Interview with Wynn Kramarsky

by Elizabeth Finch

Wynn Kramarsky collects minimal and abstract drawings by American artists, works he first encountered in the early 1960s in New York. By the early 1980s, his collection held numerous drawings by individuals he refers to as “namies”—artists with established reputations and careers—among them Jasper Johns, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Richard Serra. Gradually he expanded the focus of his collecting to include works by promising younger artists, or “newbies,” many of whom have since developed successful art careers. The coexistence of works by recognized and emerging artists remains a defining characteristic of the collection.

I met Wynn in 1992, soon after taking a job at The Drawing Center, the non-profit art space in New York where he was then chairman of the board of directors. In the year prior, he had established an office and gallery space for his collection at 560 Broadway in New York’s SoHo district. Known officially as the Fifth Floor Foundation, it is often referred to simply as “560.” For fifteen years, this space functioned as a headquarters for artists who draw and for drawing enthusiasts. On view in its gallery were rotating selections from the collection as well as periodic solo shows and thematic exhibitions. These in-house projects were in addition to the collection’s museum exhibitions, which have taken place at institutions throughout the United States and abroad. Wynn and his staff have also identified regional and university museums prepared to accept donations of groups of drawings. When the space at 560 Broadway closed in 2006, the collection moved uptown to smaller, private quarters where its work continues.

To date, approximately 2,000 works from the collection have been given to such institutions as the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, the Harvard Art Museums, the Yale University Art Gallery, the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, the Seattle Art Museum, the Menil Collection in Houston, and the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon. The current number of active artworks in the collection stands at about 1,200. A website has been created to track the activities of artists associated with the collection and to compile essays and other writings on their work.

The conversation that follows took place on July 16 and September 13, 2010, at Wynn Kramarsky’s office. I asked Wynn about the recent history of drawing, past and current projects associated with his collection, and his approach to looking at art. Christine Snow, an intern at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, transcribed the discussion.

EF: Let’s begin at the beginning. You have spoken about visiting museums as a child and finding that you preferred the drawings galleries. Why was that so?

WHK: In the painting galleries there was always somebody explaining everything, and I was impatient with that then and still am today. Quite by accident I found a drawings gallery that was empty. Not even a guard was around, so I could go up really close and look at something and begin to understand how it was made. I was probably eleven or twelve, and that experience interested me far more than being told what a painting of a peeled lemon means.

EF: Right! Do you feel that drawings taught you to look closely?

WHK: That’s a very difficult question for me to answer, but no, I don’t think so, because I must have wanted to look closely in order to find out how things were made. My interest was really more mechanical than aesthetic. I remember asking myself, “How does it happen?” And today that is still the thing that challenges me more than anything else when I look at a drawing by an artist whose work I haven’t seen before. I often say to myself, when and how did she first put pencil or pen or brush to paper, and what was that moment like? I want to know about having the courage to do that.

When you talk to an artist you often get onto the subject of, “What is the satisfaction you get out of the making of something?” It doesn’t always take the form of a question, but you get to a point where the artist says, “Well, I really can’t let a day go by without putting something on paper.” Or, “I can’t really organize my life unless I’m doing it in terms of work on paper.” So there is a compulsion there, but it falls short of the need to communicate, because a lot is not communicated. There are many works that artists don’t necessarily think about as ever leaving the studio, and yet they make them.

EF: Figuring a work out for yourself seems to extend to what you collect and how you share your collection. Sol LeWitt and his work have been really important to your thinking.

WHK: A major, major influence.