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Since the late 1960s, when he bought a Franz Kline and a couple of Warhols with money he’d made playing the stock market in college, the industrialist Peter Brant has been gobbling up contemporary art with the zeal of a gallery-hopping Pac-Man. It’s an appetite for the sublime that shows no signs of abating: “I don’t think it’s ever satisfied,” the famously competitive Brant explained in early December, after a shopping trip to Art Basel Miami Beach. “I think you’ve [got to be] inquisitive about what’s going on now. What’s dangerous is if you lose what you found, and the importance of what you found, and just discard it and go onto something else—then you don’t really get what happened."
Third Dimension: Works From the Brant Foundation, an exhibition at the foundation’s East Village branch that opened in November, bears witness to Brant’s singular obsession (and deep pockets). With a focus on sculpture and installation, the show—largely curated by Brant himself—brings together works, many of which he lived with in his late teens and early 20s, by over 20 marquee artists central to his collection, including Dan Flavin, Glenn Ligon, Cady Noland, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Brant’s beloved Andy Warhol. Spread over three floors of the sprawling 16,000-square-foot space (all masonry, steel, and concrete—a fittingly muscular stage for such an outsize flex), the survey of heavy hitters (Schnabel! Salle! Oldenburg!) is richly satisfying, without ever feeling like the visual equivalent of eating too much chocolate. “I’m very proud of it,” Brant says. “The space is spectacular because it doesn’t compete with the art; it’s a space that accepts and shows the art; it just has a feeling that it’s going to be there for many years to come.”
In addition to lending an air of august permanence to the selection, the scale of the Richard Gluckman-renovated building—a former Con Edison substation that the artist Walter De Maria used as his home and studio from the mid-1980s until his death in 2013—makes possible the inclusion of two sculptures never before shown at the foundation due to their size. “[De Maria] was a minimalist and one of the very important American sculptors of the ’70s, so we thought the fact that this was his studio, it would be nice to have a sculpture show that had some of the works of that period,” says Brant. “I just thought that it was something that felt right for the building.”
On the third floor, John Chamberlain’s Fuccimanooli (1990), a twisted metal piece that reaches over 12 feet high, holds pride of place. Meanwhile, the second floor, with its 30-foot-high walls and spanning framework for moving large artworks between levels, houses Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011), a wax replica of Giambologna’s 16th-century sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women that measures more than 20 feet in height and melts away over the run of the exhibition. “Of course [we had to include] the Urs Fischer wax piece that was in the Venice Biennale about 10 years ago,” acknowledges Brant. “It’s a very spectacular piece. So are the pieces by Cady Noland, a great American sculptor who is really starting to get recognized by the museums and collectors.”
If Brant, 72, is now an agenda-setting collector, a canny voluptuary whose fixations and decisions have the ability to move the market, he readily admits that it’s in no small part due to a handful of important mentors. Brant’s father, Murray, a European immigrant and autodidact who made his fortune from a paper converter company that he passed on to his son, piqued his interest in art with regular trips to museums. “[He] was more interested in French Rococo and old master paintings. We used to go to the Frick Collection at least once every two or three months,” Brant recalls. “It was really a learning experience.”
There were also regular family skiing trips to Switzerland, and on one such occasion Brant was introduced to the redoubtable Swiss art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger. According to Brant mythology, it was Bischofberger who advised him not to invest in old masters or impressionism and focus instead on contemporary art. “It’s true,” Brant confirms. “I would say Bruno and [legendary gallerist] Leo Castelli were two of my biggest mentors.”
Then of course, there was Warhol. Brant became friends with Warhol after the artist asked to meet the affluent young collector who was acquiring so many of his pieces. (He would go on to invest in two of Warhol’s movies and bankroll his Interview magazine, and to this day remains one of the largest collectors of the artist. Not surprisingly, Warhol is the subject of a coming exhibition at the foundation, most likely next year.) “It was hard to get to know him because he didn’t talk a lot,” Brant says. “But he’s one of the most interesting people I ever met.”
An inveterate hoarder himself, Warhol shared Brant’s passion for investing in collectibles and curios beyond the obvious—not all of it in conventionally good taste. “It’s hard to say that somebody has bad taste if they’re one of the greatest tastemakers of the time,” Brant points out. “Really, the great things sometimes border on bad taste for the moment that they’re in. We collected a lot of the same kind of things, like cookie jars. [And] we used to go to France to buy the Art Deco, which was basically being discarded at that time.”
Though his contemporary aesthetic was undeniably shaped by a formidable handful of mentors, and these days he leans on a global team of scouts and advisors, Brant has an unwaveringly hands-on approach to tapping into the cultural moment. “It’s very difficult to do that without doing your homework,” he explains, “without really paying attention to what you’re doing.” The magnate regularly visits museums to absorb the context in which works are hung, and with what other artists; meeting with galleries and artists he’s friendly with to see who else of their generation they respect. “It’s a visual experience that you have to invest your time in so you really understand the moment. If you don't do that, if you're just dependent on somebody calling you up and saying, ‘Oh, I found this young artist that's really…’ You have no shot.”
Though he makes no apologies for the breadth of his interests, still there are regrets, the ones that got away. “You can’t collect everything,” he laments. “There’s a lot of artists that I really admire, but I don't have any works in the collection. A lot of it has to do with what dealers you’re really working with.” There are also some self-inflicted missteps. Noticeably absent from Third Dimension are any of the paintings and sculptures collected by Stephanie Seymour, Brant’s wife, made by some of the biggest names in art, including Jeff Koons, George Condo, and Maurizio Cattelan—who famously produced a ship figurehead of Seymour often referred to as “Trophy Wife.”
“We had a number of artists, we commissioned them to do a work of her. We thought it was an interesting idea,” Brant says. “I think it would have been more interesting to make it a larger group, but it took a lot of work and a lot of time. “I think that probably is a mistake that I and Stephanie made. We should have stayed with it more, [but] life took us in another direction.” Regardless of where the vicissitudes of life and love take this latter-day Gatsby next, count on it being an artful adventure.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest