Stefan Edlis, Chicago’s Impresario Collector of Mischievous Art: ‘You Will Never See a B-Grade Piece by an A-Grade Artist’
Legend has it that, in 1969, while walking down Chicago’s East Ontario street, Stefan T. Edlis, who died in 2019, was awestruck by a building that appeared to be under construction and covered in black tarp. He thought at first that this was simply an intriguing construction site. In fact, it was a conceptual artwork by Christo who, with his partner Jeanne-Claude, sheathed various structures in fabric. Beneath it was the new site of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, opened two years earlier. That initial curiosity would lead Edlis to be a lifelong supporter of the MCA Chicago and other hometown arts institutions.
“Having known him half my life, I have this feeling that, when he was ‘duped’ by Christo, he was the opposite of bemused—he was delighted,” the MCA’s current director, Madeline Grynsztejn, recently told ARTnews.
And such a genuine affection for challenging conceptual art would come to define Edlis’s own collecting taste. With his wife Gael Neeson, he amassed a collection filled with major works by postwar and Pop artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol, alongside provocateurs such as Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan. (Neeson has continued collecting independently after Edlis’s death.)
Ultimately, a number of those works would end up with Chicago institutions, transforming them in the process. Pervading much of Edlis’s collection was the same drollness that animated Christo’s MCA project, which imagined the art museum as a mausoleum, or some kind of archive. According to Grynsztejn, above all else, “He loved mischievousness.”
One Word: Plastics
Born in 1925, Edlis hailed from a Jewish Austrian family that fled to the U.S. in 1941. They had come from Lisbon, having already relocated from Vienna after a harrowing visit from a Nazi paramilitary SA officer to their apartment one night in 1938. (Connections to a branch of the Edlis family well established in business and politics in Pittsburgh helped make the immigration possible.)
After being drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943, and following stints working in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago as a toolmaker, he went on to found Apollo Plastics Corporation, a moldings manufacturer, in 1965. The company would eventually become a multimillion-dollar enterprise, and through it he amassed a fortune that would later enable him to become a patron to cultural institutions spanning the Midwest to the East Coast.
Fittingly, the company helped make some of the country’s distinctive postwar era mass-produced tech, with Motorola being one of its biggest clients. No surprise, then, that at the start, Edlis’s early art collecting focus was plastic. At first, he bought only pieces made of the material, produced by Pop artists such as Andy Warhol. People within his industry—and beyond—took notice of the works he installed at Apollo’s Chicago’s headquarters, including Damien Hirst’s early sculptures involving surgical instruments. He soon began making forays into politics as well, donating to the campaigns of Democratic politicians, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and in 1998, two years before he sold the company to a business partner, Plastics News called the field his “second muse,” after art.
While the couple’s political campaign funding did not qualify them as mega-donors, their high-profile donations in the arts and cultural sector made them major philanthropists. In 2015, Edlis and Neeson made a gift to the Art Institute of Chicago of 44 works worth an estimated $400 million. As part of the deal, the museum had to keep the works on permanent view for the next five decades. “I have donated works of art to museums for years but have been frustrated by their lack of exposure,” Edlis said in his statement on why he ultimately gave the works to the AIC instead of the MCA.
It was the largest gift of art in the AIC’s 136-year history, and it included works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, Eric Fischl, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince. At the museum, Hirst’s Still (1994), a pristine, almost menacing arrangement of medical instruments aligned in a wall-sized glass case hangs near Warhol’s Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz] (1963), a silkscreened press image of Elizabeth Taylor from a series of thirteen replicas. Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor at the time of the donation, said that the gift would help Chicago “continue its rise in the ranks as one of the great global art destinations.”
But despite its historic value, the gift also raised larger implications that the museum’s director, James Rondeau, would eventually have to face. Critics have argued that this kind of promise undermines the museum’s curatorial power, forcing the AIC to continue focusing on the white male artists, whose work made up the bulk of Edlis’s gift and who are already well-represented in the museum’s collection. “This carves out a single-collector fiefdom that disrupts the overall displays and sets a pernicious precedent,” writer Lee Rosenbaum wrote on her blog CultureGrrl.
According to Grynsztejn, the art-historical significance of Edlis and Neesons’s holdings offers a good reason for museums to display works from the collection. “Their collection is characterized by an incredibly rigorous focus,” she said. They found that laser-pointed focus at the MCA Chicago, where they got their early footing in the 1970s. Initially, it was Neeson who took the lead, attending classes at the museum and reporting back to her husband. The couple was eventually introduced to the MCA donor circle by another collector, Gerald Elliott.
Now, Neeson carries out the legacy she built with Edlis, with whom she agreed to sell off some of their prized artworks over the years in order to make room for new artists. “It’s sad, some of the things we’ve sold,” she said in a recent profile for Christie’s online magazine. “But it had to be done.”
Provocative, Not Provincial
When Edlis died, Grynsztejn wrote on the MCA’s website that the collector, who served as a museum trustee since 1981 up until his death, “preferred the provocative over the provincial.” In other words, he liked things that would cause a stir—works such as Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001), a small sculpture featuring a kneeling child-sized Adolf Hitler. Him was placed in the couple’s library and positioned in such a way that it appeared to be gazing at a book about psychoanalysis—an expressive curatorial flourish that Grynsztejn said was not unusual for Edlis.
For Edlis, quality and control were important. Staunchly against relegating their artwork to storage, he and Neeson set in places rules for the collection with a 200-work cap and a fixed number of artists. These limitations would allow them to focus on high-quality art and drive the couple to keep evolving their holdings, buying and selling pieces with each discovery of a new artist. Theirs was a collection, Grynsztejn said, “where you will never see a B-grade piece by an A-grade artist.”
When masterpieces left their holdings, they often made headlines. In 2007, Edlis and Neeson sold Andy Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn (1964), a Pop portrait of the famed movie star, to financier Steven A. Cohen for $80 million. Edlis sold the work through the couple’s private foundation, taking advantage of a legal provision that allows for tax deferral on art transactions.
There were more public-facing sales, too. In 2014, Edlis consigned a Jeff Koons silver steel sculpture of a train to Christie’s, where it sold with a guarantee for $33.8 million. And in 2015, the same year that Edlis announced his Art Institute of Chicago gift, he sold Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting The Ring (Engagement) at Sotheby’s, where it went for a below-estimate $41.7 million. While the auction house may have been disappointed in the result, Edlis had nothing to be angry about—he had acquired the work at auction in 1997 for just $2.2 million.
Yet those sales allowed the couple to buy new works. Beginning in the 1990s and through the 2010s, the couple bought works like Ron Mueck’s Big Baby 3 (1996–97), a sculpture of a giant diapered infant; Ed Ruscha’s How Do You Do? (2013), a mountain landscape overlaid with text; Richard Prince’s 2001 large-scale double-portrait of a masked nurse; and Damien Hirst’s Black Sheep (ca. 2009), a taxidermy sheep suspended in a formaldehyde-filled tank, which Neeson and Edlis saw at the Venice Biennale and bought for $5 million.
Between these major sales and the collection’s constant turnover, Edlis gained a reputation in the commercial art world as being a trader—a financially savvy collector who treats his holdings like investments. Claiming he used a well-kept spreadsheet to make decisions about parting with works, he fostered the image that he was unattached to the art. But, Christie’s chairman Marc Porter said this was a façade. If he were purely a trader, Porter said, he would likely not have given his most valuable works to public museums.
“Being able to accommodate, intellectually, for Cattelan’s Hitler in his library evinced a truth that is so [far] beyond the public persona,” Porter said. “He characterized it as a very dry, formulaic thing, but in fact, he bought works that were more emotionally demanding than anything [else] he could have bought.”
A Pioneering Vision
Even still, Edlis and Neeson didn’t sell the most coveted works from their collection—they held on to them, later giving the bulk to Chicago’s greatest museums. The MCA’s collection now includes masterpieces of postwar art, thanks to Edlis and Neeson. They gave the museum Jasper Johns’s In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara (1961), a painting riffing on Johns’s famed American flag image that invokes O’Hara’s poem of the same name and may reference the end of Johns’s romantic relationship with Rauschenberg. Another collage-style painting, Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II (1963), given to the MCA features an amalgamation of media images from JFK delivering a speech to an astronaut parachuting.
Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago received one of its collection’s linchpins: Cy Twombly’s Untitled (1969), from the artist’s famed “Bolsena” series of 14 paintings, other examples of which are held by institutions like the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. A Twombly sculpture originally owned by Robert Rauschenberg, as well as one of Rauschenberg’s “Combines” from 1955 that once belonged to Johns also went to the AIC. That Edlis would donate postwar jewels like these, which are coveted by collectors, to a museum was significant.
“They were able to identify that over the course of decades, and as a result they ended up with what we would call masterpieces, works, which by definition, tested the limits,” Grynsztejn said.
Because of the seriousness of their collecting, Porter compared Edlis and Neeson to other era-defining American collectors like the Arensbergs, who were committed to Cubism and Surrealism, and the Havemeyers, who collected Impressionism early on. “In any city, in any generation, there are one or two collectors who start years before anybody else sees what the next wave is,” Porter said, pointing out that Edlis and Neeson were collecting contemporary artists, like Cattelan and Koons, at a time when their colleagues were still stuck on Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and others.
“In any generation, there are one or two collectors who start years before anybody else sees what the next wave is.”
Despite their highly public support of the AIC, Edlis and Neeson also provided support behind the scenes to Chicago institutions. At the MCA, Edlis and Neeson established an acquisition fund there in 2000, giving the museum free rein to acquire works for its collection. But it was not just Chicago museums that benefitted from Edlis and Neeson’s philanthropy. The couple gifted works by Marilyn Minter, Koons, and Rudolf Stingel to the Whitney Museum in New York, where there is also a floor in their name, and also gave to the New Museum, the Met Opera, and the Tate Americas Foundation.
Among the works acquired through the MCA’s fund was Jenny Holzer’s For Chicago, a 2007 installation featuring strips of LED text that run across a gallery’s floor. Filling the whole of a gallery, the work continues to be a major attraction at the MCA—one which, Grynszstein points out, without the collectors’ backing, the museum would have never been able to acquire. According to Grynsztejn, the work is both emblematic of the couple’s taste for contemporary art and desire to influence the city’s cultural scene. “You can begin to understand how they were looking for works [with] a kind of public-facing significance,” she said.