For Melissa Neumann, collecting is in her blood. His grandfather Morton G. Neumann began buying art in the 1950s, traveling to Europe with his father, Hubert Neumann, and befriending artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Neumann, who works as a doctor, said she spends about 25% of her time collecting art, often from contemporary artists she knows personally. The family’s collection is largely in storage, with a rotating selection on display at Neumann and his father’s Manhattan townhouses.
We spoke with Neumann about the art that inspires him and the benefits – and challenges – of being part of a family of collectors.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
I’ve been dragged to art galleries and museums since I was in diapers and started collecting in my early twenties. The first piece of art I bought was an untitled work by Xavier Veilhan in 1995 for around $4,000, followed by Brandi and Brendt by Ashley Bickerton in 1996.
Subsequently, I was addicted. I was inspired by [collecting couple] the Vogels, who, on a postman’s salary, acquired a body of world-class works on paper. Coming out of college, I had a meager salary that grew to $75,000 a year, and I was finally able to collect up-and-coming artists.
What was your last purchase?
Souffrant is a young French painter whose work is inspired by Basquiat in its rawness, mixing scribbles, collage, minimal and self-portrait. He was in a group exhibition in 2021 in New York, followed by a solo exhibition. I bought this painting at a museum exhibition in Dr. William R. Harvey Art Museum [in Talladega, Alabama].
I’ve known Ridley for 20 years and bought my first watercolor from him in 2003. We’ve been friends ever since, and I continue to collect his work, which has evolved to marry abstraction with figuration. His paintings use a cold palette and come from the great American artistic movements such as Pop Art, Photorealism and Color Field artists. I find his work sensual, ambiguous, cinematic, beautiful and disturbing.
What works or artists do you hope to add to your collection this year?
I never know in advance which artists I hope to add to the collection. I rely on my close network of gallery owners to find new artists, as well as art fairs and exhibitions in New York.
Most of the time, I insist on seeing the work in person. This is especially true for a new artist, as I need to see how they handle their line, brushstroke, color, and transition points between spaces. Details are key and can make or break a decision to purchase an artist’s work and have that leap of faith that that artist has the magic to back up their innovation with raw talent.
What is the most expensive work of art you own?
I do not buy works to resell them. I find selling art very painful, because I feel a deep attachment to each work that I acquire. The art market is unstable and can change quickly. My philosophy is to buy works that have a high chance of having a place in history, that have new ideas and reflect the world in which we live. Right now, our world is fragmented. The digital space created by the dominance of technology is often an element of artwork that I admire. So many of the works I’m buying right now defy boundaries and closure.
I monitor prices and the auction market, in particular. The prices of some artists change quickly, others take time. Nina Chanel Abney is an artist that I began to collect from her first exhibition in New York in 2008. I was attracted by her references to Matisse and the originality of her formal compositions and the intensity of her line which seemed to vibrate. Recently, Nina’s work has sold very well at auction and I’m very happy with her success. Living artists must be recognized during their lifetime.
Where do you most often buy art?
I buy most often from art galleries. The dealer-collector-artist relationship is essential. Through the collection, I have developed very close relationships with the artists as well as with the dealers; they are like an extended family, and we celebrate holidays and travel together. Art is my religion, and that’s where I find meaning and spirituality. Those who are involved in finding new emerging artists and promoting them are people I feel extremely close to.
I have also purchased works at art fairs and museum exhibitions. I find that when an artist is inspired, they produce their best work. Sometimes it’s when they have an exhibition in a public space, at their main dealer, or create work for an art fair. So the key is to be patient, to wait, and to knock when you see that inspiration.
Is there a work you regret buying?
I have never regretted buying a work of art. However, I do have regrets for the works that I missed adding to my collection. For example, although I was a teenager when Jeff Koons had his “Banality” shows at Sonnabend, I remember knowing it was a great show, and I wish I had bought a sculpture myself.
Also, there are certain shows where the merchant has so many requests for a specific artist that they only allow you to buy one piece per family. My father is also a very active collector, and although we agree on which painting to buy and feel it fits well in our collection, there is often a second work that I would have liked to buy myself.
What work have you hung above your couch? And in your bathroom?
Above my sofa I have a painting by Miro from 1945 entitled Woman dreaming of escape. Originally it was bought by my grandfather. He knew Miro personally and had traveled with him. In my bathroom is a Henri Matisse print called Odalisque at Culotte Bayadère. It demonstrates Matisse’s great ability to draw.
I usually only place prints or drawings, which are behind glass, in half bathrooms; I never place works in a bathroom with a shower or a bathtub. As guardians of these precious objects, you want to live with them, but also protect them.
What’s the least practical piece of art you own?
The pieces I acquire are mostly works I can live with, and I generally avoid impractical pieces that are difficult to place in the home. However, sometimes we see something impractical that a normal private collection wouldn’t consider, but we think it’s so important that we make an exception.
For example, in June 2007, at Art Basel Unlimited, my father bought an installation consisting of nine paintings by Chris Johanson. We first thought it had to go to a museum because it was a huge installation: the works were connected by a wooden floor platform, making viewers participants in the installation. Sometimes you approached the painting from the front and other times from the back, and other times from an angle.
However, no museum bought it and we thought it was a masterpiece, so now it is part of our collection. It does happen from time to time that museums pass on works and we end up buying.
What work would you have liked to buy when you had the opportunity?
In addition to the pieces mentioned above, I often dream of living in the past and of being a collector when I could have bought works by great artists such as Poussin, Rubens, Titian, Raphaël, Monet, Vermeer, Poussin, Rembrandt, Manet, and so many others.
If you could steal one piece of art without getting caught, what would it be?
Having grown up visiting Italy as a child, I love Renaissance art. I would steal so many works from this period, including Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks, Saint Jean Baptist, and the mona-lisa. Also, Michelangelo Pieta sculpture, Raphael The Beautiful Gardener, and Fra Angelico Annunciation would be on my list. I feel like I collect the equivalent of these artists now.
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