A prominent dermatologist and virologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, Alvin Friedman-Kien is a rare breed of art collector, whose interests run both broad and deep, encompassing a vast range of artifacts, from flea-market finds to museum-worthy objects. Matthew Drutt speaks with Friedman-Kien about his passion for the treasures, ancient and modern, that fill his homes.
How did you get your start?
I began collecting marbles when I was 6 years old; by 8, I had moved on to stamps, and at 11 I bought my first Oriental carpet, at a Salvation Army store for $5. At that time rugs were kind of out of fashion, but I acquired lots of used books about them. I spent my early teenage years studying rugs and occasionally buying them at estate sales and thrift shops. I still own that first carpet, which remains one of my favorite objects.
How would you describe your range of interests?
I have always been an eclectic collector. I find ancient and contemporary works from disparate civilizations seem to fit together in a harmonious way. I continue to acquire pieces from pre-Columbian textiles and Southeast Asian sculptures to photographs by André Kertész, Tina Modotti, Man Ray, and Herb Ritts to Dutch and Flemish genre and landscape painting, and early modern canvases and sculpture, as well as contemporary art.
How do you find things?
Often in unexpected places. In high school, one of my classmates was Nina Castelli, the daughter of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. As a teenager I visited their apartment just above the Leo Castelli Gallery, where I saw the most fantastic contemporary art for the first time. Some years later I bought a painting by Lee Bontecou at her first Castelli show. While doing medical research in London in 1958, by chance I met Morris Graves, the distinguished American artist from the Pacific Northwest who was living in Ireland. I had long had a reproduction of his painting Bird Singing in the Moonlight from MoMA on the wall in my room at the medical school. He encouraged me to become familiar with the various arts of Asia, especially Japanese and Chinese painting, sculpture, and ceramics. I bought my first piece of Ming furniture from Gisèle Croës in Brussels 40 years ago, and shortly after purchased a charming set of terra-cotta dancing tomb figures that are very rare. They represent the very essence of Tang sculptures.
What are the works you are most proud of?
One of my favorites is a female portrait by John Graham, who had been married to Ileana Sonnabend’s mother and lived in the basement of the building where the Castelli gallery was located. A classics professor had left the painting to Columbia University, which didn’t want it. There are also several paintings and drawings by Graves among the pieces that I still treasure most.
What have you bought most recently?
I have just acquired a pair of exceptional stone Indian jalis that I first saw many years ago at Spink, in London, where I used to buy South and Southeast Asian art. The pieces had been split up and sold to two collectors, but Simon Ray, who used to work there and now has his own gallery, recently brought them back together. When he sent me a catalogue, I called him right away. They should never have been split up and now I can keep them together.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of Art+Auction.