Queen of Arts

Muriel Newman excelled at the art of collecting. One expert called the paintings that graced her Gold Coast apartment “the greatest private collection of abstract expressionists in the world”—and Chicago’s art scene shuddered when she bequeathed most of those paintings to a New York museum. But no one seemed to blame Newman, whose gregarious personality and boundless generosity endeared her to local art institutions and patrons. Nearly a year after her death, a look back at the colorful 94-year life of an unforgettable grande dame

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Newman’s East Lake Shore Drive co-op became a must-see stop for visiting art professionals. “Everyone wanted to see [her collection], and Muriel never turned me down,” says a local art historian. “She was always willing to open her doors.”

 

Newman was born in Chicago in 1914, the only child of Maurice and Ada Nudelman Kallis. Her family was well established in the city but not extremely wealthy. Her grandfather had been a county commissioner; her father was an engineer. Her mother and her aunts were women of great style.

Growing up, Newman was fascinated by art and longed to paint. She attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, but she did not graduate. She preferred to spend her time painting rather than settling into a classroom routine. She was commissioned to paint a number of full-length portraits, and in them, she showed an ability to capture likenesses. “That was bad,” she told Gary Tinterow, the Engelhard curator of 19th-century and modern art at the Metropolitan Museum, years later. “It kept me from really [developing]. And I didn’t have to earn a living. That’s another problem. [Yet] I was getting paid for these . . . life-size oils.”

Related:

Golden Eye »
A look at Muriel Newman’s art collection

Photo gallery »
Newman through the years

In 1938, she married Jay Z. Steinberg, a pianist who worked for his father’s Chicago company, Fullerton Steel and Wire. They had one son, Glenn, who was born in 1941. Jay was consumed as much by classical music as Muriel was by modern art, and so the couple traveled frequently to New York City for concerts, exhibitions, and gallery hopping. On one of those trips, Muriel ran into Hugo Weber, a teacher of hers at the Institute of Design. He took her to The Club, a loft at 39 East Eighth Street that served as a salon where artists and writers socialized and had feverish discussions about art, poetry, and Zen Buddhism. Kline, Rothko, Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, and de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, were frequently there. Often after a lecture at The Club, the discussion would continue around the corner at the Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock and the beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hung out. (Pollock was eventually barred from the Cedar Tavern for tearing down the men’s-room door.)

Blond, petite, and curvy, with high apple cheeks and large, captivating eyes, Muriel was a presence, even within this crowd of dominant personalities. “She was beautiful and sexy, and so she was very popular,” says the Chicago gallery owner Rhona Hoffman. There were stories: how Kline invited her to go to the Met with him to study the drawings of Ingres; how de Kooning wanted her to run away to Europe with him. Years later, Newman liked to fan the rumors a bit herself. In 2007, talking with the Met curator Gary Tinterow, she alluded to the Kline story, saying, “But at the time I was married, so I couldn’t do that.”

“Certainly, as I was growing up, I heard some of this, but remember, I was a young kid,” says Newman’s grandson Peter Steinberg, today a 39-year-old physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. “So I never got the real dirt, if there was any. As an adult, I have to read between the lines. It sounds like big personalities and big lives.”

She did buy their paintings, picking up some real bargains. She paid $2,700 for de Kooning’s extraordinary Attic, and she bought Pollock’s Number 28—considered a supreme example of the artist’s work at the height of his career—for $3,000. She later said that she had known the artists, and they had needed money, but her straight-as-an-arrow selections belie such a simple explanation. Unlike many other collectors, she did not use an adviser. She followed her own artist’s eye, and as the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith noted, she “chose with an artist’s sense of urgency.” In a review of the Met’s 2007 show Abstract Expressionism and Other Modern Works: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Smith wrote, “The consistently high quality of Mrs. Newman’s selections is thrilling. Many communicate a forceful self-sufficiency, as if they were the only works by their particular makers that we ever need to see. It is not hard to imagine them being looked at and loved, providing daily sustenance.”

Indeed, all of the artwork was proudly on display in the Steinbergs’ light-filled apartment at 3750 North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. With its white walls, Barcelona chairs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and black Dunbar sofas, the place was a perfect setting for the modern vision. “Muriel lived with the things she loved,” says James Rondeau of the Art Institute. “The objects she owned were truly integrated with great élan into her daily experiences.”

In 1954, Jay Steinberg died, and Muriel temporarily stopped collecting. The next year, she married Albert Hardy Newman, a Chicago real-estate developer and investor. The marriage was an adventurous love match; the couple traveled to offbeat locations: Katmandu, Egypt, the Galápagos Islands, Beirut, Nairobi, Oceania, Vietnam, and Russia. Newman started buying again, but in large part her focus now was on textiles, pre-Columbian jewelry, and ethnic body adornments. She also bought four large sculptural pieces of jewelry by Alexander Calder. The couple moved to a co-op on East Lake Shore Drive with a breathtaking view of the lake. The art moved, too, of course.

“She asked my partner and me, Larry Kenny, to design a dining-room table for her,” says the architect John Vinci. “She offered no restrictions; we were just told to do what we thought best.” The table was made of onyx with bronze legs that Vinci patinated to green. He also recovered her sofas in a “mousy grayish-brown mohair,” Vinci recalls. And later Newman commissioned him to build a standing case—glass vitrines that floated on ebony bases—to display her jewelry.

Still, she gravitated to art. “She never shied away from the most difficult and the most daring art,” says her friend Anne Rorimer. “She was interested in conceptual and installation art.” Newman had thought of buying Robert Rauschenberg’s Satellite, a mixed-media sculpture topped by a stuffed pheasant, but her husband didn’t want it in the house. Instead, she talked the Chicago fiber artist Claire Zeisler into buying it; eventually, Zeisler donated it to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Newman did have a nude life casting of a man by the sculptor John DeAndrea in her apartment. “It scared me to death,” recalls her grandson Peter Steinberg. “I was four years old, and I would run screaming when I saw ‘Oscar’—that’s what I called the statue,” he says. “It was sort of like seeing a dead body.” Finally, Newman called Rorimer, who was an associate curator at the Art Institute at the time, and said, “I have a somewhat unusual problem. My grandson won’t come into the apartment anymore.”

“She asked me if I would have the nerve to put the statue on view at the Art Institute,” Rorimer recalls. “She put it as a challenge to me. And we did put it on display, and it stayed there for quite a while.” Steinberg remembers visiting the museum several years later only to see the dreaded statue again. “I ran away screaming, ‘It’s Oscar! It’s Oscar!’” he says.

By the early 1970s, the Newmans were a glamorous and active couple. “Muriel was fascinating,” says the Chicago art collector Ruth Horwich. “She had a strong personality—and yes, opinions!—but she was also so much fun to be with. And she was such an attractive person, both literally and intellectually.” Rorimer recalls a particularly memorable party the Newmans gave after an art opening. “Carl Andre and Frank Stella were there,” she says. “And Thomas Messer, the director of the Guggenheim, came. Everywhere you looked that night there was some incredible person in the art world at Muriel’s.”

“Albert always had such a twinkle in his eye,” says Vinci. “He loved being around her, as did most people. She was just so positive and engaging.” Her favorite word was “mar-vel-ous.”

Around that time, Newman started seeking a future home for her collection. In Chicago, some in the art world thought that Newman would bequeath her abstract expressionist works to the Art Institute, but those close to her knew that would not happen. “She really soured on the place for a while,” recalls Rorimer. When Newman decided to give her collection to the Met in New York, rumors flew in Chicago that her decision was in response to some real or perceived anti-Semitism at the museum. In Newman’s obituary last August, the Tribune art critic Alan Artner wrote that Newman had always “denied this, saying her decision was in reaction to John Maxon, the Art Institute’s vice president in charge of collections, who had expressed contempt for most art of the 20th century.” (Artner did not respond to requests for comment.)

Maxon, who was an expert on the artwork of Tintoretto, died in 1977. In a 2007 interview with the Met’s Tinterow for a catalog on her collection, Newman said that had she “known that Jim Wood would come [as the new director and president of the Art Institute] and fix it all, things would have been different.”

During Wood’s tenure, from 1980 to 2004, Newman did change her feelings about the Art Institute. By the end of her life, she had given the museum more than 170 pieces of art.

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Photograph: Courtesy of the family of Muriel Newman

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