Between 1984 and 1986, I worked as curator for Ian Woodner’s collection, and what I remember most about him was how he cooed at drawings, especially the most recently acquired and the ones he was about to buy. It was visceral, you’d see him start, move closer to the sheet, and then coo.
Woodner was a tall man, had good skin color from being in the sun, and had attractive white hair, sometimes quite long. He wore double-breasted suits with twin back vents, colorful suspenders, and occasionally fuchsia pocket squares. A little more eccentric was his use of eyeliner at night and the very strong tuberose and gardenia perfume called Fracas. He was handsome, even in his 80s.
He grew up in Minnesota, studied architecture at the University of Minnesota, and then Harvard. However, he was much more a real estate developer than an architect. I never remember his sketching out building plans or praising any particular architect, never mentioned White or Wright, and never bought any old master architectural drawings for his collection. A couple of times when we were out on the New York streets, I remember his saying how much he liked skyscrapers because of the reflections of sky and clouds in the glass. His buildings, mostly rental apartment buildings, were never very high or full of glass, they were maybe a bit ordinary, but there were many of them, and they paid for his collecting.
By 1984, when I went to work for him, he’d been collecting for some thirty years. He was born in 1903 and died in 1990. Much of his collection had been bought from the Schab Gallery on 57th Street. Frederick Schab had sold him his star Benvenuto Cellini drawing of a Satyr, many other good drawings, and also many lesser works. I felt lucky in that Konrad Oberhuber had recently come on the scene, advising Woodner on acquisitions, and involving his students in writing the catalog entries for the Woodner shows at the National Gallery in Washington, the Getty, and the Kimbell. (Oberhuber was a remarkable teacher and Harvard professor, who later went on to become the Director of the Albertina in Vienna. Many people had no idea they were interested in drawings until they’d met him.) The notoriety Woodner was receiving through the exhibitions, propelled him to buy more drawings. It seemed that every week, and sometimes every day, dealers and auction house representatives would come to his office hoping to interest him in a drawing.
Woodner’s collection was very broad, he didn’t take the more conventional and modest path taken by many collectors, that of concentrating on just one school, say French 18th century drawings. Instead he had drawings from all over Europe, from the 14th century forward. He had a taste for wonderfully awkward drawings. His early drawings, his Germans and Goyas and Redons were most interesting because of their standing outside of our usual sense of beauty.
Probably the artist he most admired was Odilon Redon and he had a large collection of Redon drawings, prints, pastels, paintings and watercolors. His own pastels and watercolors, mostly of flowers or landscapes, were strongly influenced by Redon. Here in Italy, they call vibrant colors “accesi” meaning turned-on or electrified, and that’s a way of describing Woodner colors. His garden on Long Island, where he painted on the weekends, had beds of seriously bright flowers and a peacock house.
He had a preference for large drawings, but also had many small sheets. The display of drawings was very important to him. He liked being involved in the matting of the drawings and always wanted the windows larger and played with the back color of the mats, hoping to make the drawings appear bigger. He had an excellent relationship with his daughter Andrea, or Andy, and she came to the office every week. She had a very easy way of explaining things, and this is when I learned to add and subtract fractions for mats.
Once, an important visitor was coming, maybe a museum director, but I can’t remember who it was. When prominent visitors came, works would be transported to his apartment from Morgan Manhattan, a storage company, and invariably the frames would be dinged and show ugly white nicks from the trip across town. After we’d hung the transported works, Woodner suddenly had the idea of using instant coffee and water to inpaint the white gesso areas and so we set to work and he joked, “Even if they don’t look good, the smell is wonderful.”
He’d drift away if anyone started talking about iconography. He was much more interested in how a drawing was made, made from the artist’s viewpoint. Woodner had, as so many successful men are allowed to have, a bad temper. It was generally around the real estate people that he’d let go–turn bright red and fulminate. He’d also become furious with Walter Strauss, the not very successful publisher of the Illustrated Bartsch and a kind of fixer for Woodner (the Lubomirski and Koenigs drawings were procured by Strauss). Visiting curators would sometimes witness his anger and combativeness if they expressed any doubts about his Hans Holbein the Younger portrait (now in the National Gallery and inventoried as after Holbein) or a Crucifixion he was certain was by Dirk Bouts (also National Gallery, and now given to the Master of the Coburg Roundels). He would get angry if other people weren’t seeing what he was seeing. While this seemed strange to me at the time, now it doesn’t. Those interested in old masters can get very exercised about attribution questions.
Woodner wasn’t particularly keen on seeing other people’s drawings, or visiting public collections and going through boxes. He was focused on what was his and what he could get. He kept a small library, apart from the larger office library, in a studio next to his apartment in the west 60s. Since he had trouble sleeping, he liked to look at exhibition catalogs and find drawings that were owned privately and see if anything could be done to shake them loose. He also loved looking through sale catalogs, whether old or new.
There was something very stable and reassuring about working at Woodner’s offices. The real estate people were genuinely kind and amusingly puzzled by these expensive pieces of paper called drawings for which they’d create stretch payment schedules. The place, with its plastic wood furniture, was strangely pleasing. It was endearing to see Woodner with Paula Vial, his business partner, having lunch together. Woodner with his burnt grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch (also burnt toast for breakfast) and always thinking towards the next acquisition.