The Los Angeles-based collector tells us about buying and looking at art via PDF, over Zoom, and from behind a mask.
Collecting art has been a passion for Beth Rudin DeWoody for half a century, and she has over 10,000 paintings, sculptures, design objects, furniture, and other assorted artworks to show for it—plus a private art facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Bunker, which opened in December 2017.
We caught up with DeWoody from her home in Los Angeles, where she opened up about the unexpected joys of Zoom studio visits and the addictive nature of collecting.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
The first work was a Benny Andrews drawing in 1969. I took a course at the New School [in New York], a drawing class, and he was my teacher. I bought a drawing from him for $100. I still have it, and now I have some paintings of Benny’s that I got two years ago.
What was your most recent purchase?
I bought a painting from the dealer Tif Sigfrids. She had a gallery in LA and she’s now in Georgia. I bought a piece by a Canadian woman who had killed herself a couple of years ago—really sad—Heidi Jahnke. I had never heard of her before.
And then I’ve been buying some African art. I just bought two pieces by an Egyptian artist, Salah Elmur—all of this is online, I’m not seeing these in person—and [work by] a South African artist, Wonder Buhle Mbambo. He came here and did a La Brea residency program, but I never met him while he was here.
There’s a whole bunch of interesting artists [whose work] I am buying. There are certain artists that I’ve been buying online anyway because they are in Africa and Europe. I’ve been buying them from dealers who know me and know what I like.
I’ve also been going around here every week to the galleries, by appointment, with masks—very careful. I’ve seen some great shows. Tomorrow, there’s a young artist named Ferrari Sheppard who I’m going to go look at. The show opens in September, but I’ll get a preview. Lanise Howard is a young African American woman who[se work] I saw at Band of Vices gallery. I’ve been doing a few studio visits. I went to see Khari Turner at the Iris Project Residency in July.
I’ve been on a lot Zoom calls and Zoom visits. Generally I don’t do Zoom studio visits, but It’s been fun. It’s a way to see artists who are not in town with you, so I have a feeling that’s going to continue even after this thing is over.
Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I don’t know! Because I’m collecting a lot of young artists, it’s kind of always a surprise. Either I hear about them or I see them when I go to a show. Sometimes I also collect historical and those are often a surprise too. I’ll get a call from someone that “we were offered so-and-so artist.” I don’t have any exceptions. I like all of a sudden discovering somebody—to me, that’s really interesting.
What is the most expensive work of art that you own?
I did own four of Jeff Koons’s Trains. But I gave those to the Whitney [in New York]. Now, I don’t know. I buy things early, and then I find out they’ve gone for a high price at auction. Jack Whitten I got early and now his work is very high. Amy Sherald I got early and then all of a sudden her price was ten times higher. I’m not buying it for investment. I’m just buying because I love the work and I want to show it, and most of it’s going to end up in museums anyway.
Where do you buy art most frequently?
I would say from dealers. I don’t buy at auction very much at all except for maybe charity auctions. I just bought [work by] a young artist from the LongHouse Reserve [in East Hampton] auction. Christopher Charveriat did a very cool portrait of Basquiat. I’d never heard of him, but he’s an antiques dealer and a painter.
Sarah Gavlak, Mark Selwyn, Craig F. Starr, Garth Greenan—I buy from a lot of different galleries. It’s all work that I feel something about. I’m kind of addicted. It’s hard for me to not buy, even when I run out of money. It’s terrible, a terrible addiction!
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
I’m sure there’s work in there that I bought at the time that I can’t even remember, that I don’t relate to now. I’ve got so much. There’s a lot of work that I wish I had bought. A lot of my impetus is to buy young artists. I might say afterward, “Why did I buy this?” But it helps young artists keep their practice going. That’s really what’s important to me.
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
I have a beautiful Enoc Perez, US Embassy Saigon (2017) over one sofa. I have a beautiful historic 1973 Chuck Arnoldi over another sofa, one of his wood twig pieces. I love the California Pacific Standard Time group of artists. Over another sofa I have a portrait of my mother that Alex Katz did as a commission in 1982.
In my toilet area I have a few artists. One of them is a historical artist who you would have never heard of, Sewell Sillman. He was a friend of and a writer about Josef Albers. He was very involved with helping him with his books. I have a little Tony Matelli, one of his shampoo pieces on mirror. There is work by Dan Colen, Ben Berlow, Maura Bendett, and Alison Frey Andersson.
What is the most impractical work of art you own?
Oh god. I have a ton of those. I just last year set up a piece for the Bunker by Tavares Strachan. I had it in storage for years. I got it very early from Pierogi [in New York ]. It had a thing of mineral oil and a little skeleton man that goes inside. It took years to get that out. You have to pour all of this mineral oil in it, but it’s such a beautiful piece when it’s up.
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
A Bridget Riley 1960s drawing called Breathe. It took me a day or two and I thought about it. Of course it was expensive at the time. By the time I got back to them it was sold. That was a big loss.
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
I would definitely steal a Brancusi. Any Brancusi! And I would steal a Jeff Koons Bunny because that’s one of his most iconic works. And a Freud, one of those beautiful works from the 1940s that are hyperrealistic.