MY GRANDFATHER, LARRY ALDRICH, THE GREAT ART COLLECTOR

Jami Morse Heidegger

Girl with Coffee and Dreams, Georganne Heller. 2018.

From a very young age, both of my parents instilled in me a deep appreciation and love for the arts, which had been fostered in them similarly by their parents. My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family, Larry Aldrich, was a renowned art collector who founded The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1964. He used the museum to support many American artists early in their careers, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly.

Before 1937, though, Grandfather said that he had “no interest in visual arts whatsoever,” despite being a successful New York fashion designer (The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute owns several Larry Aldrich couture dresses and considers him one of the most eminent American couturier dress designers.) He had visited the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume during one of his many visits to Paris in the early 1930s. At the time, Paris was considered the art capital of the world; yet, it only occurred to him to acquire art many years later, when by chance, one of his friends in Manhattan invited him to the exhibition of a Canadian artist.

The exhibit featured many pseudo-Impressionist watercolors of Paris, Israel, and Rhodes, although Larry just thought the paintings might be nice to decorate his bachelor apartment at 38th Street and Park Avenue. He was still new to the world of art then; and, as such, he was not prepared emotionally to pay seven hundred, six hundred, or even five hundred dollars for a painting, so he mentioned casually to the artist that if he had any works left at the end of the exhibition, Grandfather would be glad to take them off his hands for one hundred dollars a piece. Three weeks later, the artist sold him nine paintings, and thus began Larry Aldrich’s storied art collection!

In 1940, Grandfather married Winifred (Wynn) Payne, and together they bought a house in Ridgefield. It was meant to be a summer home, but they decided to make it a permanent residence, with Larry staying in Manhattan during the week and travelling up on weekends. Grandfather, concerned that Wynn might get bored and restless during the week, hired a local watercolor artist by the name of Herb Olsen to teach her how to paint. To encourage her new hobby, Larry brought home pamphlets on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists – the generic kind that one could pick up in any stationery store. During the cold winter nights, Larry read the pamphlets earnestly. Before long, he was avidly devouring much more scholarly books on art. By the time the war was over and one could again fly to Paris, Larry had decided that he wanted to acquire artwork.

In 1947, Larry and Wynn flew to Paris to buy a painting. Wynn wanted to acquire a painting by Maurice Utrillo, a Frenchman who specialized in cityscapes. At the Parisian gallery, whilst Wynn deliberated over which Utrillo to buy, Larry spotted in the corner of the room – behind a stack of paintings – a portrait by Renoir. That day, they purchased both paintings.

Larry’s art collection continued to grow over the years, at first mainly with works by Post-Impressionists like Manet, Villon, and Gaugin, and then later, with work by American artists. His first American acquisition was by watercolorist John Marin.

When Grandfather became friendly with Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Larry decided to spend a maximum of $1,000 per piece on works – all to be donated to MoMA – by artists who were not yet well-known. From this point forth, Larry Aldrich became a serious patron of emerging artists.

Altogether, Grandfather’s fund contributed more than 400 pieces to The Museum of Modern Art, including its first acquisitions of work by Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, and Tom Wesselman. In particular, he helped the Modern enhance its holdings of German Expressionist, Latin American, and Surrealist works on paper. Several works have since helped the museum to refine its collection through deaccessions and sales, and some of the paintings that are now considered to be cornerstones of the Modern, such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, were acquired by deaccessioning and the selling of unrestricted gifts. From 1963 to 1970, Larry Aldrich paid for a similar program at The Whitney Museum in New York City.

In 1963, Grandfather opened his own museum at a space previously occupied by an old general store and church just off Ridgefield’s Main Street. In his estimation, it would be the first museum of truly contemporary art in the United States. To help raise funds for its development, Larry sold his entire collection of works by Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Paul Klee, and others at auction in New York, subsequently raising $1.3 million – an enormous sum at the time. Alfred Barr, Joseph Hirshhorn, and Philip Johnson were among the museum’s original trustees.

Outside of his museum, Larry Aldrich’s patronage of contemporary artists included the backing of the SoHo Center for Visual Arts from 1973 to 1990, a non-profit exhibition space for artists who did not yet have gallery representation. In 1991, at age 86, he established the Larry Aldrich Award to help support new talent.

My grandfather died in 2001, aged 95. During his lifetime, his extraordinary art collection came to encompass works by Picasso, Monet, Kenneth Noland, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, just to name a few. He was a prescient art collector, and The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum stands as a testament to his support of emerging artists.

Larry and Wynn’s interest in art and Paris imbued our family with a similar fascination and appreciation. My father also used to travel to Paris often for perfume, soap and ingredient sourcing on behalf of Kiehl’s, and I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany him on many such trips. During our travels, I made numerous visits to The Louvre and other museums throughout France and other European cultural centers, learning as much as I could.

My mother, Georganne Aldrich, is also an accomplished artist in her own right and credits my grandfather as her influence for her celebrated collage art, as growing up surrounded by buttons, lace, fabric, and design illustrations provided much inspiration for her artistic visions. In addition to her many years of theater and film production, for the past decade, my mother has had numerous group exhibitions throughout the world of her collage work and had a solo show at the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art in Las Vegas. One of my favorites of her recent collage work is “Love Matters,” shown above. She has recently begun exhibiting her paintings as well! Peter Frank, Art Critic for L.A. Weekly, has said of her work, “The clarity and dynamic poise of Georganne Aldrich Heller’s collages fuse dada wit with the precise, lucid balance of constructivism.” My mother is also a talented writer, and the first collection of her short stories is scheduled for publication in 2021.

While I can neither draw nor paint, such formative family experiences left a profound and lasting impression on me, and the insight and awareness that I gleaned from the artistic influences of my grandparents and parents has helped to inspire and inform the creation of Retrouvé.

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