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Art In Conversation

Wynn Kramarsky with William Corbett

Photo of Wynn Kramarsky in his office. Photo by Noah Sheldon, 2005.
Photo of Wynn Kramarsky in his office. Photo by Noah Sheldon, 2005.

Wynn Kramarsky’s collection of contemporary works on paper consists of more than 3,000 drawings amassed over the last 50 years. His interests focus on the work of Minimalist and Post-Minimalist artists. Kramarsky currently serves on the Board of Trustees of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—where he is active on the Drawings, Education, Library and Museum Archives committees—and on the Board of the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. He has formerly served as Chairman of the Andy Warhol Foundation and Chairman of The Drawing Center in New York. William Corbett of the CUE Art Foundation Advisory Council welcomed Kramarsky to CUE for an interview before a packed house.

William Corbett (Rail): Where were you born?

Wynn Kramarsky: I was born in Amsterdam, Holland. I lived there until I was thirteen. That answers your question, but I’ll tell you more if you’d like.

Rail: You came over here at thirteen?

Kramarsky: In a big hurry. It was 1939. [Laughter]

Rail: And you went to school in America.

Kramarsky: Briefly. Bill knows the answer to this. I was a multiple dropout, long before that was fashionable, and that’s what he wants to hear. I dropped out of elementary school because I ran away from home. I dropped out of high school because I wanted to work. I dropped out of college because I wanted to do some other work, and currently, I’m a law school dropout.

Rail: You mean you have an application in to return?

Kramarsky: No, no. I think the statute of limitations has passed on that.

Rail: Actually, what I wanted to know, as I emailed you, is: did the fact that you didn’t go through all of those schools leave you as a kind of blank slate? You didn’t have a lot to unlearn.

Kramarsky: I had much more to learn than I had to unlearn, and I’m sure that I didn’t learn nearly enough. I have no formal education in the arts. I don’t ever remember taking “Darkness at Noon” or “Art in the Dark.” I don’t remember anything like that. So, I am unlearned and I probably have a bad pretense for sitting here. [Laughter]

Rail: It may be the best one. Last question like this: jobs. You were in the Navy.

Kramarsky: Yes, I was in the Navy. It was a wonderful experience. I went in the Navy when I was just eighteen. I was 4'11", I weighed ninety-eight pounds, and I got on a ship that had guys in it that were 6'3", came from North Carolina, and had never had any dealings with either a Jew, or a refugee, or somebody from New York. All three strikes were against me, but it was a good experience. I learned a lot: Duck! Quickly! [Laughter]

Rail: You got out of the Navy and came back to New York.

Kramarsky: I worked a little. I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life. I worked in a machine shop for a while and learned about forging metal, which has put me on good terms with the artists I’ve known, because I’ve been able to help them with stuff that they didn’t know. I worked in the securities business for many, many years—hated all of it—and then I ended up, for my sins, in politics and government.

Rail: You have spoken of a 1958 Jasper Johns show at Leo Castelli’s gallery, out of which you bought a piece by Johns on time. What struck you about that work? And was this the start of your collection?

Kramarsky: Let me answer the second part first: no, it was not the start of my collection. I had known many artists before then, and I’d collected their work in one way or another—in exchange for meals and occasionally even for money—but no, that wasn’t the start of the collection. What struck me about that work is what has struck me about drawing—and it was a drawing—long before that and ever since: you could see how it was made. You didn’t really have to focus at all on what it was; you could see how it was made, and that interested me. To some extent, that relates to all of the drawings that I have: I really start out by looking at something and saying, “How is it made?” Not, “Why is it made?” That’s not nearly as interesting to me. In the initial moment, how was this made? What happened? What happened when the artist put the pencil or pen or brush to paper? And because it is almost impossible, when you work on paper, to correct it, that initial moment is crucial. It interests me that somebody had the courage and the idea to make that original mark.

Rail: Can you learn about collecting except by collecting?

Kramarsky: I don’t know why you’d want to. No, I don’t think so. “Collecting” is a strange word, because you don’t start out to collect; you acquire something and then you acquire something else, and then another one, and then another one, until at a certain point, either your walls are full, or your closets are full, or something else happens that makes you say, “I’ve got to get this organized.” When you make that decision to organize the things that you have, they become a collection, and people start talking about you as a collector, which is a fate worse than death. [Laughter]

Rail: Why is that a fate worse than death?

Kramarsky: Because people talk about you as a collector, and they don’t want to talk about the work anymore. They ask you questions like, “Why do you collect?” and, “How do you collect?” and, “How much money do you spend on your collecting?” and, “What’d you collect first? What’d you collect last? What have you bought today?” You know, that’s all unimportant; the work is important.

Rail: Once you started to recognize that you had full closets, and you had full walls, did you then have a plan, or was it still “follow your nose?”

Kramarsky: No, then I made a plan. It would be unfair not to say—and there are too many people in this room at the moment who know—that we also have some things that aren’t drawings, and some things that aren’t contemporary art, but the plan, as such, became much more defined once I decided that I was going to plan.

Rail: You never wrote it down, or anything, though?

Kramarsky: No, God forbid. [Laughter]

Rail: Ca n you define your taste? Or is the best definition of it the work you have collected?

Kramarsky: “Taste” is another one of these words that I have great difficulty with. I can’t define it because I don’t think I collect by taste. I collect because I am interested in certain things happening: certain things on paper happening, certain things in an artist’s relationship with his or her medium and his or her support, if you will. That relationship interests me, and when that interests me, the drawing could be a watercolor of a landscape and fit into the collection, though, as you know, the collection has virtually nothing representational.

Rail: Can you think of a moment that coheres all of that? Where you walked in, saw something and said, “Yes, this is what I want to collect?”

Kramarsky: Thank God there have been at least four hundred of those moments. [Laughter]

Rail: Do you remember a recent one?

Kramarsky: I can remember a very recent one. I saw a tiny little advertisement in a newspaper for an artist who was having a show, In Memory of Agnes Martin, and I went to see that show. The artist had done cutouts of all the obits in the newspapers of Agnes Martin and redrawn them without the images. It was a startlingly wonderful moment. I went overboard; I bought too many of them. [Laughter] And I do that sometimes. It makes it wonderful for the institutions that get some of these drawings. Yes, those things happen, and that is an artist who has done many other things since then—which I see—that confirm my judgment that that was something that really resonated.

Rail: As a collector, do you find that it’s difficult now to be known as a collector—that people have expectations if you visit or if you go to a show?

Kramarsky: Well, I’m old enough and ornery enough now to be able to say no. [Laughter] Thanks, but no thanks. There were times when it’s been awkward, yes. I walked into an apartment on upper Riverside Drive one day, and the apartment—a one-bedroom apartment—was stuffed, completely full with paintings that had “Sunday afternoon” written all over them. The woman was about seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-five years old, and I was a lot younger, so I couldn’t figure out how to get out of there. Finally, she said to me, “Well, I still go every third afternoon to the Art Students League and study.” And I said, “Isn’t it wonderful that you get this kind of pleasure out of it?” And…zoom! [Laughter]

Rail: Since you began collecting, or at least looking seriously, before what we now call Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, which is the heart of your collection, what art attracted you first?

Kramarsky: And you want to know what the first one was?

Rail: Yeah.

Kramarsky: I don’t think I can tell you that for a number of reasons. I don’t really remember exactly what it was. But it was certainly something that was very early in the ’60s. Maybe it was at the Finch College show or the Jewish Museum show, or one of those shows, where I saw things that suddenly seemed more important than anything else. I don’t know exactly where it was, but the exhibitions at that time—the Specific Objects exhibition, things like that—they really meant something to me. I had already collected some, but they refined what you would call my taste.

Rail: You were going around from place to place. Did you have particular places you’d go and look? I mean, to get three thousand works, you’re out there.

Kramarsky: Once you start the looking, and if you’re fortunate enough to acquire some things, pretty soon people find out, and you get a stack of slides every other week. At that point, you don’t have to go out very much anymore. But I went to a lot of studios. I just very recently decided that I was not going to do sixth-floor walkups anymore. I am still willing to do fifth-floor walkups in SoHo to see something, but the sixth floor I don’t do anymore. But that’s what you do: you go to exhibitions, you see work in galleries, and you see work because it is around, because you know people and people know you, and you become part of what, once upon a time, was a wonderfully close-knit community. It was that in the ’60s—it was much smaller, there weren’t so many galleries. In a Saturday afternoon, you could actually see most of what there was uptown, and in another Saturday afternoon you could see what was in SoHo or the East Village, and you would get a really good insight into what was going on. You can’t do that anymore. There’s too much.

Rail: One money question: What was money in 1958? And what is it now?

Kramarsky: [laughter] Well, the Johns drawing at Leo Castelli—it was the first Johns show that he had. The Johns drawing, it was this size [gestures] and cost $175. It took me six months to pay for it. Ivan Karp was then working for Leo, and Ivan knew me, and he said, “Yeah, you’re okay for it.” [Laughter]

I should tell you the rest of that story because I know that your tongue is hanging out for it, and I don’t want to disappoint you at this stage of the game. That’s the only drawing by a living artist I have ever sold. The reason I sold it was because I bought that drawing, and I was single; and as I said, it took me months to pay for it. But it didn’t really matter, because although that $175 was two months’ rent, if I missed the rent, I’d crash with somebody. It was easy; I was single. Six years later, I was married and had a couple of kids and had another one on the way, and that drawing started to fall apart in the frame. I went to a conservator, and she said, “Well, we can’t guarantee that we can save this drawing, and it’ll cost $1000 to $1500 to restore it.” But that was out of the question at that point. I just couldn’t afford that. So I went to Ivan, and I said, “Sell this to somebody who can afford to lose the drawing.” And he did.

Rail: Did you learn equally from dealers, writers, and artists, or is there a hierarchy in your mind? Mostly artists?

Kramarsky: I learned mostly from artists. And I still learn more from artists than from anybody else. Not only from talking with them, but when artists write about art, or artists take you to an exhibition, or you go to an art exhibition with an artist, it’s a whole different experience from a critic or a professor. Artists see differently, thank God. They see, and they bring a completely different feeling to that. Because I’m so interested in that initial mark, that whole business of process, many of them talk to me about it. And I ought to put on the record—if this is a record—I think I’ve learned more from Mel Bochner than from anybody else, in his writing and his speeches, because he really understands how you have to communicate that which I need to know about work. And he’s been doing it from the very early ’60s.

Rail: What’s the pleasure of studio visits, of climbing the five floors, the six floors that you used to climb? Seeing it in situ? Because it’s going to look different when it’s framed at 560 Broadway or uptown.

Kramarsky: It is seeing it in situ, seeing it—sometimes—as it’s being made. There is an artist in this audience tonight whose drawing I saw when it was hanging half finished, and I bought it half finished, and she delivered it about nine months later.

Rail: She has a sense of humor.

Kramarsky: It’s just that point of that relationship: that you see work in the making. Not necessarily the work that you’re acquiring, but the work that the artist is working on, and you see a bulletin board with a Piero reproduction, or a Cézanne reproduction. That’s part of what the artist is looking at as he or she is making work, and that, for me, is fascinating. You’re walking up a fifth-floor walkup and somebody tells you that she and her husband have been living in that apartment for ten years, and it’s also the studio, and she had three children there, and she’s been schlepping the children, and the food, and the firewood. It offers an alternative to the magazine image of the artist—someone living high off the hog and getting $200,000 when they’re 25 years old.

Rail: What does it feel like when you see a work that you want to acquire? And has that feeling changed over time?

Kramarsky: Again, I’m going to answer the second part of your question first. I don’t think it has changed particularly, the bite. That moment is the same. It really is a bite, you know. It’s something that you can’t talk about. A lot of artists can’t talk about their own work very well because it is much too personal. It is something that happens inside of you that churns and tells you: “Look, look again, look some more, spend time.” If that doesn’t happen when you’re looking over a period of time, then there is something else going on.

Rail: Time seems to be built into your response. You told me that you spent two days at the Jasper Johns: Gray exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago.

Kramarsky: Yes. According to my friend Brad Brown, who was with me there, I spent a good two hours looking at one painting. Okay?

Rail: I believe you. [Laughter]

Kramarsky: And I actually took my good wife to the show here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and showed her that painting, which I very rarely do.

Rail: What collectors, past or present, have you admired?

Kramarsky: Well, that gets us into an area where I’m going to probably say no, because you pick one and you forget another, and that’s awkward.

Rail: Sure.

Kramarsky: There was a European collector, a man named Franz Koenigs, who collected drawings—Northern European drawings, mostly. He was quite famous in his time and eventually was killed by the Nazis. I knew him well; my parents knew him well. His bedroom had one of those Dutch beds that you see in 17th-century paintings—that sits up high—and he had drawers underneath there, and that’s where he kept drawings. And every night he would take a drawing out of one of the drawers, and put it on an easel, and then sit there and look at it until he was ready to go to bed. Now that’s a serious collector.

Rail: You seem particularly attracted to work in series, and I wanted to know if you’d ever said, “I am particularly attracted to work in series.”

Kramarsky: No. No, I never said that. I discovered it by accident. When we were still in 560 Broadway, we were, at one point, talking about doing a re-hang of the work that was then up, and I said, “Well, let’s look. There are a couple of things that we have that are serial; I’d like to look at them together.” There were some that I was particularly interested in, that I hadn’t seen in a while. And then we started pulling stuff, and we discovered that there was a whole lot of it. Eventually we did an exhibition in our space, and then we did an exhibition at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College of work in series. I think one of the things about work in series is that it makes you look for that thing that attracted you in the single image, over and over again, and find it in each of the series. So sometimes you will see that it is repeated quite obviously, and sometimes it’s just a sense the artist has of a certain environment that is being replicated, that then happens to be a series. Yes, I am very interested in work in series, and I’m interested in artists who make work in series, and I’m constantly amazed by it, because most artists who make work in series don’t have studios that are large enough to show their own work in series. Very often, the first time they see their work—the series in its entirety—is if somebody else has it.

Rail: What did you want for your collection that got away?

Kramarsky: I’d love to have a couple more Barnett Newman drawings. I’d love to have a few more Robert Ryman drawings. You know, dozens of things. There are things where I feel that I’ve done the artist justice, but very often I haven’t. It’s when I haven’t done the artist justice, in the work that I own, that I look to see whether there is something that would fill that void and that I can afford.

Rail: You mean, by “doing the artist justice,” having some wholeness?

Kramarsky: Some sense that you have given—if you were to show the work that you have—an appropriate representation. Now, any single work is an appropriate representation, but not of all of a life’s work.

Rail: You have said that Richard Serra’s definition of drawing—“another kind of language”—is, or was, a touchstone for you. Is it still?

Kramarsky: Since we used it as an exhibition statement, it’s become a little bit less so, just because people are saying it all the time. I am more apt to think in terms of Sol LeWitt’s idea of the idea as being the art as a touchstone for me. And Sol, in every sense of the word, is a touchstone for me.

Rail: The idea itself, even if it’s not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product. And LeWitt goes on to say, “All intervening steps, scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations are of interest.”

Kramarsky: Yeah, that’s important to me, and it is not as often quoted in its entirety as I think it should be.

Rail: You decide whether you want to say a word or two, or not, about some of these artists: Jasper Johns, because Gray, the show, is up now.

Kramarsky: Well, if you start down that list…

Rail: We won’t cover everybody.

Kramarsky: One, we won’t cover everybody, and two, neither you nor I could do justice to each and every one of these people that is on the list. So I’d rather not. I am not a critic, and what I feel about some of this work is probably more personal than would be meaningful unless you put it in context of a much longer statement.

Rail: How do you do justice to these artists?

Kramarsky: Well, for me, one of the things that have been part of what I’ve tried to do is place work in institutional settings by giving it to museums, art schools, and places like that, where they will be used for teaching and where they will become more public than they would be in a private collection. I think that it is very important that a lot of this work get out into the world, that it be seen by lots and lots of people, that it be seen in different settings—not only my wall, but the museum walls and, through the museum, other museum walls. I think that’s what you do. That’s what I do; that’s what I want to do.

Rail: Working with museums is one of the ways of doing justice, and doing traveling shows like the show at Wellesley.

Kramarsky: Absolutely.

Rail: How do these get put together? Do you decide what goes up? Does the curator come in and say, “Wynn, we want…” I mean, you don’t bring out three thousand works every time.

Kramarsky: Most of the bigger shows get put together by the curator or the museum director and by me, because they know a good part of the collection, and what they don’t know, I can tell them about. They visit and we spend time together. We do littler shows, and we do exhibitions that go to a place like the Blaffer Gallery in Houston, which is at the University of Houston and is not a major institution, but it gets seen by a lot of students. I picked for that—we’re going to do it next fall, I think—I picked thirty works and discussed them with the director there and, of course, by the time we picked them, she’d become director of another museum. So now I have to deal with a whole new set of people…but that’s the kind of a process that it is. It is a process where we talk with each other about it. These are collection shows; these are not thematic shows. What you saw at the Davis at Wellesley was really very thematic.

Rail: When you say a collection show, as opposed to a thematic show, can you make the distinction?

Kramarsky: The theme in the Davis show was work in series. It was all work in series. We’ve done a couple of shows like that, rather than selections from the collection. When we do a show, one of the rules that I have is that they cannot have an exhibition of modern masters. They can’t. They have to have what we call “newbies,” younger artists, and it has to be 50-50 or better, in favor of the younger artists. If they want to borrow a Brice Marden or a Jasper Johns or something like that, well, for that they have to have two or three people whose names they didn’t know, and probably the people that will see the show won’t know.

Rail: Do you have other rules?

Kramarsky: Yeah. [Laughter] We’re very concerned about the fact that they have to be accessible. You know, it isn’t something that is for a very small group. We do “run-out shows,” as I call them, for smaller groups. We’ve done a few shows where we’ve taken twenty drawings, and we trucked them down to an institution and hung them on the walls, and the night after that, trustees and major donors and people like that came and looked at them, and usually I try to talk to them in a language that is acceptable to them. And then the next day I have students and other curators and people from the neighborhood, and then we take them home. That doesn’t have to be a major production, but when we do a serious show, we have very strict rules about how much exposure they will get and how careful we want to have structured that it does get into a public situation.

Rail: Recently, the Vogel collection was written about in the New York Times, under the headline, “Two Plucky Collectors, Fifty Lucky Museums.” Do you want to keep your collection together?

Kramarsky: No. I’ve already distributed a great many of the drawings, and I certainly do not want to keep my collection together. Ruth Fine, at the National Gallery, had a brilliant idea when she talked the Vogels into doing this, and it is a wonderful thing that it’s being done, because it means that fifty museums—many of which are very regional museums—will get work that they otherwise would never have gotten. The Warhol Foundation did the same thing with Warhol photography, to lots and lots of museums and schools, so that the work gets out, distributed. For that work to sit in the basement of the National Gallery would have been sinful. And I use that word advisedly, and you can tell the Pope that I said so. [Laughter]

Rail: Wynn—from your lips to his ears. [Laughter] In a little interview, Mrs. Vogel said that the art world—it’s too overwhelming today. Do you feel that or not?

Kramarsky: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rail: What does that mean to you? That there are too many shows?

Kramarsky: I just can’t cope. I don’t have time enough and energy enough to see all the things that I feel I should see. I just can’t. It was never thus, but it is now. I’m sad, because I’m sure that there is a lot of wonderful work we don’t see because there’s just such a plethora.

Rail: Do young collectors ever come and ask you for advice? I don’t mean advice about what to buy…

Kramarsky: Some come by, mostly to ask: How do you go about putting together a collection? What kind of guidelines do you set? But I’m very reluctant to do that. I do it because I feel that if somebody asks a question, I ought to answer, but there’s very little that you can tell people about that. What you can tell people is to develop trust in their eye, stop reading labels and stop reading magazine articles, and stop listening to other people. Trust your eye. Go and look, and spend time, spend time, spend time, because you cannot see unless you’re spending time. This is particularly true with drawings. You didn’t ask me, but I’ll tell you: I started collecting drawings, or I became interested in drawings, because when I was a child (and I was a very nasty child, I really was) I was dragged to museums where grown-ups would stand and talk about paintings—“The skull means that you’re not going to live forever, or the lemon peel says that you’re not…”—all that B.S. that they tell you. I had very little tolerance for grown-ups then, and a fair number of grown-ups here will tell you, I have very little tolerance for grown-ups now, so I wandered away into a drawings gallery where there wasn’t a soul. Not even a guard. You could go up, and you could look up close; you could see how it was made. I’m still doing that. I want to go and look and see: how was this made? The great thrill that I think very few people get, except collectors, is that at a certain point, you have a sheet of paper in your hand. It’s not glazed, it’s not framed, and there is nothing sexier—well, maybe my wife—but there’s nothing sexier than that feeling of being right there, that feeling when you can feel the motion of the hand of the artist making what is there. There’s just nothing like it.

Work from the Kramarsky Collection may be viewed online at


William Corbett

WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet who has written books on the painters Philip Guston, Albert York, and Stuart Williams. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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