Complementary and Contemporary: The Sachs Collection Demonstrates How to Donate Art to a Museum and a Community

Collecting art requires two character traits—passion and persistence.  Passion for art, an artist, or an artistic movement remains an affair of the heart without the persistence to await the right moment to acquire the right work.  Likewise, persistence without passion can quickly become cold, calculating checking off of a list.  But, together, the two elements complement each other like two members in a good, solid marriage.  Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art provides a template for future collectors looking to take their passion and persistence and create a collection not just for themselves or the art, but for their community.

Ellsworth Kelly Yellow Relief With White 1990Image: Ellsworth Kelly. American, 1923–2015. Yellow Relief with White, 1990. Oil on canvas, two layered panels. Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs.  Installation photo by author.


In a filmed interview showing at the end of the exhibition, Keith Sachs claims title to persistence while crediting Kathy with the passion, but such labels oversimplify the symbiosis of their relationship, which began with a shared love of art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied art history and he organized art exhibitions.  Their involvement with the Philadelphia Museum of Art as friends, patrons, trustees, and, in Kathy’s case, curator, stretches across more than four decades.  It’s dangerous to “read” collectors back into their collecting, but I saw Ellsworth Kelly’s Yellow Relief with White (shown above) as emblematic of the Sachs’ collecting story—complementary partners strengthening and supporting one another into an effect far greater than the sum of their parts.



Image: Red Ground Letter, 2007-2010. Brice Marden, American, born 1938. Oil on canvas, 6 × 8 feet (182.9 × 243.8 cm). Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © 2016 Brice Marden/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY.  Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


The Sachs collected from early on in their marriage, but that collecting took a more focused turn after a plane ride with then-PMA curator of modern art Mark Rosenthal.  As Kathy explains in a lengthy interview in the catalogue with Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the PMA, “Keith, as is so characteristic, wanted to focus and strategize about what was important.”  Rosenthal provided them with a “hit list” of important artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Neil Jenney, and Brice Marden (shown above).  “I still have the list,” Kathy says.  “It took us more than ten years to acquire works by some of the artists on the list.”  Using the PMA as a resource as well as an inspiration, the Sachs amassed a collection of contemporary art of true museum quality and content and not just “brand name” quantity and price tags.



Image: 5 Postcards, 2011. Jasper Johns. American, born 1930.  (a) Encaustic on canvas.  (b) Oil on canvas.  (c) Oil on canvas.  (d) Oil and graphite on canvas.  (e) Encaustic on canvas. Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs.  © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.  Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


But even when dealing with the big names of late 20th century art, such as Jasper Johns, the Sachs collected more recent works, such as the 2011 piece 5 Postcards (shown above).  As Basualdo explains in his catalogue essay, “The majority of the artists represented are American or European, and almost half the works were made in the current century, while the rest mostly date to the 1980s or 1990s.”  Although the Sachs’ “focus is work that postdates Abstract Expressionism and Pop,” Basualdo points out, they collected the “King of Pop” Richard Hamilton heavily.  One of the side benefits for the Sachs of collecting living artists is meeting them and building friendships.  The Sachs counted Kelly, Hamilton, Johns, Howard Hodgkin, and Joel Shapiro among their collection of friends.



Image: Boy with Frog, 2008. Charles Ray, American, born 1953. Cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane, Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © Charles Ray, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.  Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Colleting post-AbEx and post-Pop, the Sachs’ collection reflects the last three decades of art movements, primarily Minimalism and modern figurative art.  Basualdo, the show’s curator, brings those two worlds together in a single, central “plaza” in the exhibition by surrounding Charles Ray’s 8-foot-high, “can’t miss it” Boy with Frog (shown above and in detail at top of post) with Richard Tuttle’s minimalist, “where are they?” Paper Octagonals, large octagonals of store-bought white construction paper pasted directly to the walls, where they blend in with the equally white walls until you notice the subtle bubbling and creasing created during the application.  As Erica F. Battle writes in the catalogue entry for Paper Octagonals, Tuttle’s “ideas hide in plain sight, waiting to be unpacked by close looking.”  The show asks you to look as closely as that boy perusing the frog to catch all the ideas hiding in plain sight.  From that central “plaza,” visitors fan out to rooms focused on works by Marden, Johns, and Robert Gober, whose distinctly different approach to the human body leaves the neo-classicism of Boy with Frog centuries behind.


Image: Static, 2009. Steve McQueen, English (active Amsterdam and London), born 1969. Single channel HD video transferred from 35mm film, color, sound, 16:9 aspect ratio, Duration: 7 minutes. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Partial gift of The Katherine and Keith L. Sachs Art Foundation and purchased with the Modern and Contemporary Art Revolving Fund, 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.  Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Seeing the Sachs collection in that way revealed its inner logic, a delicate balancing and counterbalancing like an elaborate, expensive game of Jenga.  The minimalist white of Tuttle and Robert Ryman meets its match in the color-drenched minimalism of Kelly and Ad Reinhardt.  Minimalism’s absence of line buts up against Marden’s abundance of line, crossing and re-crossing over itself like a runaway train of thought.  Ray’s beautiful boy stands just feet away from Gober’s grotesque child’s shoe of beeswax sprouting hair from its sole.  Yet, the Sachs recognized that stability of such counterbalances could quickly turn into stagnation.  Always changing with the times, they began to collect video art, the dominant art form of the 21st century, including filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 2009 Static.  Circling the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter, McQueen visuals depict details and decay missed from the ground, but the pulsating rotor sounds viscerally remind us of the post-9/11 world and the air traffic surveillance following that fateful day.  Standing in that darkened theater beside the white room of Ray and Tuttle disorients at first, but, as with the rest of the show, you find your footing quickly enough and enjoy the way the show shifts, assimilates, and builds.


Image: Joseph Beuys. German, 1921–1986. Das Erdtelephon (The Earth Telephone), 1968–1971.  Siemens telephone, earth clod with grass and roots, wood plank.  Gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs, 2013-158-1.  Installation photo by author.


The logic and balance of the Sachs collection flows back to the PMA’s larger collection.  For example, when the museum held a retrospective of Joseph Beuys’ drawings, the Sachs purchased Beuys’ Das Erdtelephon (The Earth Telephone) (shown above) and donated it to the museum for the exhibition.  Just a rotary phone and a clump of earth, Beuys’ piece demonstrates the strong line of communication between the museum and the Sachs.  Sometimes large donations to museums seem an odd fit, but the Sachs’ donation of nearly 100 pieces to the PMA (which this exhibition celebrates) fits in with the museum’s mission and vision perfectly.  In fact, the second half of the exhibition takes you outside the special exhibition galleries and through the permanent galleries, where the Sachs’ donations and promised gifts already mingle with other works.  By the end, you couldn’t imagine their collection ending up anywhere else.


Image: Keith and Kathy Sachs, 1988 1991. Howard Hodgkin, English, born 1932. Oil on wood and historic frame, Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © Howard Hodgkin.  Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Collecting art’s always been emotional for Keith and Kathy Sachs.  So, they commissioned friend and artist Howard Hodgkin to paint their portrait (shown above) for their 20th wedding anniversary, he depicted their emotional being in abstract color and gesture. Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection of Contemporary Art not only keeps the PMA “more nimble and responsive to its public,” as Basualdo puts it in the catalog, through augmenting its contemporary holdings, but also provides a perfect example of collecting done right.  Where others use collecting as vanity projects or tax dodges, the Sachs meet their public responsibility head on and challenge others to follow their lead in collecting and donating to ensure that today’s art is accessible to future generations.  Pennsylvania license plates used to (ungrammatically) proclaim, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.”  This exhibition proclaims that Philadelphia and its cultural legacy have a friend in Keith and Kathy Sachs—complements to one another and a compliment to their city.

[Image at top of post: Boy with Frog, 2008. Charles Ray, American, born 1953. Cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane, Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © Charles Ray, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.  Detail photography taken by author.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the images above from, a review copy of the catalogue to, other press materials related to, and an invitation to the press preview for the exhibition Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection of Contemporary Art, which runs through September 5, 2016.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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