Collecting: Lester Marks

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Lester Marks with “Dryer Lint Cowgirl”
2002
Carrie Markello
Photo: Brent Bruni Comiskey
Courtesy: Lester Marks

“Art is my life,” says Lester Marks, one of Houston’s most sociable, hospitable, well-known art collectors. Courted by artists and arts organizations alike due to his consistent support and self-proclaimed desire for “sharing the mystery and joy of art with others.” Marks explains that one of his favorite things to do is host events, estimating that in the past 20 years he has welcomed over 40,000 people into his art-filled home.

At the time of our meeting, he is making the necessary arrangements to host yet another art party, this time for Posse Comitatus, a project by Chelsea Knight and Mark Tribe, presented by four leading Houston arts organizations-Aurora Picture Show, DiverseWorks, the Menil Collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston CORE Program.

Marks enthusiasm is contagious as he talks about Knight, Tribe, and the other artists who have caught and held his attention over the years. We sit surrounded by numerous works from a wide range of artists, filling nearly every inch of the walls and floor space. A daguerreotype portrait of Kara Walker by Chuck Close is on the right, a Richard Tuttle sculpture to the left, and even a subterranean room that houses an installation of work by Tony Oursler-a space which doubles as a play room for both children and adults. A hit at parties, as one might imagine.

Recently, Marks purchased a work by Mel Chin, titled Arthur (2014), a portrait of infamous killer mobster Arthur Flegenheimer, AKA “Dutch Schultz.” The piece is made of a concrete bust that conceals the barrels of two .38 Caliber Colt “Specials,” the ends of which form the “empty deadly eyes while the grips of the guns emerge from the back of the head.” According to the website of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, the piece is a commentary on how guns are embedded deep and dense in the head of our culture.

Arthur will most likely join Marks’ concentrated display of other “guns in the hands of artists,” along with Bubble Gun M-16 by Robert Pruitt, a blue-and-white porcelain gun by the controversial Seattle artist Charles Krafft, and one of Manabu Hasegawa’s all-too-real-looking gun made of paper, pencil and colored pencil, velvet, and wood panel from his Dust Before the Wind series.

Marks makes a point to say that Arthur may very well be the last artwork he will ever buy. By all accounts, his statement is (likely) not true. He has been proclaiming that his collecting days are over for the past 200 or so purchases. Admittedly, he just can’t help himself. “I’ve been saying ‘that’s the last piece’ for quite some time. It has become a joke around here because I just can’t stop.” He doesn’t attempt to count all the works he owns, but he keeps a growing inventory of approximately 2,000 physical files and 5,000 digital files, plus meticulous notes on each piece.

What sets Marks’ collection apart from others in Houston, and beyond? Take, for example, the fact that he refuses the term “collector,” explaining that it is too constricting a term to properly define his relationship with art and artists. His collecting philosophy is simple and shuns any strict rules save for one: he buys what he likes, what speaks to him. Indicative of this, among his first acquisitions-a cowgirl wardrobe made entirely of dryer lint by Carrie Markello-which he purchased for around $1,000.

Additionally, he loves a sophisticated art group but equally loves “those for whom art is not a regular part of their lives. Their responses and interest in the art is completely spontaneous,” Marks explains. “Actually, my favorite holiday is Halloween because the kids ask about the art before they ever say ‘trick-or-treat’ or take the candy. They marvel at the art.”

Even as a drag racing, bench press record holder who has shared chocolates and cognac with a 92-year-old Louise Bourgeois, Marks doesn’t embrace, or fully appreciate, the term “eclectic” for describing his collection. “I consider myself to be a curator,” he says. “The artworks I own aren’t trophies on the wall; each piece is in dialogue with the piece next to it. Art lives by companionship.” Curating his 7,000 square foot home is no easy task. He creates labels and texts for numerous pieces, often rearranging the installation, whether because he has purchased something new, works have gone out on loan or have returned, or because he simply wants a different view or a new conversation.

With his collection of artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Cave, Sam Francis, Jeff Koons, Anselm Kiefer, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Dario Robleto, Kiki Smith, Andy Warhol, just to name a few, one might imagine that Marks often gets requests for loans to museums and other art institutions, as well as invitations to speak at various collectors conferences and art fairs. And though his relationships with other collectors and enthusiasts doesn’t stop there, it seems he may not have realized the reputation that he and his collection were generating.

For example, one afternoon Marks walked downstairs and saw two middle-aged women-strangers-walking through his house, thoroughly enjoying seeing each of the numerous artworks on display in such a beautiful, personal setting. Unbeknownst to Marks, a docent at a nearby arts organization had so strongly suggested that the out-of-towners see his collection that they headed right over, never questioning whether or not the collection was open to the public.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Marks and his collection is when he speaks of personal experiences with each artwork. One which he is very excited about is one of Joseph Cornell’s “romantic museums” from 1946, the purchase of which he had been negotiating for quite some time. The piece still bears the gallery label, which marked Cornell’s solo exhibition “Romantic Museum at the Hugo Gallery: Portraits of Women by Joseph Cornell.” In Cornell’s signature Fluxus style, the box contains various elements that can be rearranged, depending on the viewer’s desire. Marks has the composition as he likes it, with the hand of the ballerina positioned just so. To protect this delicate composition, he has encased the box in a vitrine.

Marks confessed that often, late at night when he can’t sleep, or just needs to take a break, he spends time with Lozenge 5, a work by Philip K. Smith that hangs on a wall in his upstairs study. He will sit on the floor, just under the widows of the curved room and out of sight from passers-by or nosey neighbors. The stacked lozenge shape, gently bulging from the wall, softly shifts along a spectrum of glowing sorbet colors. Understandably, Marks explains that it soothes him.

As we stood together and watched Lozenge 5, I realized that for an avid collector/curator like Lester Marks who advocates for the importance of art in our lives, contributes financially to arts organizations, supports artists and gallerists, and opens up his home for the purpose of sharing art with other people-art truly is his passion. And the mystery and joy of these moments are his true reward.

Untitled (SF88-399)
1988
Sam Francis
Acrylic and wood stick on paper
72″ x 36 3⁄4″
Photo: courtesy Lester Marks and Jonathan Novak Galler
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