reinhardt. I was astounded. I had only known the show of black paintings, which did not seem to have anything to do with this glowing red object. I immediately made arrangements to buy it and asked Parsons if she had other examples of Reinhardt's earlier non-black paintings. She said no but suggested that I get in touch with the artist, which I did. This marked the beginning of a personal relationship that meant a great deal to me and that, I like to think, was also important to Reinhardt.

. . .

I first saw Jim Dine's paintings and drawings in the autumn of 1959 at the Reuben Gallery, a shabby cooperative space in lower Manhattan backed by Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and other young artists. It was an exciting place. The work of the gallery artists was brash, tough, gutsy and quite different from that of the big names of the New York School. Abstract expressionism was well established in New York, but it was clearly old hat to this new generation of painters.

Although the hierarchy of American art of the 1950s and early 1960s seems now to be well established, the picture was not so clear in 1959. Jasper Johns had begun to make a splash, but even then there were bright young artists who said he was playing it too safe, that he was not radical enough. He was beginning to be widely known in 1959, but he was no hero. Johns (and Rauschenberg) had one great thing going for them: They were promoted by the most brilliant dealer of the time, Leo Castelli. By the time I found out about these artists, they were already out of my price bracket.

This was not so with the Reuben Gallery artists. They were unknown, and all their work was inexpensive. But I liked what I saw and, not being an investment buyer, did not worry about getting my money's worth.

Artists associated with the Reuben Gallery organized many of the early Happenings, those quasi-theatrical, highly visual events that introduced a new word use into the language. Mary Grace and I saw a number of them. I remember Allan Kaprow's as being formal and abstract, quite intellectual. Claes Oldenburg's were rich and colorful. I particularly recall one of Claes' Happenings in which the art historian Henry Geldzahler sat at a table directly in front of, and facing, the audience, making grotesque grimaces, while the rest of the event went on around him.

The most memorable of all the Happenings we saw was Dine's Car Crash. This relatively short (was it 20 minutes long?) "drama," in which Jim played the part of the crashing car, had all the impact of the real thing. It was loud and brutal, and the "blood" on him looked real. Jim had the stage presence of a great actor. I do not remember much of the story line, but the elemental power of the performance is indelibly etched in my mind.

. . .

When I first saw Jim's work at the Reuben Gallery, he had not yet had a one-man show in New York. I felt almost instantly, however, that I was in the presence of a great talent. In October 1959 I bought a small oil painting. Two or three weeks later I met him at the Reuben Gallery, and he invited me to visit his studio. We became friends, and I bought a number of his paintings and drawings. He also gave us a couple of drawings.

. . .

That spring I visited Jim in his new loft studio, a cavernous and dingy lower-Manhattan space. In August I visited the studio again. Within those few months, Jim had filled the wall of the loft with large paintings that vibrated with energy. He knew what he was doing was important and said, quite matter-of-factly, "I can do anything." The loft full of paintings proved it.

I bought one of his newly completed paintings, The Coat (1961). This canvas, which I think of as a child's close-up view of an enormous tweed overcoat-with large real buttons on it-has a marvelous rough vitality of a kind associated with both the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and the neo-expressionism of the 1980s.

. . .

The Reuben Gallery was also the first place I saw Claes Oldenburg's work, in 1959. I especially remember his dark, somber constructions of newspaper pasted on chicken-wire frames, painted in blacks and grays. I also saw his early freely drawn figurative paintings, which were good but which would never have made his present reputation.

In 1961 Claes started making the brilliantly colored painted plaster and "soft" plastic sculptures that became icons of pop art. Many of these were shown in the winter of 1961-1962 at his Store (which he opened to sell his work) and in his first one-man show at the Green Gallery, held in the fall of 1962. They were an immediate success, receiving wide publicity and leading to his association with the Sidney Janis Gallery, then one of New York's leading contemporary art spaces. But before he established the Store, Claes sold very little and was very much the classic poverty-stricken artist. In the summer of 1961, at his suggestion, I paid his $50-per-month studio rent in exchange for artworks. I visited him a number of times, usually at lunchtime, first picking up sandwiches for both of us at a nearby delicatessen. I asked if he would make a wall- piece for our house, and he agreed to do so. In September, he phoned me at my New York office.

"Your sandwich is ready," he said.

I demurred, saying I was busy that day and would not have time to join him for lunch.

Naturally, I was delighted. Sandwich (1961) is still in my upstairs hallway. It has never been exhibited in New York, mainly because I always felt it was too fragile to move. Mary Grace said she could tell the age of the person looking at Claes' sculpture by asking him or her to identify it. People over 30 do not know what it is, while those under 30 immediately know it as a sandwich.

. . .

I first heard about Charles Shaw in the mid-1960s from Ad Reinhardt. He and I were talking about Nantucket, where Mary Grace and I had recently purchased a house, and I remarked about the lack of well-known artists on the island. In the 1950s, Provincetown, on Cape Cod, had been a hotbed of avant-garde painters. While the painter Hans Hofmann and his circle drew a steady stream of artists to the Cape, none of them seemed to come to nearby Nantucket. Ad said, "Well, there is one painter, first-rate, who spends time on Nantucket-Charles Shaw."

Ad said Shaw was "one of the pioneer abstract painters in America." He made it clear that he thought Shaw was more important than some of the painters with big reputations. The two had known each other since the 1930s, when Shaw was one of the early members of the American Abstract Artists, a group of painters dedicated to geometric and nonobjective art, which Ad had joined in 1937.

As soon as I had a chance, I inquired about Shaw on Nantucket. At the time he was having a private showing of small paintings in the summer house of a friend, Gladys Haskell. I liked the pictures and bought a small stylized seascape. A few days later I met Shaw; we hit it off immediately. He was a tall, handsome man in his mid-70s, with a dapper moustache and friendly eyes. He was a social man, a scholar, and a poet. But painting was his life.

The relationship between a painter and a collector can sometimes be awkward and strange, but not in our case. We both loved to talk art. That talk ranged from paint quality to gossip about the art world.

A few weeks after we first met, Charlie showed me some of his sketches. He asked what I thought. "Do you want me to be honest?" I replied. He had to say, "Of course." So I gave my reactions, primarily those of an amateur. From that time on, we often had sessions discussing his painting ideas. My input was minimal, but these discussions gave me fascinating insights into this painter's mind. He was methodical, thoughtful, and often unexpectedly daring. At that time (1966) Shaw was beginning to re-explore abstract forms that he had worked on in the 1930s and 1940s-but in new, sometimes bolder ways.

His usual practice was first to make watercolor sketches on a 9 x 12-inch ring-bound pad. Among these sketches, one would be selected as the basis for a small oil painting of, say, 12 x 16 inches. Then, for an exhibition he would use the best of the small oils as studies for larger paintings. He was limited to painting sizes of about 5 x 7 feet, since that was the maximum- size canvas he could get into the small elevator of his apartment on East 57th Street in New York.

I was interested in why he did certain things in his paintings. For instance, I once asked him about his practice of heavily texturing the paint of certain forms in pictures, playing them off against flatly painted adjoining surfaces. This device, which he first used around 1930, produces powerful contrasts. Charlie explained this to me, adding, with a sly grin, "It's my own little invention." He said his "invention" was, of course, a variation of a technique used by painters since the advent of cubism.

Perhaps I should point out that artists come in various financial flavors. Not all live in run-down second-story lofts. Charlie was independently wealthy, a man who moved easily and gracefully in top society. He lived simply but with real style. Over the years I often visited him in his apartment. There were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the walls were decorated with his own playing-card montages, which I loved. They were made of ancient playing cards and other objects, such as gaming counters and clay pipes, mounted on antique textiles and old papers and set in 18th- and 19th-century frames. His materials were handled with an antiquarian's love and knowledge and arranged with the cool eye of an abstract painter. Although he made perhaps 600 of these montages in the 1930s and 1940s and sold a few, they were never shown as a group during his lifetime and were unknown except to his friends.