The history of the art world is filled with heroes -- primarily, great artists and a handful of enlightened patrons. However, in every generation, a significant artist falls through the cracks, never to be resurrected. Even more frequently, important collectors can vanish into the quicksand of time.
Such is the case with the Pop Art collector who arguably had the best "eye" of them all -- the legendary eccentric, Leon Kraushar. Like a tumbleweed blowing into oblivion, Kraushar came and went with the 1960s. His collecting legacy was witnessed by many but is remembered by few. I wanted to connect with his lineage -- not as a groundbreaking collector, but as someone who owned a significant work by an artist who came out of that mythic era.
If Hollywood tried to conjure up a colorful character to play the role of an art aficionado, it would have had a hard time inventing one as original as Kraushar. Professionally, he was a self-made man who achieved prosperity as an insurance broker. But that was where conventionality ended. One look at him and you knew this wasn't your basic "Whole Life" salesman.
When he was younger, Kraushar was a bit of a dandy, with a penchant for custom-made clothes -- especially loud plaids and stripes. He was also guilty of peculiar grooming habits, including shaving his underarms. Even though he never set out to call attention to himself, during the early '60s he managed to do so with his shoulder-length hair, just before the hippie movement made it fashionable.
Although Kraushar is largely forgotten now, he was interviewed by Life Magazine in 1965 for an article on art collectors called "You Bought It, Now Live with It." He spoke while being photographed in the bedroom of his Long Island home, seated in front of a triumvirate of the greatest Andy Warhols ever painted: Red Jackie (a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy), Green Liz (Elizabeth Taylor), and Orange Marilyn (Marilyn Monroe).
If a Warhol fan came across any one of these paintings in someone's bedroom now, he'd be ecstatic. But for Kraushar to accumulate all three, well, that is the sports world equivalent of Joe Dimaggio's record 56-game hitting streak -- you'll probably never see it happen again. Liz was her glamorous self and Jackie was the model of elegant sophistication. But Marilyn was beauty personified. Warhol portrayed her as a goddess with lemon yellow hair, a pink face, ruby-red lips, light blue eye shadow and shiny white teeth. She positively glowed against a background of deep, radiant orange.
The problem was that no one knew how special Pop art was at the time -- except for Leon Kraushar and a handful of other true believers.
Even as a former dabbler in Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Kraushar had a passion for the trendiest art that couldn't contain itself. He laid it on the line to the Life reporter, "Pop art is the art of today, and tomorrow, and all the future. All that other stuff -- it's old, it's antique. Renoir? I hate him. Bedroom pictures. It's all the same. It's the same with the Abstract Expressionists, all of them. Decoration. There's no satire; there's no today, there's no fun. That other art is for the old ladies, all those people who go to auctions -- it's dead. There isn't any art except right here. I got rid of all those second-raters. Somebody else can have them."
In order to get a first-hand fix on what Kraushar was really like, I managed to track down his youngest son, Fred, by phone. He told me that his father was a private man, uninterested in social climbing like the pretentious Sculls. He loved meeting the artists, but had no interest in joining museum boards or throwing parties to show off his collection. Fred fondly recalled the one and only time that Warhol came to his house for a visit. He remembered that Warhol was quiet and child-like in demeanor, a man of few words -- and very unhealthy looking. Warhol visited that day to discuss the swap of his dad's spare Volkswagen for a blue multi-image painting of the artist Robert Rauschenberg. The deal was consummated, though Fred wasn't sure if Warhol kept the car or gave it to one of his studio assistants.
I asked Fred, "What was the first piece of Pop art that your dad purchased?"
"That's easy. It was a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a woman's hand holding a yellow sponge. When he showed it to my mom, she was unimpressed. As she put it, 'If he wanted to see a hand with a sponge, he could always watch me.' But eventually my mom came around and began to encourage him. Her approval was very important."
Fred continued, "My dad was a bit of a pied piper. As his collection grew, my older brother began to pay attention. My dad preached to Howard and his buddies to start collections of their own. He even lent my brother's friends money to buy art. I remember that one loan was used to finance a Warhol Electric Chair."
Besides seminal Tom Wesselmanns, James Rosenquists and Roy Lichtensteins, Kraushar had purchased numerous works by Claes Oldenburg, including an oversized plaster baked potato. There was also an extraordinary eight-foot tall crushed auto metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. But when the movers arrived with a life-size three-dimensional George Segal of a four-member rock combo (complete with a drum kit), Fred knew his days of being able to toss a football around the living room were over. In fact, Fred talked about how a week never seemed to go buy without a moving van pulling up in front of his family's home, ready to disgorge the latest piece of cutting edge art. Apparently, this weekly spectacle made an impression on the neighbors. They never knew if the Kraushars were coming or going.
As for Leon Kraushar's three, 40-inch-square Warhol celebrity portraits of Liz, Jackie and Marilyn, Fred said they were bought around 1963 and came from New York's Leo Castelli Gallery. As anyone familiar with the art world knows, Castelli was the visionary dealer who paved the way for the Pop explosion. According to the gallery's director at the time, Ivan C. Karp, Kraushar paid an average price of $1,800 for each portrait -- not an outrageous sum, but real money back in the early '60s.
Ivan Karp is a character in his own right (who now operates the O.K. Harris Gallery on West Broadway). As Castelli's right hand man, he was a vital player in the early promotion of Pop art. Although, much of the art world assumes that it was Castelli who discovered all of the era's wonderful artists, it is actually Karp who deserves the credit. Among his stellar picks was Andy Warhol.
I once asked Karp what was it about Leon Kraushar that allowed him to predict the future of the art market with such accuracy. Karp replied, "Kraushar was one of those individuals who was born with a chemical compound in his head that allowed him to see with great perception. There are certain people who might be beasts and monsters, but somehow they get it -- they have an uncanny eye for art."
"So you're saying Kraushar was a monster?"
"Not a monster, the guy was more of a Sherman tank. When he ran into the gallery, Castelli literally hid under his desk."
I asked Karp, "Did he work him over trying to get a discount?"
"No, but he used to show up at the gallery with smoked salmon and literally force slices of it into Castelli's mouth."
"What about you?" I asked.
"He didn't have to force me -- I love smoked salmon!"
"So the 'salmon' was one of his routines?"
"That was part of it. Kraushar was a very high-strung guy -- a force of nature. He'd come in the gallery and just start dancing around. It was his way of conducting himself in the world," said Karp.
In 1967, at the age of 54, Kraushar died of a massive coronary. Ironically, he couldn't get life insurance because of a known heart condition. At that point, his wife was approached by a representative of the German collector Karl Strher. In order to maintain her lifestyle, as well as pay estate taxes, Mrs. Kraushar allowed Strher to swoop in and cherry pick the collection, paying approximately $600,000 for the privilege. An educated guess was that he paid $25,000 for each of the three Warhol celebrity portraits.
In 1988, Karl Ströher himself passed away. Sotheby's quickly organized a single-owner sale that was designed to prune some of his Pop gems. On the cover of the May 1989 sale catalogue was Oldenburg's Bacon and Egg, formerly of the Leon Kraushar collection. In fact, 17 of the 19 lots in the sale were once his, including Lichtenstein's Sponge II -- the painting that got Kraushar started. This three-foot square painting (that his wife once mocked) sold for $687,500. The 17 with the Kraushar provenance (history of ownership) brought a total of $5.7 million -- indeed better than IBM stock.
Then, as everyone knows, in 1998 Warhol's Orange Marilyn went up for auction at Sotheby's in New York and sold for a fantastic $17,327,500 to magazine mogul Si Newhouse. Per square inch, it was the most expensive contemporary painting ever sold at auction. It had been a long climb from Leon Kraushar's messianic faith in Pop art to Newhouse's confirmation of his belief.
Even though my phone conversation with Fred shed some light on the infancy of the Warhol phenomenon, I decided to arrange a visit with him in order to fill in some of the blanks. Conveniently, Fred lived only 30 minutes away in Oakland. I drove over the Bay Bridge and found myself knocking on the door of his tasteful Arts and Crafts bungalow. The door opened and I was given a warm greeting by Fred's rambunctious dog, Buddy, and his slender, attractive wife, Susan. As I crossed the threshold and scanned the walls, the only object that betrayed Fred's illustrious pedigree was a framed shopping bag bearing the silk-screened likeness of a Warhol Campbell's soup can. That was it.
Fred himself then walked into the living room, rubbing his eyes after a long shift at the hospital's psychiatric ward. He worked as a nurse and apparently enjoyed his career. Fred was a good-natured man of 51, with black hair, green eyes and a smile that seemed to mimic the "What, me worry?" persona of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman. Fred seemed eager to talk and was pleased that someone wanted to honor his father. But I also sensed that it was still difficult for him to come to grips with his past.
Surprisingly, Fred confessed that there had been a greater dilemma in his life than the reconciliation of his father's legacy -- he had been agonizing for years over whether to get a tattoo. Eventually, Susan couldn't stand hearing about it anymore and told him to fish or cut bait. Ultimately, he overcame his fears and went under the tattooer's electric needle. However, as I looked him over, I saw no evidence of the tattoo's existence.
"So Fred," I began, "Let's see it."
He looked at me sheepishly. Then he glanced over to Susan, hoping for approval. Susan nodded reluctantly. A grin crossed Fred's face as he slowly undid his jeans. As his pants slid to his ankles, a large orange and green Japanese koi appeared on his hip. The tattoo was impressive, but still not as impressive as Fred's childhood background.
The obvious question was what was it like growing up in an environment filled with such incredible treasures? As I probed the mystery, Fred handed me some old photographs of his family's home. What struck me was the incongruity of all these masterpieces displayed in the most banal of settings. The home was modern and attractive, but it was basically upper-middle class. Next, Fred showed me pictures of his family and once again I was struck by how ordinary they looked.
For instance, there's a smudged photo of the Kraushars having a meal together. His mother is petting Moe, the family schnauzer, his father (with close-cropped hair) is drinking a glass of water and staring off into space, his brother is peeling an apple, and Fred (who looks like he's about 13) is sipping a glass of milk, a silver I.D. bracelet dangling from his wrist. If you didn't know any better, it looked like a scene out of the Brady Bunch -- the ultimate functional family.
What throws the whole equation off are the three modestly scaled works of art hanging in the kitchen -- all of which are thematically linked to eating. One is an early Wesselmann still life, complete with an ice cream sundae and a submarine sandwich. Then there is an Oldenburg relief of three Popsicles and three ice cream bars, painted in the period's psychedelic colors. However, the most valuable painting -- by far -- is a small Warhol diptych of two Campbell's soup cans. Looking at that photograph, where the relatively minor works in the kitchen alone could now buy the owner a small mansion, was mind-blowing.
Yet, when I asked Fred if he had any idea at the time of the potential value of these works, he replied, "I always enjoyed the art, but I was barely a teenager at the time. Give me a break! Who knew?"