Joseph Hirshhorn -- who died at 82 of a heart attack on Monday -- was a funny little man, part sharpie and part clown. A multimillionaire, he enjoyed telling strangers he ate garbage as a child. On the January morning in 1969 when he broke ground for his museum, he wore a tawdry clip-on bow tie and a double-breasted overcoat of mink. Both the mink coat and the clip-on tie were typical of Hirshhorn. He was as proud of his poverty as he was of his wealth.
He loved deals, he loved women, he loved hanging out with artists and buying works of art, preferably at a discount. In 1961, he bought 757; in 1960 he acquired 960 more. On a single day in 1957, Hirshhorn bought a Georges Braque bronze, an early Robert Motherwell, a Thomas Eakins portrait, a seascape by George Bellows, a small sculpture by Pablo Picasso, and the superb "Girl in Orange Gown," a canvas by George Luks. Hirshhorn must have purchased 13,000 works of art, perhaps twice the number he gave to his museum. He was only 5-foot-4, but his appetite was huge.
The week before he died, he traveled to Long Island to pose for yet another portrait by his friend, the painter Larry Rivers. "I had the guy who cooks for me make potato pancakes, and I mean a lot of them, like, say, 700. Joe really loved his latkes. He ate them all through dinner, he ate them through dessert." Joe Hirshhorn, the leprechaun from Latvia, the East Side boy who made it, stayed hungry all his life.
Its inclusiveness, its range, may well be the chief virtue of his museum on the Mall. Because he bought the works of scores of worthy artists, and not just the big names, and because he bought voraciously, he defended his collection against shifts in art-world fashion. Henry Moore is there -- in depth -- but so is Philip Evergood. Picasso and Willem de Kooning, Milton Avery and Eakins, are represented well, but so, too, are the three Soyer brothers and Louis Eilshemius. Despite textbooks to the contrary, the history of art is not owed to the few, but rather to the many. Hirshhorn understood that. Because he bought not just the masters, but the minors, too, his round museum offers us a rich and vastly detailed portrait of its time.
Before he moved to Washington and brought his objects with him, Hirshhorn stored his art in offices and warehouses, in closets and in gardens. He seemed to love the clutter.
Some years ago, while visiting his mansion in Connecticut, I made a partial inventory of the many little objects that stood on Hirshhorn's little desk. They included: a bronze weight lifter by Alexander Calder, a bronze Picasso bull, a carved Benin bird, a telephone, a small vase full of rosebuds, a Maxfield Parrish statuette, a pen that he'd had set in a chunk of uranium ore, a toy dump truck (nicely rusted, circa 1920), a handful of smooth beach stones (they'd been painted by his wife, Olga), a bronze by Chaim Gross, a torso by Man Ray (made of cast aluminum), a portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, a number of stuffed animals (an orange bull, a tiger), a stone Mayan serpent, and a piggy bank of glass partially filled with pennies.
"I never had a toy," said Hirshhorn. "No kiddin'. I never had a toy."
He loved to reminisce about his brothers and his sisters, about his poverty, his luck, and about his adventures on the East Side of New York. But even when you pressed him, he declined to speak abstractly about works of art. He did not seem a man who cared much for ideas. He was always friendly, but almost never serious. With his wisecracking, his funny clothes, his back-slapping and easy grin, Joseph Hirshhorn looked more like a burlesque comic than a connoisseur.
Barry Hyams, his biographer, writes that once "at the Felix Landau Gallery in Los Angeles, Hirshhorn's eye went to Gisele Neiman, the attractive assistant. When she spoke, he noticed her accent and asked 'in an inquisitive manner where I was from, and to tease me, talking in Yiddish to Landau's astonishment. In less than 10 minutes, Hirshhorn spent $5,700 on four Jack Zajac sculptures.' Hirshhorn commented, 'I'm not only bullish I'm Yiddish.' "
Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once wrote that a selection from Hirshhorn's collection "falters when the human form is not involved." Though Hirshhorn dismissed him as "just a kid," Geldzahler had glimpsed the core of Hirshhorn's motive. Hirshhorn, after all, called his works of art his "children." Those that he loved best were those his eyes could hug.
Unlike Andrew Mellon, who bought only Old Masters, unlike Duncan Phillips, whose heart was moved by color, Hirshhorn sought the solid. Splendid as his paintings are, his sculptures may be better. Hirshhorn gave to Washington -- a city whose museums had long been ruled by paintings -- the art it needed most. The Hirshhorn collection of sculpture may well be the best assembled in his time.
"He had more passion about collecting than any man I've ever known," says Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. "Collecting art was as important to Joe as his family or his business. It was not something he did on the side, or for money, or to amuse himself. He couldn't help himself. He couldn't bear to stand aside and let areas of art develop without participating. He wasn't out for masterpieces -- he thought they'd declare themselves eventually. All he could do was gather what pleased him. He bought with his heart."
When Hirshhorn was making his fortune, in mining, in Canada, he kept a sampler on his office wall. It read: "Imagination is the first law of creation."
Hirshhorn adored artists, toyed with them and teased them. "Hirshhorn wants artists to love him," the sculptor Kenneth Snelson once told Hyams. "That's probably the reason for his attraction to contemporary art. People have to be alive to love him . . . I don't know what Hirshhorn sees when he looks at my work. He'll say, 'That's terrific, kid!' I don't talk to him on any other level. He's willing to take a chance on love."
"He was insatiable," says Rivers. "I remember he came by the studio one night to listen to some music. I'd just come back from South America, where I'd bought some painted plastic birds, funny little things, presents for my friends. 'I'll take them. How much?' he said. 'Hell no you won't,' I told him. Then he tried to buy the photos on the wall. But by then I knew how to handle him. I kept saying no until he bought a painting. That's how he'd express his feelings -- by buying works of art."
Hirshhorn used to say, "I've always wanted the proposition that cost a dime and paid $10." That applied not just to business, but to buying works of art. He loved to one-up his competitors, to haggle and to win. "I used to be a broker, but I hated it," he said. "When you're a broker, you're a parasite, you get other people's money. Ah, but mining's different. It comes out of the ground." Hirshhorn had as much fun mining New York's art world as he did the ground.
Hyams writes that "one Saturday early in the '40s, Hirshhorn dropped in on Avery, who was then on hard times. Hirshhorn peered about the studio. He pulled out a wad of $100 bills, peeled off 120 of them, pressed them into Avery's palm, and swept the studio clean of 40 paintings. In the center of the studio, Avery stood stunned by the windfall, staring from the bare walls to the $12,000 in his hand. Regaining his voice, he exclaimed in dismay, 'I've been robbed!' "
Avery was not the first to feel that way about Hirshhorn, a man who made -- and lost -- enormous quantities of cash, sometimes playing, as he did so, on the far side of the law. Hirshhorn, the collector, was not always gentle, generous or subtle. He once told an interviewer that artists "don't care about money," though, of course, he knew better. He bought and bought and bought in an unsuccessful effort to satisfy his hunger, and in doing so he gave America a feast. At first he chose to own sentimental stuff by Adolphe Bouguereau and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer. His eye would grow sharper, and his buying more adventurous, but he was no connoisseur. His motive was affection. He made of buying art, and of bargaining for deals, something very close to an act of love.
He never stopped collecting. He gave objects by the thousands to his grand museum, and moved here to be near them, but Hirshhorn, at his death, owned many thousands more.
Al Lerner was asked yesterday what Hirshhorn had intended to do with all those pictures. "I have no idea," said Lerner. "Joe thought he'd live forever."
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Connecticut Avenue and Macomb Street NW.