Jo and Leslie Garfield have built their home around a seminal collection of modernist works.
By James Panero
Here in their high-rise Upper East Side apartment with sweeping views of Central Park, Leslie and Johanna Garfield, the husband-and-wife collecting team, could always use that extra square foot for their latest acquisition. Six years ago, in order to accommodate their growing collection, the apartment underwent a four-year renovation before the couple moved in. Today the home doubles as a private gallery, with specially constructed hallways and sliding walls, conservation space, and an office for an in-house cataloger and registrar. Still, there never seems to be quite enough room. “Hanging and getting things in place is not an easy thing to do,” says Jo. Fortunately, that lack of wall space has never prevented them from going after the next print. The passion of these two residents for their collection—and for the art of collecting—shows little interest in such trivial considerations.
“When I bought my first print in 1954, by Erich Heckel—a woodcut illustration for Dostoevsky in 1915—things burst all over me,” says Les. “The primal scream became a part of my life.” He encountered his first print in a Munich gallery while in the army. “That led to me to a 10 or 12-year period of collecting black and white German expressionist prints.” Les now hangs that first print among his many others from the period on a wall by the front door.
But Les has Jo to thank for leading him in a different direction, one that has today resulted in an acclaimed focus of the collection. In the early 1980s, Jo saw an example of the color-rich work of the then under-appreciated Provincetown Printers, an early American avant-garde circle on Cape Cod centered around Blanche Lazzell, a pioneer of the “white-line” woodblock print. She knew they had to go for it. “They just made me feel good, and the German Expressionist ones didn’t,” Jo recalls. “You fall in love with something and like the work, and you pursue it,” explains Les. “And that’s exactly what happened with Provincetown. It was Jo who saw the first print, and this mad chase was on to locate dealers and people who had this work.”
The chase led the couple from galleries to knocking on the doors of Lazzell’s relatives in West Virginia. “Over the years, I was able to get the block and the print from a relative, then the drawing for the print, then a watercolor for the print, and I love it,” says Les. “I guess that’s why I never sold anything.” Les says he refused to bargain-hunt, paying top dollar even when the sellers were unaware of market value. “I had a good relationship with various relatives and, quite frankly, was able to acquire really limited editions. These were works that were never seen. I took the position that when you see some of them, just go for them, because if you don’t go for them, they cannot be collected en masse. I just pursued them whenever I could.” In 2002, the heart of the Garfield’s collection formed the exhibition “From Paris to Provincetown: Blanche Lazzell and the Color Woodcut” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which traveled to Cleveland and the University of Wisconsin, where the couple met as undergraduates.
“A visit to the home of Leslie and Johanna Garfield confirms both their passion for the prints of Blanche Lazzell in particular, and their interest in complementing her work with fine examples of her Provincetown contemporaries,” noted MFA director Malcolm Rogers at the time of the show. “Multiple impressions with different colorations, as well as numerous drawings and carved woodblocks, constitute a collection of glowing examples from one of the most extraordinary print productions in the years between the two world wars.” Much of the Garfields’ print collection, which they say will never be sold, is promised to the MFA along with other institutions. Some prints have already left the apartment. “We have given some to some museums,” says Jo. “It’s like sending a child away to boarding school.”
For Les, the energy for the chase separates him from the ordinary art buyer. It also speaks to the energy he has exhibited in his professional life. From canvasing door-to-door in the Bronx for potential home sellers, Les built his own boutique real estate firm, Leslie J. Garfield & Co., which specializes in brokering high-end New York buildings and townhouses. Jo is an acclaimed journalist and memoirist who both directs the collection and casts a writer’s eye on her husband’s collecting drive. “I often think if he had to give up me or the collection, I’m not sure which he would choose,” she says, noting that Les’s father, an avid collector of shells and toy cars, started Les on a stamp collection. “Collecting runs in the blood. He’s like that about things. If he’s interested, he is intensely involved.”
“Once we’ve localized who we’re interested in, it’s just about going after them and showing them to Jo,” Les says of his method. “Over this period of years, we’re in sync with each other.” Together their collecting tastes have taken them through the prints of Jasper Johns and David Hockney, the British pop artist Richard Hamilton, and other contemporary British artists. Through the Provincetown artists, they discovered a circle of British printmakers working between the wars known as the Grosvenor School, with dynamic colorful works and today the jewel in the crown of the collection. These works by the artists Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews, C.R.W. Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth and others took the conventions of Futurism and Cubism and applied them to depicting the energy of British life between the wars. “We both latched onto the Grovensor School with mutual enthusiasm,” says Les. In 2008, the Garfields’ Grosvenor prints formed the heart of the eye-popping exhibition “Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939,” which was on view at the MFA Boston and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“No other collector in the United States has continued to pursue this area with as much energy and single-mindedness,” noted curator Stephen Coppel of the British Museum. “Long before the current high visibility of contemporary British art, the Garfields were collecting British avant-garde prints, at a time when American museums were generally reluctant to acquire them.”
“The Garfields were exceptional in that they could follow their own hearts ahead of the museums. Now the museums have caught up,” says the New York dealer Mary Ryan, who first met them three decades ago as they were collecting the Provincetown prints and continued working with them on the Grosvenor school. “There are always many people interested to collect what is hot at the moment, but it is thrilling when you have a collector who wants to build a collection over a lifetime. They both enjoy the solo process of collecting and the pleasure of living with art. It’s a constant pursuit. Their interest hasn’t waned over the years; it’s expanded and deepened.”
And the reason for that continued interest? Simple, says Jo. “Collecting is a form of madness. It’s not a bad obsession. It’s not a drug addiction. It’s a good obsession. It keeps you out of trouble.”