For this issue we were very blessed to interview local collector Dorian Bennett about his fine art collection. We wanted to learn his thought process when he’s building his collection and what he looks for in a piece of art. Trevor Wisdom interviewed Dorian at his home in the Marigny for New Orleans Canvas Magazine.
TW: How did you first start collecting? How old were you?
Dorian: I wasn’t really thinking about collecting per se. Basically I’d been admiring art and creating art from a very early age as an actual artist. A lot of the work in this house I created.
Eventually, I woke up one day and people started saying, “You’ve got quite a collection!”
Penelope Jenkins helped me hang and organize a lot of these pieces and she’d worked at Arthur Roger. She said to me that this collection is very much like the Barnes collection. (Which I think is a real big stretch). My collection is more focused on my knowledge of art.
I’ve taken Art History courses and read a lot of books about art. I’ve visited a lot of the major art museums all over the world. I’ve visited: the Louvre, The Hermitage, The Prada, The National Art Gallery in DC, the Smithsonian, the galleries and museums in Palm Beach and Miami, the Museums in L.A., museums in Colorado, and the Chicago Art Institute.
So I’ve basically refined my taste and what I like and don’t like. Some art is very kitschy and catches your attention, but won’t hold it. It doesn’t resonate. I like art that resonates with me and makes me continue to ponder: “Well, how did they do that? And what were they saying when they did it?” I like art that I continue to puzzle over.
TW: So it’s important for you to have a reason to dwell on it.
Dorian: I do like to think about each piece of art. For example, the Mel Bochner in the hallway. That deals with people and their attitudes because there is a very bad son of a bitch there! He’s irritable. He’s a cantankerous, argumentative, bellicose, dyspeptic, petulant, bitchy, bitter, dark, dour, sour, surly, nasty, peevish, pissed off, looking for trouble son of a bitch. Thinking about that keeps me engaged.
To the right of that is a new piece that I got by Catherine Philpott about racial inequalities. It’s got this black man reading in a very Rodin Thinker posture. It’s engaging. Part of my art collection is focused on African American artists. There’s some amazing creative energy coming out of that world.
I’ve got that brilliant Benny Andrews over there between the two windows. It’s the Chess Player. He was one of the early African Americans admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago. In the front room I’ve got a beautiful Richmond Barthe’ who was from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and the first African American admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago.
I’ve got my Epaul Julien, whom I adore, here. He’s a cool dude. And I’ve got my Tony Green, which is a painting of Jules Kahn’s funeral march. To the best of my knowledge, Jules was the only white Jewish guy here in the city of New Orleans who had a Jazz funeral. I saw that painting in Tony’s studio in Venice in 2000 with my late wife, Kell. We had lunch with him and bought this painting.
TW: Have you gone through different stages? Do you remember your first collectible and why it spoke to you then? Was it a casual purchase or something conscious? Do you remember how old you were?
Dorian: My first serious purchase was at a special show in Williamsburg, VA., when I was a student at William and Mary. There was a Francisco Goya aquatint etching of dogs fighting, a very serious piece. I don’t know why but it wasn’t much money. I bought that and a Henri Daumier. I bought the Daumier because it made me laugh.
It was a traveling show. There are kinds of different dealers in the world and you learn about them as you move through life. Some are reputable and some are not. You find out by the quality of the artwork. If they’re stealing art out of someone’s home or the library, that’s a different thing.
Robert Hicklin, Jr. at the Renaissance Gallery in Charleston is a brilliant dealer. Or there’s also my friend, Tim Foley. Tim knows exactly what I want to buy.
TW: How does Tim peg you? What is that je ne sais quoi?
Dorian: We’ve talked about art and he knows what he’s sold me in the past. He knew that I am a fan of the Whitney Biennials. I love to go to the Biennials. I love to go to Art Basel. I loved my one trip to the Venice Biennialle. Maybe I’ll do another one.
TW: Did you and Kell ever collect jointly?
Dorian: We did a lot.
TW: Did you influence each other?
Dorian: She and I would play off each other. Like that Mel Bochner! (the aforementioned portrait of a cantankerous, argumentative, bellicose, dyspeptic, petulant, bitchy, bitter, dark, dour, sour, surly, nasty, peevish, pissed off, looking for trouble son of a bitch) It was something she and I bought together at the Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston, for a considerable amount of money. Probably one of the most expensive works that I have in here. We paid it off over three months. We saw all kinds of Mel Bochner work and we responded to it. There was something in it that kept grabbing us. And finally we decided that we could live with this son of a bitch. It’s a painting that has a message. Mel Bochner is all about the message.
Then there’s Robert Gordy’s ‘ Study for Rimbaud’s Dream’. I bought that from Simone Stern. That’s one of the early things that came out of my little quad space.
TW: Was that one of your early ones?
Dorian: One of my earliest ones. That was in the Museum’s retrospective because Gordy was incredibly generous to New Orleans. He was a friend of mine.
I didn’t have any of his work and I wanted some. I was flattened by the images I saw there. And there was an image there that was in the show. It was labeled The Private Collection of Bob Gordy, and they told me many of the works at the museum were for sale. Immediately I stopped everything I was doing and asked, “Which pieces are for sale?”
She pulled out the catalog and let me flip through it, saying “Pick out what you like.”
I picked ‘Study for Rimbaud’s Dream’ because it contains forms that he would reuse in all of the works that he did afterward. Like the squiggles in one and the textural flat plains in another one. Or the striped zebra type thing in another. Or the lettuce looking format. That’s the premier study and the one that I wanted.
I got a phone call after I acquired the piece telling me that Gordy had previously promised it to a collector in Baton Rouge who was going blind. And my response was simply “I’m sorry. I bought it. You can’t have it.” I was being ranked! There was a ranking going on.
TW: Strong armed? Like you weren’t good enough to collect it?
Dorian: I was being pressed! Really being pressed and I didn’t like it one bit. So I stopped everything I was doing and I drove up to the gallery, got out of the car and said to Donna, “What you just don’t understand is that I’m going to be a real collector. I’m going to have a real collection. You don’t want to mistreat me! I had your word that you sold it to me and you had my word that I bought it. I’m obligated to give you the money so here’s the money. There’s nothing left for you to do now but give me the painting.” Just as I was leaving Bob Gordy comes in and gives me a hug. I said, “Bob, would you please get your gallery director over here straight? Tell her I’m buying Study for Rimbaud’s Dream.
And he said, “Of course!”
TW: What advice can you give to an up and coming artist.
Dorian: I would say that for an up and coming artist its just a matter of going to the galleries and meeting the people who are buying the art. If you want to sell your art, it’s not a bad idea to figure out whose collection you would like to be in. People consistently come to see my collection, from museum curators to gallery directors. They want to see and learn about the artists that I have in my collection, taking ideas and building their own collections with those ideas. It’s a hard thing to say because everyone does things differently. The sensitivity level of some artists is different than others.
I have a disease that I like to call Purchase Mania or Art Gropia. You can die from that disease. There’s no cure for it.
Still, the bulk of my collection is not bought on impulse. I’ve really studied the bulk of these works. I’ve studied the artists’ CV’s and where they went to school. If it’s a self-taught artist then none of that is important. But if it is somebody who has a nice CV with a list of galleries, then you do want to know.
Like the Peter Roth that you’re fascinated with. This was one of those real surprise treats that I brought home from Chicago. Kell hadn’t seen it, but once she saw it she loved it. She wanted it hanging near her. It’s everything Warhol, a gallery of Warhols. No one could afford a gallery of Warhols! Sure, Sidney Besthoff could afford a gallery of Warhols. Or Billy Wiseman. I can’t afford a gallery of Warhols. Peter Roth is an architect and a painter. An artist who happens to be an architect! Whichever way you want to spin that.
TW: So that’s why it’s like a 3D model of a house. Does he do all of his stuff “three dimensional” like that?
Dorian: Yes! And he does them in different scales. Like this scale. Then there’s one that is about three times this size. That’s just too big. Then there was another scale that was too small. There are three different scales, at the Gruen Gallery in Chicago. I love to shop art in Chicago. I don’t go there much because I know it’s going to get me! It’s a deadly city for art, phenomenal galleries with great work. Work that says, “ You need to come home with me!”
TW: What about something from an artist with whom you aren’t familiar or don’t know about their reputation?
Dorian: Yes, I might buy it.
TW: Just for the whimsy?
Dorian: There have been some things I have done like that. I did an art auction supporting different organizations and cooperatives that will be selling little sections of art that I don’t know a thing about. I bought a piece from an auction that was held at Mimi’s bar. The artist was a Yale grad or something like that.
I sat there and I bought hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars worth of art. I bought a bartender’s piece. I don’t know what her list of histories and stuff is, but she did this really cool piece and I have it.
TW: And you did it just as a whimsy?
Dorian: Totally! Another thing I love doing is provide housing for visiting artists. I love doing that.
TW: How do you do that?
Dorian: I’m a Prospect member and I make it known to the curators who are doing the shows that I have guest accommodations for their artists.
TW: You have them here at your house?
TW: Do you ever think about having a gallery or museum?
Dorian: I do think about that! A mini-Frick or something like that. I don’t know what the pluses and negatives are. I open the house up for (CANO has a number of tours) Jeanne Nathan. She brings curators and museum directors or whatever. Collectors from different parts of the country and the world. She brings them into see my collection, multiple times a year.
Occasionally I’ll get involved with one of her fund raisers. They’ll do tours of collections and I’ve participated with that and the museum. NOMA had tour days. Or if it’s architectural students or students studying art from Tulane or another school, I’m game for that.
TW: How do you build relationships with artists? Does your being a collector affect the way you approach your relationships with artists?
Dorian: They either seek me out or I seek them out. There is the artist and my relationship with the artist. There was one artist named Letitia Huckaby whose work I remember seeing at the Roadhouse in Houston, TX. It was fascinating. She does quiltwork and photography. I pulled her aside and I said, “I want to meet you. I am really fascinated with your piece. We’re going to be best friends. I will always have your work in a place of honor. It will always be available to you for any shows you have got. You’ll get the money and we will become really good pals. You can drop in any time you like.” She said, “I don’t see any problem with that.” And I said, “Smart lady. I will get you a check and we will be squared away.”
Letitia Huckaby also manages Sedrick Huckaby. Sedrick is nationally if not internationally one of the most prominent African American artists in this country. As far as his work. He is sought after. All of the museums and collectors seek him out. His work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Letitia is from Zachary, LA. And she is just a marvelous person. She is a mother and has beautiful children. She and Sedrick have a lovely marriage. It was very hard for her to separate from her art. I told her that I understood that and that her art would be treasured and cared for. And I told her that it was always available for her to borrow for shows.
She has never asked to borrow them, but she does drive in. I have invited her to parties and things I might have going on for artists. She has become a friend. It’s cool! She loves that. She loves to surprise and ring the doorbell.
Some are really arm twisters. Like Robert Barnes, a Houston artist and also African American, is a lovely man and does beautiful work, wonderful work. I’ve got a major piece of his that I found at the CAC show that Don Marshall had curated. He’s got another work of his that he is gifting to me because of this major piece that I bought. And he should do that because he strong armed me. He pegged me and said, “ I’m selling it to this man!” Put my name on it.
TW: And you have a continuing relationship. So you build continuing relationships with your artists?
Dorian: Oh yeah, we are friends.
TW: Do you feel strongly that when you buy something from an artist, you want to have a relationship with them?
Dorian: I want a friendship. Epaul Julien and I are super close pals. I sell more of his work that just about anybody! When I see his work going on, I call friends of mine. And I’ll say, “you’ve got to come see this!”
Dorian: Here’s the Letitia Huckaby piece. The woman is reaching up and pondering some leaf or flower or whatever she’s looking at. Behind the sheets. Doing her daily laundry. It’s really cool.
This is the Robert Barnes. “If I ruled the world, I would make them my sons. Love ‘em baby!” He’s got that George Washington feel with that George Bush face!
And that, of course is Enrique Alvarez.
TW: And I remember the Indian things used to be in the living room by the piano over there.
Dorian: Yeah! They move around. Move around a little bit. This American Indian Boys Beaded Jacket is Sioux 1880s.
This piece came out of the Ceramic Museum in Havana, Cuba. It’s a calendar. See that? It’s a little monstery thing. This reminded me so much of a potter friend of mine, my best friend Paul Dudenhefer, who died 15 or 20 years ago. He did crazy things like that – little monstery things.
Dorian: Isn’t this fun? I found it in Taos. It’s another American Indian piece. I just thought he was so cool. With his little hands on his hips and the crucifix around his neck. Reminds me of a friend of mine.