By EMMA HOWCROFT, OCT. 2017
Walking into their apartment in the West Village, it’s immediately clear that Joel and Zöe Dictrow are bulwarks of the idea that purchasing art is a way of life. The entryway, bedroom, and even bathroom are a “who’s-who” of contemporary art, and every year during Armory Week in New York nothing is off-limits (well, maybe some things). My own introduction to their unique collection occurred this past Armory Week, during which the Dictrows host an annual open house for invitees to view a selection of their acquisitions in situ. From a Sarah Sze installation spiraling across the ceiling, to a particularly poignant painting from Kerry James Marshall’s series “We Mourn Our Loss,” to much younger, more unknown work, the Dictrows’ home becomes a functional salon, where the intimacy of their private life harmonizes with a carefully curated exhibition. With over thirty years of work, the collection spans the advent of many important careers, and includes a stunning abstract painting by Gerhard Richter. I sat down with the Dictrows to discuss the finer points of collecting contemporary work, and how they balance an ecosystem of both young and established artists in their home.
Emma Howcroft: How did you guys start collecting?
Zöe: We were married a few years, and I was going on some interviews uptown and then I had decided to look at some shows. I was reading in The Times and I said, “Oh there's some interesting shows uptown, maybe that's what I'll do when I'm finished with my interviews.” And I said, "Joel, why don't you come and look at these things? This is really fun and very interesting." And also we didn't have a lot of art, and it looked like something to do. Joel had been a collector of stamps as a kid. We had each bought some art on our own before we were married, and it was something to do on a Saturday.
Emma: So what did you relationship to art look like prior to that moment?
Zöe: It was separate. Joel, I think, bought a painting.
Joel: A Bernard Buffet.
Zöe: And a Miró print. I had bought Joel a print, a Marino Marini. It just popped up as something to do. And from there we started looking, buying a little, and we discovered Soho after looking at some magazines and thinking "Oh, Soho, that's not far from where we live. Let's go down there and see what they have." Along the way we acquired some friends who were interested in what we were interested in. I think we were doing this really very much on our own, and fortunately we didn't have a lot of money, so we didn't make a lot of mistakes. We couldn't buy very much, but we did a lot of looking. We met a couple on vacation, really major collectors, Barbara and Gene Schwartz. We started talking to them about art after dinner everyday. Gene was a writer and I think he enjoyed explaining things: how he collected, what his strategy was, and all that. It was very interesting. They invited us to their apartment in the city and I saw how Barbara arranged things. She really made everything great. I think that had an influence on me, because you do see a lot of apartments where things are all cheek by jowl, crowded in together as one big jumble. I don't have a problem with salon-style hanging, but I think it has to be done thoughtfully. So, we became friends—I think I knew them from a previous life. They were our contemporaries. That was really our introduction, and then we also learned a lot from the galleries. John Weber, for example, said we should join some sort of museum and go around to studio visits. You can really learn a lot. And we got involved in the New Museum at that time. Gradually we started to acquire some art and some new ways of looking at things.
Emma: Do you think cultivating a relationship with a gallerist in that way is essential? How do you go about that usually?
Zöe: Yes. It has a lot to do with what shows are around. It used to be The New York Times only. And that was problematic, because you really don't see very widely. I think that Gene Schwartz was a very big influence on us about how to look at different kinds of galleries. He used to talk about young galleries as "bud galleries." He always said to pay them first. Very often they're buying and showing their own generations, and seeing younger work. I don't know if it's totally true anymore. I think it's true about the young galleries that they're showing younger artists, but I think now a lot of the more established galleries are also showing younger artists. There's a hunger for seeing new work, and everyone wants to look at what's new. It's a very different attitude towards art today. A lot of people focused only on the modern masters and didn't look at young work, and now it seems that everyone wants a context of younger work in addition.
Joel: People who couldn't afford Picassos.
Zöe: But even the people who were getting early shows in New York became the giants. We were collecting in the Eighties, so we bought a Richter in the Eighties and we never let go. We didn't let the money turn our head.
Emma: Do you think that the changing market is a large part of collecting young art? That is to say, are there peculiarities that come with collecting young art?
Zöe: Oh, yes! Most people disappear. There's no question about it.
Joel: There's a ten year window.
Zöe: Something can go from "Oh, this artist is amazing!" to "Who?" I think it's partly that artists, like anybody else, can lose energy as they age. It takes ten to fifteen years to find your voice, and then another ten years. You're still young and strong and then you're no longer young. You're not old, but you've been doing what you've been doing for twenty years or more at this point, and if you don't feel fresh, and you're not making a living from it and you may have children, you become tired. I think part of success is your energy level, and maintaining your energy level is part of the longevity of your career. Young artists have to eat their Wheaties too. You need strategies to maintain your enthusiasm for life.
Emma: And I suppose that's where a gallerist would come in to encourage and support.
Zöe: Key. Everyone talks about the new paradigm for artists continuing their careers, and maybe it's true to some degree. But, you need support in the marketplace in order to make a living from making art. I don't see how you do that without a gallery.
Emma: Right, especially as a young artist in your twenties.
Zöe: Let's picture a gallerist who has an appointment with a curator who wants to know about your program. You're showing them a range of work from your gallery. The curator may have been interested in one particular artist, but now there's an opportunity to see a context of artists. Don't you want to be part of that conversation? Someone might say, "That's interesting," or, "When is the show?" Curators have a million, trillion artists to see. It's a political thing, a museum. You have a lot of different constituencies. A young artist might fit very neatly into some of those categories, and not in others. And yet, somebody has to make a case for you—and it's not always you. You need people who are enthusiastic about your work.
Emma: While we're on the topic—do you often donate works to museums?
Zöe: Yes, we do.
Emma: How do you decide what to deaccession?
Zöe: Well, that's a little all over the lot. We're older people, we've been collecting a really long time—over 35 years now. We have too much stuff. So we made a fairly large donation to the Bronx Museum in 2014. That's been more unusual for us, but we might do that again. It was about 150 pieces—a large donation of work. But very often, it's one by one. Somebody knew we had a work and they'd say, "We'd love to have this in our collection." And it hasn't been in our apartment for a long time. Sometimes they want something and we might be able to do it. Let's say a piece is way too large for us to have in our apartment, and we might approach the gallery where we got it and say, "Is there a museum who'd be interested in acquiring this?" It can happen that way. Very often it's individual. If something goes up in value a lot but for one reason or another selling it at the gallery price is not so easy, and because of the artist's career it really doesn't make sense to put it into an auction because it could be damaging, then donation makes a lot of sense.
Emma: Speaking of auctions, that's another subject I wanted to touch on. How does that play into your collecting? Do you ever purchase off of the auction circuit?
Zöe: We tend not to purchase so much as sell.
Joel: We sell a lot of things at auction. It's a way of supplying us.
Zöe: Yes, with cash to keep buying. Sometimes it doesn't hurt anybody if a certain artist gets sold at auction. A Richter print can be sold at auction and it doesn't affect Richter's career in anyway. For example, perhaps the gallery is just too powerful to really put any effort behind selling a print, which might be fairly valuable for our purposes to have money to buy younger artists whose work isn't as expensive as a Richter.
Emma: It seems there's been this sort of seismic shift from the Soho-era storefront gallery to massive gallery systems, à la Zwirner and Gagosian. Has that influenced the way you've interacted with the art world?
Zöe: I think it's the way the art world interacts with us that's different. The art world has grown exponentially since we started collecting. Plus, wealth has grown astronomically. I remember as a young person looking at the list of the richest people—Forbes' 500 list. There were people with hundreds of millions of dollars on the list. [Now] you don't get on that list unless you're a billionaire, and one billion dollars doesn't do it.
Joel: That goes to access.
Zöe: Yes, those people have tremendous access. We're relatively known in the art world, so we have pretty good access. Galleries know that we are pretty safe hands. We put things up in our apartment in a way that looks good. We take a lot of care about the dialogue between the works. Consequently, we can't put up that many pieces in any one year, because we change every year. So, it's a bit of a sacrifice not to be able to see everything we've bought in the past year, because we want to create that context of looking at the work in a more optimum way. It's well worth it.
Emma: Right, the first time I saw parts of your collection was during Armory Week this year, when you open up your apartment to VIPs. So, once a year you switch out the works in your apartment. Is it usually recent acquisitions that go into rotation?
Zöe: Relatively recent. Mostly it's recent, but sometimes we also bring back things from the old days. We have things that we collected over the years that are just so amazing. Let's say from the Nineties. We bought the Kerry James Marshall piece We Mourn Our Loss and every few years we want to look at it again, and to put it in the context of younger artworks, or what's going on in the world. It starts to make sense in a whole new way.
Emma: Are there things that are permanent installations in your apartment? The Richter?
Zöe: Well, until this year it's been in every single showing, but this year there's just been a limited number of walls for larger pieces. It's not that large, but for us it takes up a lot of space on the wall. We did frame it because it seemed a little delicate. So, in order to create space in the entry area, I thought that the Richter would fight with the other pieces. That was really the only place that I felt it could possibly go, but I wanted to everything that's there to be up. I wanted the Alyson Shotz in there, which I felt spoke so eloquently to the Alex Olson, which is so colorful. I wanted to create some impact with ideas and color. There wasn't a place for [the Richter]. It was very difficult to include it this year. The one thing that's always included is the Sarah Sze.
Emma: Right, I could imagine that the install and deinstall would be difficult with something like that.
Zöe: That too. I don't know that it could get up so easily. Most of that was donated also to the New Museum. Boxes and boxes and boxes of things. It had been part of an installation at the ICA in London originally in the 1990s. We put this up in 2003 and it's been there ever since. What you're seeing is maybe 2% of that work. So we donated the rest of it, which would be a complete installation because it’s site-specific anyways so you don't lose anything by putting it up without the 2%. It really has to do with the type of materials that are included.
Emma: I'm curious also how work by more established artists interacts with the younger work. Is there a strange conversation between the works when they are in the same space?
Zöe: That's really interesting. The Richter for example didn't work with everything. It's very picky about what it's in the same room with. Especially painting. The Richter is an abstract, so it's really quite masterful. If a young artist’s work is too callow—it may be fun, it may be interesting—but if it's too young, it gets a smack. You know, like, "grow up!" And some work is painted in opposition to Richter. Maybe a German artist, who was thinking about Richter when she painted, but rebelled. Like, "You're not the only painter on the block." They fight with each other, so that you can't really see one or the other. So there's got to be a way that they don’t look in competition too directly for some things to coexist.
Emma: How do you usually deal with that?
Zöe: We separate them. Or, sometimes the Richter gives such a smack to work that it never gets up. We take it back—like, "Oh, I never really looked at it like that before."
Emma: And I guess you never really know unless it's in the space.
Zöe: Exactly. "Oh, I loved it when I bought it, but now?" Now, that's terrible. But it's not really against the younger artists. If a young artist reads [this article] on that subject, they might be feeling very poorly that the work could be excised that way and never appear in the collection for that reason, but it is our collection. Joel's and mine. This is our pursuit. I think this is one of the problems of anybody really, not just artists. You do things because of reasons that have nothing to do with anybody else. You can't take our feelings too much to heart about your work, because you're not doing it for us. You're doing it for yourself. I think that's probably the toughest lesson to learn in life, because you think you've learned it and then you have to learn it again, and again, and again. Because most of us want approval. Certainly if you're going to have a career in art, people are going to have to agree that your work has merit. We watched the Spielberg special on HBO the other day, and not everybody loves Spielberg. Not everybody thinks he's a great artist. Too bad! He's great enough. If he's not able to hit everything, well, that's why there are other filmmakers in the world who do things differently.
Emma: Switching gears a little bit, I am curious how you find work that "clicks." Is it about looking at a piece subjectively or do you take a more objective, holistic view when deciding what to purchase?
Zöe: It's maybe a little bit of both. Probably it is more an emotional hook. I think that if you come at art from an academic background, you do things differently. We've seen a lot, but we certainly don't know everything so we have to depend more on our instincts because we're not that academically oriented. I don't read a whole lot of articles in the magazines, but I do look at the pictures! I love pictures of things, and then I have to see them in person because it's very often different than seeing an image of something. [Images] can play tricks on you with color, surface, volumes and texture. So it is a very intuitive process. Sometimes when you've seen something for the first time, you hate it. "God, that's awful! Everybody's talking about it, I don't care!" But then you say, "It's still in my mind, why is it still in my mind? Maybe I should really look at this again and think about it. Maybe it's new and I'm not used to it." So you have to keep looking. This is one of the things about going to a gallery. People who have galleries look at a ton of art. They're going to all the studios. I mean, there are collectors who go to a lot of studio visits. They go to schools. They're trying to find out what's new before it's even called new. We don't do that. We figure, that's not our job. Let the galleries go see everything. I don't want to go into a jumble shop to look for clothes. I want someone to select, and then I'll see what I think of it, whether it's a whole show of an artist’s work or even just a group show. Let me get a feel of things from that, in an interesting context from someone I admire.
Emma: Do you tend to do studio visits with the artists that you already collect?
Zöe: Yes. If they're in New York, it's easier. If they're out of town and we happen to go to that town or that country, we love to meet with the artists in the studio and see how they work.
Emma: I suppose as a collector who knows the completed work, that part of the process would be interesting to witness.
Zöe: Absolutely. Sometimes it gives you a sense that there's so much thought that's going into the work beyond what we see just with our eyes. And, I think who the artist is is really key to their longevity as artists. You do get an insight as to their grit—whether they can last. We once went to a lecture with an artist whose work we were interested in, and I got so less interested in the work. They may get a lot more famous, everything may work, and great for this artist, but I don't really want to buy into it. It's just good looking, but you want to feel that you're buying work by an artist who has ideas that can be developed over a very long term, because the fun in collecting has a lot to do with following a career. That's why you want an artist to affiliate with a gallery, even if the artist may not always be with that specific gallery, artists who are affiliated have a better likelihood of remaining affiliated.
Emma: Do you see any recent aesthetic trends in the young contemporary art scene?
Zöe: Narrative is on the upswing again, and I would say political work is very much on everybody's mind. It has become a part of art in a big way. We've seen it over a number of years now from the mid-2000s. We had a very political piece up a few years ago of a German artist and there was a Trump-like character in the collage. And a fight broke out. There was a lot of argument because there was a kind of "leader of the parade"-type suit, who looked a little like Trump, and there were workers shouting behind him. They were in parade, and it was very visceral. I have a number of works up that have politics in them, and there's no question that they’re political. A feeling about home, conflict. Including, let's say, Kerry James Marshall. There are the political figures—the heroes that are depicted in it—and then the Malcolm X figure looking Warholian and almost like the son came home and said, "but what about Malcolm X?" amid Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. You feel the rebellion in the family as expressed, or the dialogue and how it gets expressed.
Emma: Is that political mindedness important to your collection, or is just sort of an aspect of the larger whole.
Zöe: Well, we tend to buy what artists are doing at that time. It varies. It's what affects us as we are looking. I don't look for political work, but when an artist does something compelling in the political arena, we respond. I think there is something though that makes us respond to a lot of that work. The feeling of engagement with the world, and the feeling of being a little bit of an outsider I think a lot of us have for one reason or another, whether we are in fact members of a group that feels oppressed or not. The fickle finger of fate can point towards anyone, and we can feel terribly vulnerable. You know, women are not a minority, and yet it's interesting that in the art world, women have been marginalized since forever except in certain handicrafts areas. And yet, there have been artists who happen to be women who are working in an area that men have been working in as well that weren't picked up.
Emma: Is it important to you guys to have those art historic corner stones in your collection?
Zöe: Not really. I think part of that has to do with our status: we are not on any lists of big fortunes. So we wouldn't have the luxury to fill in the collection historically. Some people do it on a different basis, through their books or through drawing. We're not specifically drawing book collectors. We're more about living in our time, and responding—we hope— thoughtfully, but there is also a more intuitive sense. Sometimes it's not accurate. You can get seduced by something beautiful. Sometimes something beautiful is not just seductive, it's really interesting. But sometimes it's hard to tell. The proof is in living with it, whether it stays interesting.
Emma: Do works tend to stay interesting overtime? That is to say, is the familiarity with the things in your home a part of the relationship you have with the individual pieces?
Emma: So, when you're looking at something, do you find yourself still feeling the first sentiments that you felt upon initially seeing it?
Zöe: Sometimes it deepens. I think it's not simply that the work itself reveals more. Sometimes it's just the feeling you have of something being part of your life. It's like when you've known somebody for a really long time, just having that time between you means you've been through a lot together. These are people who remember you “when.” That in itself makes it more precious. It helps you make it through more difficult times, and you do feel that way with certain artworks. You know, the Sarah Sze has been through all these iterations and it's really held up very well visually and intellectually. It's been here through all different kinds of installations.
Emma: I can imagine that might make it difficult when the transition period comes and you switch out things that you've grown so familiar to.
Zöe: Oh, terribly difficult. It's wrenching! You know, "I love that piece! We have to take it down?" Oh, yeah. Once you've put something up and you really like it, it's almost like you can't picture your apartment without having that piece in it. That makes it very difficult. But sometimes pieces go on loan, and they have a life of their own.
Emma: Do you think that you guys are almost unique in the way that your physical space affects how you collect?
Zöe: No. I don't think we're that unique, but I don't know. There are a lot of people collecting, but it's a thin market still. There are zillions of artists. There are 40,000 artists graduating from college every year. That's a ton of people. It's a big world out there, and everyone thinks, "Oh, this artist whose work I bought is so well known." And, maybe not.
Emma: Right, the wellspring is so deep.
Zöe: It's unfathomable how big this is. I think [space] is also a divide between wealthy collectors and not-so-wealthy collectors. You know, wealth is a relative term. So, some people can collect work that is the size of a room. If you have an art barn, you collect very differently from people who have an apartment and a warehouse that takes care of your collection for you, which is our situation. It has been challenging with size until we decided that some artists make smaller work on occasion, and we'll wait for the right piece to come along which is a size we can comfortably get into the apartment.
Joel: And that works.
Emma: So, with every work you collect, is the long-term vision to see them in this space at some point?
Zöe: Yes. I mean the long-term is not as long as it once was. The imagination that perhaps you might have a bigger space one day has become instead, "Hey, we never want to leave this space. We love this space. This is it." I like what we have, and I think limitations are good very often. It does help you imagine in a different way. You can have a really big idea that doesn't take up an insane amount of space. I think a lot of work is not better for it being larger. We got a call from this gallery saying, "This artist that you like did a fabulous piece and it's in a group show—go look at it." And we said, "Wow, that's great! Let's buy it."
Emma: I like that, the limitations as a sort of advantage rather than something that is a detriment.
Zöe: I think that there are a lot of things that are more museum-size than home-size, and just because something won't go into a museum doesn't mean it's a lesser work. It just means it's going to need a different context. People have this thing about something being important, and I am less concerned about whether a work of art is important. It may be important, and I think we have some work that's really important—and small! But that's not the reason that I want to live with it. It might make it more accessible to us that it's small, or small enough that we could have a space for it, but that's not really important to us. It has to be something that we not only want to live with, but that we can live with. And if the most profound work that the artist does is not in our home, that's okay. We'll go to a museum and look at it if it gets there. We're not trying to make ourselves more important by buying art. We're important enough to each other.
Emma: How do you guys see the future of the collection moving forward?
Joel: We don't even think about that.
Zöe: Well, you don't! I think about it. I would like to get a better handle on all that we've done, and think about it in a lot of different ways. To not have our son have a mess on his hands when we die—not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a finite business life. I don't want to call it legacy, because we don't have a definitive collection. It's been very much a journey for us, and a great one. We have some great works of art, really marvelous for a variety of reasons, and some of them not because they're so valuable. But, I want to think about how you dispose of a collection that you've amassed over decades upon death so that it isn't a nightmare for people who inherit this..."stuff." I mean it does become stuff! And I think it's an important consideration that it be done in a relatively orderly way. So, I'm working on a kind of audit of what is in our possession, and what might we do with a lot of things. It's an interesting project.
Joel: She's been working on this for two years.
Zöe: Well, a year. I need another year probably, because also I'm a lazy bum! I get distracted. It's also difficult without a deadline. If I knew when I was going to die, I'd know I had the deadline. I don't have a deadline. But, I like the idea that I could shape my life, and that in fact we have shaped our lives to a great degree around art. So, this is part of that, and can be a very interesting project when I make time for it. It requires a variety of input over a long period of time. Like, if you have a project that takes you a week, huh! Okay, it's a week. This keeps changing. It's really an ongoing project, and that's how I have to think about it. I've got my work cut out for me. WM
Emma Howcroft is a writer and arts administrator who lives and works in New York. She graduated from New York University with a degree in writing and critical theory.