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Muriel Newman in 2003, wearing a satin jacket by Geoffrey Beene and seated in a chair by Eileen Gray, poses in front of a painting by Clyfford Still.
She had an eye—the ability to spot genuine artistic value—and she gave it a primary place in her life. She never stopped looking, and she looked carefully—not only choosing the brilliant and the wonderful but also avoiding near misses and outright disasters. Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman collected art, fashion, admirers, and amazing stories. Because she was a gifted conversationalist, she was always happy to share the stories: how she had run into Mark Rothko on a sidewalk in New York, and he had asked her to look at one of his new paintings—a marvelous work in the color field style—and she had bought it hot off the easel; how Willem de Kooning had the most awful teeth; how the fashion designer Issey Miyake called this dress of hers—well, he had created it, but now she wore it—a “dinosaur dress,” referring to its overlapping panels of fabric. She liked to say that she and the conceptual artist Daniel Buren had “a special communication.” Barnett Newman had given her a big runaround when she tried to buy his white-on-white painting. Almost without exception, you could mention a name from the art world and she would say, “Let me tell you a story about him.”
Newman shared her incredible collection of art, too—hosting parties after important openings in Chicago or allowing out-of-town collectors to come and view the walls of her East Lake Shore Drive apartment, which were filled with works by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and Morris Louis. There were some de Koonings (regardless of his teeth, he could still paint) and that Rothko, of course; there were paintings and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder, an important early Robert De Niro Sr. Most of Newman’s extraordinary collection was purchased between 1949 and 1954, in the years when abstract expressionism was breaking onto the art scene. She had an uncanny knack for selecting the finest pieces of dramatically new art well before most people were even aware that change was afoot.
“When I worked at the Art Institute, it was part of my job to try to arrange for all the visiting art professionals to troop around town and see the private collections,” says Anne Rorimer, an art historian. “Everyone wanted to see hers, and Muriel never turned me down. She was always willing to open her doors.”
When Newman died of natural causes, at age 94, in August 2008, the Chicago Tribune’s obituary called her “the doyenne of Chicago modern art collectors and one of the most cosmopolitan figures on the scene.” Her abstract expressionist paintings had been bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1980, although she had said then that she hoped the museum would wait a long time before taking possession of the bequest—which Philippe de Montebello, then the director of the Met, called “the greatest private collection of abstract expressionists in the world.” Time magazine called the gift “spectacular.” (In 1980, the collection’s estimated value was between $12 million and $15 million; at the time of Newman’s death, it was valued in the hundreds of millions.)
The bequest caused great consternation in Chicago, and rumors flew about why the collection had been promised to another city. But Newman held firm to her promise, despite civic pressure and the astronomical rise in the monetary value of her collection. “This was a collection of New York art, and I had always felt it belonged in New York,” she said. In 2004, when she was in her early 90s, she asked the Met to pick up the paintings; she no longer wanted the responsibility for them. For the remaining years of her life, she turned to her closet and hung the walls with kimonos and textiles to augment the ethnographic body adornments already on display. “It was a very different look, of course,” says Peter Steinberg, Newman’s grandson, “but captivating nonetheless.”
By the time Newman died, she and her hometown had made up. After all, it was hard to stay upset with someone so lively, dedicated, and ubiquitous. Her charm—along with a throaty laugh—helped, too. For decades, Newman was a regular at gallery openings, art lectures, art-film screenings, and museum events. She funded the publication of catalogs and hosted receptions; she recruited patrons to serve on the city’s museum boards. She donated more than 400 items to the costume and textile department of the Chicago History Museum, “signature pieces from the haute couture and high-fashion world that are borrowed from us by museums around the world,” says Timothy Long, the costume curator of the museum.
And she gave money to both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art so that they could buy works for their permanent collections. At Newman’s memorial service last fall, held at the Arts Club of Chicago, James Rondeau, who holds the Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute, spoke about the many pieces of art—including some of her pre-Columbian, African, and Asian jewelry—that she had given to the museum.
The second floor of the Art Institute’s new three-story Modern Wing is devoted to contemporary American artists—and the floor features a Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Gallery. “Muriel’s legacy on collecting—really, on the idea of collecting—in this city is enormous and will be lasting,” says Rondeau. “She epitomized all the best attributes of a great collector: She was a very smart, endlessly stylish, and passionate individual.” One of the works in the new gallery is Near the Lagoon, a 2002 painting by Jasper Johns. “Muriel loved this painting, and she was very proud she could help the museum purchase it,” says Rondeau.
Bringing modern art to a wide audience was the center of Newman’s life. She had become a collector, she liked to say, because she was a “failed artist.” But for once Newman’s incredible eye didn’t see something clearly. In the end, she wasn’t a failed artist. Rather, she epitomized the art of collecting.
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Photograph: Suzy Poling