Hubert Neumann: In Dialogue
by Lita Neumann Crichton
Hubert G. Neumann was born in Chicago in 1931. Neumann grew up with a curious imagination and a love for reading books, classical music, Dixieland jazz, and playing baseball. His mother and father worked in a family mail order business, and his father collected art, along with other items. Neumann received an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago’s radical Great Books Program at the age of seventeen, and he also received an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1952. After receiving an MBA from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York City and got married in 1954.
Neumann quickly developed not only a passion for collecting, but an eye for great art, like his father, Morton Neumann. While in New York, he began visiting galleries and collecting art; the first painting he bought in 1954 was by Sabro Hasegawa, now a legend in Japan. At only twenty-three years old, Hubert and his father attended a historic gallery opening in New York, which included Hasegawa himself, as well as Marcel Duchamp, Franz Klein, and Alfred Barr. This opening was an important part of Neumann’s development as a collector because he was exposed to so many important artists and architects there.
In the 1950s, his father was collecting works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Gaston Chaissac, Jean Dubuffet, Franz Kline, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti all living artists at the time the works were purchased. Many of the artists developed relationships with the Neumann family. By the 1960’s Neumann had moved to New York City and worked with his father to expand the collection with works by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Tom Wesselman, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella and Man Ray. In the 1970s works byChuck Close, Dan Flavin, Richard Estes, William Wegman, Donald Judd, Audrey Flack, Joseph Beuy and Robert Ryman were added to the ever growing collection. By the 1980s, the Neumanns were buying major works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Julian Schnabel and many others. Neumann has followed his father’s tradition of supporting younger artists early in their careers and developing relationships with the artists he collects. Neumann is very interested in promoting collecting--not the idea of buying a work of art for the monetary value it may accrue in the future, but instead the idea of preserving works of art for generations to come.
Morton G. Neumann in his Chicago home. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the consignor. Artwork: © 2020 Estate of Kenneth Noland / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; © 2020 The George and Helen Segal Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; © 2020 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Claes Oldenburg; © 2020
Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; © Allen Jones.
LNC: What inspired you to start collecting art? How did your father influence you?
HN: I can say that I probably was born a collector because when I was very young, I would collect stamps, leaves, books, and matchbook covers. It was perfectly natural as I also happened to have a father who was also a collector--maybe it’s a gene. At one point in his life, my father decided he wanted to collect art--paintings and sculptures. He started by collecting some 18th-century paintings that he bought at a department store in Chicago. Then he moved to collecting works by Klee, Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, and many more. As a young man, I worked with him in the mid-50s to build then a contemporary collection in New York, while my father was in Chicago. He would travel to New York and Paris as well. Once he passed away, I continued this collection, so now, we have collected over seventy years.
Jean Dubuffet, Antonin Artaud aux Houppes, 1947 and Francis Picabia, Parade Amoureuse, 1917 Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: What is it about New York City that makes it a good place to be a collector?
HN: There’s a history of serious collecting of fine art in New York City, which started in the 19th century. It started with very well-to-do families. At that time, NYC was a major center for not only art but it was also a huge financial, literary, and music and theatre center. Great art collections were also formed in Venice, Rome, Paris, London, and Russia--there’s always been a history of art collecting in urban areas. It goes all the way back to the Roman Empire, where the people that ran the world took art very seriously. Today, I would say that the leading city in the world for the arts--not just visual arts--is NYC; the energy of art is more here in NYC than any other place in the world, which is why I moved from Chicago to New York. That interests me a great deal because I’m passionate in emerging art at this point in my life. The whole contemporary art world eventually comes to New York--we have great museums, auction houses, art fairs, and many galleries.
Tom Wesselman, Great American Nude,, 1965, Charlie Roberts, MMM mm MMM mm mm mmm mm MMMM, 2010, Louis Granet, Sans Titre, 2017
and a hint of Bernd and Hilda Becher, A Typology of Cooling Towers (Wood), 1976 Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: Do you place limitations on yourself when you collect?
HN: Absolutely. It is very important to put limitations on yourself when you collect and not just in monetary terms. By that, I mean you have an idea of the whole collection and how you’re going to add to it aesthetically, which is incredibly meaningful. You might love the artist but you have to discipline yourself to buy work that is of the best quality (which is a subjective evaluation) and work that fits with the other art that is already in the collection so that the art in the collection doesn’t become redundant. It does require an enormous amount of discipline in the way you select the works, particularly in the case of contemporary work, because you don’t have the benefit of looking back to it from fifty years later. That’s why people face a lot of difficulty when forming a significant contemporary collection. It is an intuitive thing that you feel--or I feel--about how the artist is going to develop and whether a work of art is transitional or not. It’s also important to take risks when collecting because the more risks you take, the more you learn and grow.
David Salle, The Far Off Remembering of the Intuition, 1981, Pedro Friedeberg, Hand Chair, 1969,
Robert Rauschenberg, Fan, c. 1965 Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: Do you see relationships or similarities between an artist and the work they create?
HN: Yes, definitely. One example of this is Miró and his work. I met Miró personally and also bought his work, so I knew a lot about him and his development. When I first met him, he twinkled, and his art was an embodiment of his existence. This is very important because I meet a lot of artists, and I see that their work is an embodiment of themselves and their personality--particularly if your engagement with the artist is not superficial. This is why in my collecting, creating a relationship with an artist and their dealers is almost as important as buying a work.
Cristina de Miguel, Adam and Eve, 2019 and Pol Bury (on couch) Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: Do you have any regrets on works you think you should have collected?
HN: I have many regrets. You can’t be involved with art collecting without having regrets of omission. I can give you an example. In 1986 or so, I was offered the Jeff Koons Bunny. My father had just passed away, and for about a year, I lost my enthusiasm for collecting. I regret not buying that work, but later on I bought other works by Koons which I am very happy with. You can’t dwell upon your regrets because if you do, you won’t look into the future. I don’t look back upon my art collecting regrets because of optimism, courage, and love. We’ve created a great collection, and we’re really fortunate that we were able to do so.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Tyrany), 1982 , Xavier Veilhan, Untitled, 1994 and Marcel Jean, Specter of the Gardenia, 1936 Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: How do you think others in the future will see the work you’ve collected? Do you think people accept the work?
HN: We’ve created this for over seventy years for better or for worse, and history will develop an understanding of the creatively new visual vocabulary. It is a fundamentally unique collection--it ranges from Cubism all the way out to what’s being done today. There’s no collection like it in the world. I think a lot of the current work will require a substantial number of years before people to feel comfortable with it. Take Basquiat, for instance--few people liked his work because, among other matters, they thought graffiti art was trivial. But I had a feeling that this guy was a force; I have that feeling about a lot of artists in our collection, and I’m very optimistic today. Now, people love Basquiat’s work and see it completely differently than they did before. The work didn’t change but the perception changed, and I believe this will happen many times in the future.
Tom Wesselman, Great American Nude, 1965, Jean Dubuffet, Cabriolet l'Hourloupe, 1964, Matthew Ronay, Scanner, 2017, Max Ernst, My Anxious Friend, 1957
JP Munro, Solomon Defeats Evil, 2007, Akeley Hall of Mammals, 2005-2006, Chinatown Gate, 2006, Garden of Love, 2001-2004, Ancien regime, 2006,
Perseus and Andromeda, 2008 - 2014 and Eden, 2007 Collection: Hubert Neumann
LNC: How do you hope your legacy in art collecting will be continued?
HN: I’m the last of the Mohicans because my father and brother aren’t around anymore. So, I hope my daughter Melissa and her children will bring this collection forward. She has three children, and I hope that they’re going to find collecting to be an integral part of their lives and that they bring the collection forward and share it with the world. One thing I hope to do is to make a physical space to keep the art in a city like New York so the artists’ works are shown in a more significant context. The space won’t be like a museum, however, because I want the space to be more interactive and not arrogant. I’ve passed my knowledge of collecting on to my grandchildren, but it is also important for them to have dialogues with other collectors, other artists, and museums to get a broader perspective on the art and art world.
LNC: To you, what makes a work worth buying?
HN: A specific work appeals to me because I feel excitement about that work. You can’t explain it in words, but if that happens for me, personally, I feel enthralled by that particular work all my life. I never lose that mysterious connection when it happens with paintings, prints, drawings, or sculptures. I often look back at the work I bought years ago--I’m very interested in the fact that I still love a work of art that I bought when I was twenty years old, and it still gives me the same emotional response seventy years later. What makes me really love a work is the lack of understanding of it. I always feel that if a work of art is too literal, I am not interested in it. If a work does not contain this universality and mystery, it will fade away because it will not talk to other generations. Alfred Barnes once discussed the importance of an artist’s ability to create an innovative space. I agree with him because for me, if an artist has not created that new space which echoes their contemporary moment, I feel that the artwork hasn’t gone far enough; Rather, the work has to have “visual density.” It’s hard to explain, but if the work gets too thin, I find it to be superficial and decorative. In our capitalist world, there are also many attempts to reduce artwork to only a monetary value, but when I buy a piece, I do not think about that. I kind of boil it down to magic and love.
Photos: Lita Crichton
Hubert Neumann is an American art collector and patron.
Lita Crichton is a Senior at Horace Mann High School in the Bronx, New York. She is the granddaughter of art collector Hubert Neumann, whom she interviewed in this article, and she shares his same love for art. She hopes to be a fourth generation art collector.