It seems like the end of an era: Chicago's own art-collector and bon vivant Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman died last week at age 94.
Newman was a vanishing breed on several fronts: a woman who met and partied with the Abstract Expressionists in New York City when they were still youngsters emerging from basement studios in the 1950's. She bought paintings by all of them, hot off the easel: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell - the list goes on and on, reading like the Table of Contents from my college textbook on 20th-Century Art. Forget art advisers, forget personal curators whispering in her ear, as is the case with today's art buyers - Newman's art-school training, keen interest, and sophisticated eye led the way to purchases. I could bore you with stories of what she and her husband paid for such masterpieces at the time (generally, nothing above four digits), what they're worth now (astoundingly, about eight digits apiece), and why a heap of them were donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (sigh) while others came to the Art Institute here.
But I have other fish to fry.
I never actually knew Muriel Newman more than as an acquaintance, but to meet her was to remember her. In fact she was indelible, her signature style comprised of immense, round eye-glasses, complicated black clothes, and fist-sized chunks of intriguing jewelry heaped on a petite body. She was a sculpture unto herself, seeming to reflect the complex nature of the artworks she prized. Her "look" was unwavering for the decades I observed her, and she seemed indefatigable even as an octogenarian approaching her ninth decade.
And here's why I remember her fondly. When I moved to this city in 1984 as a twenty-something gallerina, Newman was An Important Presence at every gallery opening, museum event, art lecture and, I'm certain, a billion other social activities I could never even dream of attending in those days. At the time, I was just an inconsequential young woman trying to chart my own confounding course in the roiling pre-1990's Chicago art-world. Not everyone was helpful, some were downright appalling. But I'll always recall Muriel Newman as being kind to me.
Insipid and cloying and puny as that sounds, it's true. Here was a woman who, for all her wealth and position and collections and history, actually took the time to chat with me, always with a big, mischievous smile and a seemingly sincere interest in whatever I was up to. At the time, it made me feel welcome, and at the time, that was important. I'll never forget it.
Newman was part of a generation of Chicago art collectors whose ranks have sadly and predictably thinned, but it was their cosmopolitan tastes, vast appetites, and deep pockets that put this city on an international art map. Whether or not anyone can ever step up to replace these citizens is anyone's guess - the art world of today bears little resemblance to that of fifty years ago, and those are some tough designer shoes to fill. Here's hoping someone tries, and in the meanwhile: farewell Muriel. You will be missed.
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