Obituaries
    Next Score View the next score

    Ben Heller, powerhouse collector of abstract art, dies at 93

    Ben Heller (at home in Manhattan in 1977) was known for his early embrace of abstract expressionism.
    Don Hogan Charles/New York Times files
    Ben Heller (at home in Manhattan in 1977) was known for his early embrace of abstract expressionism.

    NEW YORK — Ben Heller, an influential New York art collector and dealer best known for his early embrace of abstract expressionism and the sale of one of its masterworks to an Australian museum, which caused an international furor, died April 24 in Sharon, Conn. He was 93.

    The cause was a stroke, said his son-in-law Peter Adler.

    Mr. Heller’s sale of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” to the National Gallery of Australia, then under construction in Canberra, was announced in September 1973. The news caused an uproar in the New York art world; in Australia it nearly brought down the Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who had to sign off on the $2 million deal.

    Advertisement

    In New York, Mr. Heller was criticized for letting the painting leave the country and for blurring the lines between collector and dealer. Most startling of all was the astronomically high “Rembrandt class” price, so called because the amount paid was more typical of old master paintings. It was the largest sum offered for a US painting — a record that held for 10 years — and it made starkly clear the investment potential of modern and contemporary art.

    Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
    A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Mr. Heller said he wanted the painting to leave the country so it could be seen by an international audience and have a larger impact. It very much did.

    In Australia, the purchase was controversial because “Blue Poles” was American rather than Australian, abstract rather than figurative, and very, very expensive.

    But with time it would be embraced as a national treasure and a turning point in the country’s coming-of-age as a nation separate from Britain. Today it is a regular stop for Australian schoolchildren.

    James Mollison, the young director of the National Gallery and the initiator of the purchase, went on to build one of the best collections of abstract expressionist paintings outside the United States.

    Advertisement

    In an e-mail, Ann Temkin, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture, called Mr. Heller “an essential figure in the history of abstract expressionism” and said he had “fearlessly championed the art he loved even as others found it incomprehensible.”

    Andrew Fabricant, chief executive of the Gagosian galleries, said in a telephone interview: “You’re not going to see anyone like him again. He recognized something colossal in American culture. He started the whole thing.”

    Starting in the early 1950s, Mr. Heller and his first wife, Judith Ann Goldhill Heller, plunged into the nascent New York art world and its latest innovations to build what was arguably the best private collection of abstract expressionist painting that ever existed. It was especially notable for its rigorous concentration on major, often large works.

    Their Central Park West apartment — which painter Mark Rothko called “the Frick of the West Side” — became a place of pilgrimage for art collectors and museum directors from around the world.

    By 1961, the collection was so singular that the Museum of Modern Art curated a traveling exhibition, “The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller,” for presentation at seven major museums across the country. Its more than 30 paintings and drawings included seven canvases by Rothko and four by Barnett Newman (among them his most important canvas, the 18-foot-across, flaming-red “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” purchased just months earlier) and three works each by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Pollock.

    Advertisement

    The Pollocks included “Blue Poles” and “One: Number 31, 1950,” a mural-size classic drip painting that Mr. Heller bought in about 1956 for $8,000. It made Pollock himself so happy that he threw in “Echo: Number 25, 1951,” one of his quasi-figurative black enamel paintings.

    There were also pieces by Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt, as well as Arshile Gorky’s 1947 “Summation,” in oil and pastel on paper measuring about 6½ by 8½ feet. The painting is now in MoMA’s collection.

    Mr. Heller was a fluid writer of catalog essays and magazine articles, including an early consideration of Jasper Johns (he would eventually own eight of his works) in “School of New York: Some Younger Artists” (1959), edited by B.H. Friedman, and the lead essay in the catalog for “Toward a New Abstraction” at the Jewish Museum in 1963.

    In 1990, Mr. Heller wrote an article in Art in America that helped draw attention to the derelict condition of the estate left by Still (he died in 1980) and start the drive to create a museum of that artist’s work, now in Denver.

    And he was for a time deeply devoted to MoMA, socializing and sometimes brainstorming with its curators and serving on its international council, although he was never on its board of trustees. (In an oral history conducted with Avis Berman for the museum in 2001, he remarked that he was “neither WASPy enough or wealthy enough” to be part of its inner circle.)

    By the late 1960s, Mr. Heller had begun to feel burdened by both his collection and the number of people who wanted to see it, and he began to sell paintings, often upsetting his family. He sold Pollock’s “One” and “Echo” and the big Gorky to MoMA. He also offered to sell “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” to the museum.

    But when it became clear that the board would not approve the purchase, Mr. Heller simply gave the painting to the museum. It was as if he could not imagine it anywhere else except at the Museum of Modern Art.