Buhl Exhibit is More Than a Handful
By Michelle Trauring
On a recent Wednesday morning, Henry Buhl could be found relaxing in his favorite room at home in SoHo — where he brought the outdoors in.
Bathed in sunlight, Mr. Buhl listened to the running water, glanced at the trees and carpet of grass, and noted the path stretching from one side to the other.
This is his sculpture room, the 86-year-old collector mused, exhausted from a gala the night before. It is an escape from the cacophony below, dotted with his most prized possessions.
They range in size and shape, but each has a common denominator.
“It’s all about hands,” he said, explaining that a number of them are now on view in the exhibit “Hand-Picked: Selections from the Buhl Collection” at the Southampton Arts Center. “There are some beautiful pieces that are embedded in the wall, so those couldn’t make it out there. You can’t just take them out of the wall. I took 15 or 20 pieces from this room, but it’s still quite interesting here.”
One of the largest, and heaviest, pieces is a metal chess set by Lorenzo Quinn, who played as a child against his father, actor Anthony Quinn. He shaped each of the pieces into different hands, and memorialized his father’s handprints by embedding them into the top of the board, Buhl said.
“He got agitated at his son when he started to win as he got older,” he said. “At the Venice Biennial, Lorenzo Quinn installed two very big hands coming out of the water against these old buildings, and this piece is by the same guy. So, obviously, I bought it some time ago and now, if you’re at the Venice Biennial, you’re getting pretty famous.”
Buhl’s second Lorenzo Quinn acquisition—“Giving and Taking,” with one hand extended and the other clenched—is on view in Southampton, a show that marks the first time the number of sculptures on view has trumped photographs.
The collection’s touring history starts at the Whitney. Curators spent eight months combing through more than 1,100 photographs, eventually bringing together a selection of images that represented the evolution of photography, from circa-1839 Britain to present-day America.
Then, the museum changed hands. And the vision for the exhibition changed.
“The new guy said, ‘We can only show your American photographs because the Whitney specializes in American artists.’ I said, ‘Why would we only show American photographers? There were many that came out with new printing techniques who aren’t American,’” he recalled. “He said no. Then I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ So I turned them down and I thought the world was coming to an end.”
Two weeks later, he received a call from Thomas Krens, the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“I hear you had some trouble at the Whitney,” Buhl recalled him saying. “I’d like to send two curators to see what you have.”
They came, and stayed for two weeks, the collector said. And when they returned to the museum, Krens offered him a show.
“I was very lucky,” Buhl said. “The Guggenheim had 1.2 million paid people coming into their museum, and the Whitney had 350,000. And the Guggenheim has a much bigger international presence.”
From June to September 2004, the exhibition “Speaking With Hands” remained in New York before leaving for an international tour from 2005 to 2007 at locations such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, the Folkwang Museum in Germany, and finally to Russia, where it graced the State Russian Museum and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art — before heading to Asia for shows in Korea, Taiwan and Macao from 2009 to 2011.
As it exists today, the collection is a fraction of what it once was, following a Sotheby’s auction of 450 photos in 2012—the proceeds of which benefited his not-for-profit organization, Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), which provides job training and placement for the homeless population.
But a sizeable collection of 110 sculptures and 500 photographs still remain. In Southampton, where Buhl has lives part time, his home is a locally famous shrine to sunflowers. In SoHo, it will likely always be hands, he said.
“They’re wonderful things,” he said. “They portray a lot. You can tell a lot about a person by their hands. And I just love the challenge of getting so many different hands.”
“Hand-Picked: Selections from the Buhl Collection,” curated by Henry Buhl and Ryan Russo, will remain on view through July 23 at the Southampton Arts Center. Gallery hours are Thursday to Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit southamptonartscenter.org.