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A Visual Conversation

A couple's prized collection of edgy paintings and bold sculpture provokes limitless dialogue

A Visual Conversation

Interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale made use of angled walls, recesses and dropped ceilings to display her clients’ powerful collection. A bold black, brown and blue work called Lullaby by Sean Scully dominates the largest wall of the living room.

At the home of Florence and Marvin Gerstin, art dominates the visual conversation.
From the entryway of their Chevy Chase apartment to the master bedroom, the longtime collectors have furnished their home with a short course in prized contemporary paintings, sculpture, photography and ceramics.

Pop Art stars in the kitchen, with Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 Girl in Mirror, one in a series of six made in enamel on steel. It was the 1960s explosion of comic book art that first seduced the couple into collecting. But the Gerstins didn’t stop at Lichtenstein. An installation of Turner Prize-winner Tony Cragg’s green plastic junk—assorted broken plates and bottles—is velcroed onto another kitchen wall. Counters and stovetop play host to surreal ceramics, including a silvery saucepot filled with burned peas. “I just like fun things,” Florence Gerstin explains, leading a tour on a sunny fall morning.

Her husband, Marvin, a retired advertising executive, was on his way to the office when a visitor arrived. He paused long enough to show off his two stunning photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which lurk in a concrete-walled powder room. The point is not to shock, he says. The photographs are there “because they look good.”

The Gerstin apartment looks good, too. The couple moved into the three-bedroom unit shortly after the building was finished in 1988. Their interior designer, Mary Douglas Drysdale, created a timeless envelope of pale wood and stone floors, soft white walls with custom built-ins and plenty of architectural lighting to enhance small-scale ceramics and the large-scale figurative bronze sculpture by Joel Shapiro, which seems to point the way to the study.

Marvin Gerstin points out that “the positions for the major pieces were determined before the apartment was completed…Mary Drysdale designed around the collection.” That meant creating walls big enough for the larger works, cutting doorways where none existed and building an eight-inch alcove to keep a wall-size painting “from protruding into a traffic lane.”

Furnishings have changed little over the years. The dining table was custom-designed for the space, which includes a minimalist striped sculpture by Anne Truitt. A set of 1960s-era Warren Platner wire stools and table from Knoll in the living room and a Hans Wegner chair in the guest room reflect the couple’s continuing taste for modernism and determination not to upstage the art.  “We changed furniture every five years, antiques, English,” Florence Gerstin recalls of their previous life in a Bethesda house. “When we got to modern, we found it was the easiest to live with.”

The couple’s home acquires meaning not from the white-on-white décor, but from the often edgy paintings and bold sculpture, which provoke endless conversation. Marvin Gerstin points out that the careful placement of the art keeps the paintings from fighting one another. “They talk to each other just as artists do,” he says.

A bold black, brown and blue work by Sean Scully dominates the largest wall of the living room. It’s called Lullaby, and Florence Gerstin explains how the artist added a panel of pink bars as a memorial to his child, who died. A black-and-white abstract by Richard Artschwager is not an electric socket, she explains, but a landscape of clouds over sand and the ocean. The orange and yellow Robert Mangold from 1984, which glows on an angled wall overlooking the sitting area, is from the “Four Color Frame Painting” series. It creates an illusionistic window on the world of art, a witty retort in a room bounded by a wall of windows onto the real world.

“We waited a long time. We wanted one of this series,” says Florence Gerstin.
She credits her husband for the motivation to collect. He had dreamed of being an artist as a young man. After they married at the age of 19, he worried that he would never be a Picasso, she says, and so he turned to more lucrative pursuits. Over six decades, while raising children, he was successful enough to fill the family’s world with the Picassos of their own era.

At the height of their collecting years, the couple would travel to New York twice a month to discover emerging artists. They would monitor a candidate for a year or more before acquiring an early work. They paid a mere $1,200 for the Lichtenstein in the kitchen.
“My husband has a wonderful eye,” Florence Gerstin says. “We never bought paintings to match the sofa.”

Photographs taken after the couple settled in, but not published, show how the collection of art has evolved, with prominent pieces coming and going as the collectors refined their tastes, ran out of wall space or yielded to the entreaties of local institutions. An Alfred Jensen work on the mystery of numbers, left to the Gerstins in the Danish painter’s estate after their visit to his studio in New Jersey, has always hung in the dining room. A Warhol and two other Lichtensteins are gone, along with Jane Kaufman’s shimmering orange 6pm and Mary Hillman’s crimson Ties in My Closet. Both women’s early 1970s paintings have been given to American University.

“Focus was something that had to come into play,” says Drysdale, “trying to balance these enormous palettes of intensity. It [the interior plan] really needed to be a container for this great collection. It needed not to compete. I hope that we achieved that.”

Today, a construction by William Christenberry sits quietly on a pedestal in the hall. A Josef Stalin portrait watches over the bathtub. A Doberman sculpture stands guard on the balcony. No wall is left unadorned.

The master bedroom has long been the setting for the couple’s boldest choices. A marble chair by sculptor Scott Burton was almost too heavy to be supported by the floor, but it has withstood a generation of Gerstin grandchildren leaping from the top level to the bed. Windows wrap the bedroom, leaving just enough wall space for a 1985 diptych of deer by David True, called Forward, Upward, Round, which hung there until it was gifted to the Hirshhorn in the 1990s.

The Gerstins filled that wall with an early Elizabeth Murray, an artist who brought cartoon forms back to abstract art. Her massive construction of four panels, with slashes of red, swirls of blue and bursts of yellow, brings the collection full circle. (It was borrowed for a 2005 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.) A second Murray, called Stay Awake, hangs like a sculpture on an adjacent wall. The monumental three-dimensional work started out as a coffee cup, but became a “gland in the body,” Florence Gerstin says. She does not find the size or the subject matter intimidating to sleep with.

“When I wake up in the morning, I see Murray,” she explains. “I love it.”  The couple’s latest acquisition was Philip Guston’s Poised, a large and disturbing still-life from 1978, in which the Canadian-American artist’s symbols—trash cans, cans of paint, dangling cigarettes, shoes—come together in one canvas.  “He was highly critical of society and the world around him,” Marvin Gerstin observes, adding that in this case, the artist was “poised” to do something.

Collecting requires courage. Marvin Gerstin served on the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989, when the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibition caused a ruckus at the institution. Gerstin argued in favor of going on with the show, but more timidminds prevailed. If Gerstin’s private Mapplethorpe show treads the line between art and pornography, for those who need to take sides, the owner says simply, “I think they’re beautiful.”

The designer kept paths of circulation open around the furnishings to leave as much wall space as possible for display. Careful thought went into the placement of every piece. “In a well-curated space, you don’t see the art work all at once,” says Drysdale. “You turn a corner and see something new.” A black-and-white abstract by Richard Artschwager depicts a landscape of clouds over sand and the ocean. The orange and yellow Robert Mangold from 1984, which glows on an angled wall overlooking the sitting area, is from the “Four Color Frame Painting” series. It creates an illusionistic window on the world of art.

The Gerstin children don’t share their parents’ passion for collecting, though they have favorite works, their mother says. Auctioneers phone regularly, and museums have let the couple know of their interest in particular works, especially the earliest work by Murray.

“We’re not ready to give it up,” says Florence Gerstin.  There are days when the collecting urge strikes Marvin Gerstin anew, and he expresses the desire to get rid of everything and start over, but his partner says firmly, “I discourage him.”  They are both clearly content with the company they keep. “I think your home, everything in it, becomes your friend,” she says. “The bed. The chairs.” And above all, the art.

Linda Hales, an editor at The Washington Post, writes frequently on design. Photographer Maxwell MacKenzie is based in Washington, DC.

A geometric painting by Harvey Quaytman hangs near the entry to the dining room.

In the dining room is an Alfred Jensen work exploring the mystery of numbers, left to the Gerstins in the Danish painter’s estate after their visit to his studio in New Jersey. A minimalist striped sculpture by Anne Truitt and sculptures by Tom Otterness are visible from inside the dining room.

The diptych by David True that once hung in their master bedroom was donated by the Gerstins to the Hirshhorn Museum.

The room still houses a ceramic piece by Jeff Perrone on the bedside table, a massive marble chair by sculptor Scott Burton and a brown wooden sculpture by John Buck.

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