Visitors entering John Axelrod’s spacious town house apartment in Boston’s Back Bay are met by Myrna Loy, an affable Australian terrier, and an eruption of graffiti art by the likes of Dondi, Crash, and Lady Pink invading an environment of pristine walls, neoclassical moldings, and American modern furniture. Axelrod is passionate about graffiti art, but it is not his first collection; it follows a half-dozen others, all comprehensive. He is not simply an obsessive collector—he’s a serial one.
Over a span of four decades he has assembled groundbreaking collections of American prints, European Art Deco objects, American modern decorative arts from 1920 to 1950, Memphis furnishings, African-American painting, and Latin American art. each collection was accompanied by painstaking research, and each was divested as Axelrod moved on to another category with renewed enthusiasm for the thrill of the chase. “Collecting is a disease,” he explains. “I’m just another sufferer.”
He doesn’t look like he’s suffering. A former lawyer and businessman, Axelrod has clearly enjoyed his art pursuits. More important, the outcome of this process has been substantial: All but one of his collections have gone to museums, where they have stimulated additional donations and acquisitions. He has influenced the collecting activities of three major New England art institutions—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and, at his alma maters, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts—and has further supported them by funding lectures, education programs, and publications. Along with each collection Axelrod has donated his extensive library on the subject, and he continues to keep in touch with the recipient institutions. At the MFA, his close neighbor, Axelrod checks on displays, presses for exhibitions or additional purchases, and generally acts as adjunct curatorial gadfly. “When I’m passionate about something, I push, I proselytize,” he admits. By drawing attention to areas of interest for collectors and curators, he has influenced the art market as well.
Brought up in a comfortable home in Andover, Axelrod says his first memorable encounter with painting was at prep school, where a Delacroix of Napoleon on horseback was on view at the Addison. He still owns the first painting he ever bought, a scene of fishing boats in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which hangs over his bathroom sink: “I wasn’t collecting—I just liked it, and I still like it,” he says, though he admits it is probably worth no more than the $60 he paid in 1970. The same cannot be said of later acquisitions. His first piece of American modern design, a 1928 silver-plate coffee service designed by Jean Theobald and purchased in 1978 for $45, is now valued at more than $5,000. A Steuben vase identical to one he bought in the 1980s for a few hundred dollars and donated to the MFA sold at Sotheby’s New York this past December for $28,125.
Axelrod’s collections typically have been in areas either overlooked or insufficiently appreciated. Nonie Gadsden, senior decorative arts curator for American art at the MFA says, “He was always ahead of the pack. He never collected what everyone else wanted.” He is unusual in another way, refusing to put anything in storage, and therefore collecting only as much as his town house can hold. “The collections choke me,” Axelrod explains. That’s when he clears them out and begins anew.
After Andover and Yale, Axelrod attended Harvard Law School, but he practiced for only five years, choosing to join his father, a builder, in developing a series of hotels. The business was sold at a considerable profit in 1985. After investing in and then selling a fashion firm, Axelrod began to “just kind of dabble in art,” which has been his primary occupation ever since. He never studied art, which he considers an advantage: “That’s why I buy what I love instead of what I should love.” Those who know him attest to his good eye and superb instincts, but Axelrod insists that he owes much to others, including dealers who mentored him along the way, such as Mark McDonald and the late Mark Isaacson, founders of the legendary modernism gallery Fifty/50; Rachel Adler, who aided with Latin American Art; Martin and Harriet Diamond, “great old-time dealers” who educated him about collecting generally; Michael Rosenfeld, whose gallery was key to Axelrod’s African-American collection; and Stephen Snyder, whose Gallery Web New York focuses on street art.
Axelrod’s serious collecting began in the 1970s, when he moved into the Back Bay town house and set out to cover the bare walls. In the course of attending auctions he came upon a poster reproducing a print by Martin Lewis. Axelrod began to acquire graphic works by Lewis, Louis Lozowick, and other mid 20th-century American figures, principally depictions of New York, many featuring skyscrapers. Between 1980 and 1984, he donated some 300 prints to the Yale Art Gallery.
Drawn to European Art Deco before it became a hot category, Axelrod amassed a collection that included Schneider glass, Fauré enamels, Demetre Chiparus figures, and Edouard Cazaux and Jean Mayadon ceramics. In 1985 he donated the lot to the MFA Boston. Axelrod tells the story of telephoning then chief curator Anne Poulet while he was traveling abroad to announce that she could have everything she wanted if she could get it all out of the house within three days after he returned home. He describes the ensuing sorting and packing as resembling a slapstick movie. But in the end, several hundred important objects entered the MFA’s holdings.
The Italian postmodern design collective Memphis caught Axelrod’s eye when it debuted in the early 1980s. “I thought it was going to be the next big thing,” he says, calling it “Art Deco meets Dick Tracy.” He acquired 28 pieces of furniture, glass, and silver by Ettore Sottsass, Michele de Lucchi, and others, all of which went to the MFA in 1999.
Arguably Axelrod’s most important and influential collection was in the category he calls “American modern,” which encompasses handmade and industrially produced decorative arts as well as painting and sculpture from the 1920s to 1950. This was of limited interest to buyers in the 1980s, with the notable exception of the New York–based collector John Waddell. “We were both doing it early,” Waddell recalls, “but in terms of important pieces, John [Axelrod] was there first.” Often competing for the same objects, the two collectors became known to dealers and auction houses as the most selective and persistent seekers of the rarest and best in the field.
But in April 2008, true to form, Axelrod told MFA curators to come and take it all—some 377 pieces from the 1920s and ’30s, including masterworks like a Paul Frankl bookcase/desk, circa 1928; a 1930 Viktor Schreckengost glazed porcelain punch bowl from the “Jazz” series; and a painted screen with aluminum leaf, by Donald Deskey, circa 1930. “I finally had space to move around,” Axelrod says.
Waddell, who has made major donations from his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, with Axelrod’s encouragement, to the Yale Art Gallery, says of his friend and rival, “John has all the requisites of a collector who really leaves his mark: He has an acute eye, he’s motivated, he’s competitive. He loves the chase, and when he gets a bee in his bonnet, there’s no stopping him.”
The MFA has done well by the Axelrod collection of decorative arts, which is on rotating display in a gallery named in his honor in the two-year-old Art of the Americas wing, designed by Norman Foster. (Although his bequest included a stipulation that there be a room to display the objects, Axelrod did not expect the room to be named for him.) The gallery includes objects from other donors, but the Axelrod collection is its heart.
Axelrod’s transitions from one collecting category to another weren’t strictly sequential; categories sometimes overlapped. Chancing upon Rosenfeld’s first show of paintings by African-American artists, in 1993, Axelrod bought several pieces. Over the next 15 years, his acquisitions encompassed paintings and sculpture—most of them from his preferred 1920–50 period—by artists like Eldzier Cortor, Beauford Delaney, Archibald Motley, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, as well as works by Brazilian artists of African descent. A total of 67 pieces went to the MFA in 2011 as a mixed gift-purchase. “I wanted to be sure they were committed to the category,” Axelrod explains. He also donated $100,000 for a future publication on the museum’s African-American art holdings in general, with the proviso that it be printed by 2014.
The Latin American collection, which Axelrod describes as “huge,” began on a 1992 trip to Argentina, when he entered the Buenos Aires gallery of an old friend. As he recalls it, “I fell in love with the paintings—so I just bought them.” Several return visits followed, with side trips to Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, during which he acquired works by Joaquín Torres-García, Emilio Pettoruti, Xul Solar, and the members of the Surrealist Grupo Orión. With the MFA unprepared to launch a department in that area, Axelrod sold the collection to a group of investors, then gave the museum funds for lectures and loan exhibitions to help stimulate interest in the category. Noting that Boston has one of the country’s largest Brazilian populations, Axelrod thinks the MFA would be the ideal location for a center of Brazilian art.
The collection that now fills Axelrod’s apartment focuses on graffiti and art of New York’s Lower East Side from the 1970s and ’80s,including work by the first generation to face the AIDS crisis and artists of Puerto Rican descent. Axelrod became interested in the category in 2001, when he read an article about Martin Wong, a New York painter who died in 1999 of AIDS-related causes. Axelrod began to seek out work by Wong and his contemporaries, finding most of his acquisitions through Snyder. His first purchase for this collection—Wong’s Stevy, 1990, acquired in 2009— hangs prominently in the den, along with paintings by David Wojnarowicz, Richard Hambleton, George Condo, and Kenny Scharf. A drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat (“I couldn’t afford an oil”) hangs in the entrance hall along with the pieces by Dondi White, Crash, and Lady Pink. In the living room Wong, Chris “Daze” Ellis, and Futura 2000 share the stage with American modern sculpture and furniture. With few exceptions, the graffiti work is from before 1984, the year Sidney Janis brought graffiti art to Art Basel and the movement entered the commercial mainstream.
Axelrod insists this collection is his last. “I’m done! The collection is complete,” he asserts, having just acquired a long-sought Peter Hujar photograph of the performer Divine. What will happen with it? “I love this stuff. It isn’t going anywhere,” says Axelrod. Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale Art Gallery, begs to differ. “That’s what these guys always say...but don’t underestimate his generosity.”
Axelrod is certain he’s had an influence on the museums he has supported, a claim bulwarked by others. Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the art of the Americas department at the MFA, says, “John’s contribution has had a huge impact over a 10-year period. His support has been central to our success in building a major collection of African-American art.”
MFA director Malcolm Rogers says, “We don’t get a penny from the government. We’re really made by guys like John.”
In turn, Axelrod admits to enjoying the endorsement of museums. “It’s the bottom line,” he says. “Nothing validates what you’ve done like having a museum take it.” Summing up his accomplishments, Axelrod adds, “I think I’ve helped the museums move into areas they might not have gone into, or not with the same depth. That’s my legacy. You made a change: That’s what I’d like as my epitaph.”
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of Art+Auction.