Richard Polsky took a little time a few years ago to speak to Leon Kraushar’s son an effort to learn more about a visionary collector who sent Leo Castelli running from the room:
In order to get a first-hand fix on what Kraushar was really like, I managed to track down his youngest son, Fred, by phone. He told me that his father was a private man, uninterested in social climbing like the pretentious Sculls. He loved meeting the artists, but had no interest in joining museum boards or throwing parties to show off his collection. Fred fondly recalled the one and only time that Warhol came to his house for a visit. He remembered that Warhol was quiet and child-like in demeanor, a man of few words — and very unhealthy looking. Warhol visited that day to discuss the swap of his dad’s spare Volkswagen for a blue multi-image painting of the artist Robert Rauschenberg. The deal was consummated, though Fred wasn’t sure if Warhol kept the car or gave it to one of his studio assistants.
I asked Fred, “What was the first piece of Pop art that your dad purchased?”
“That’s easy. It was a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a woman’s hand holding a yellow sponge. When he showed it to my mom, she was unimpressed. As she put it, ‘If he wanted to see a hand with a sponge, he could always watch me.’ But eventually my mom came around and began to encourage him. Her approval was very important.”
Fred continued, “My dad was a bit of a pied piper. As his collection grew, my older brother began to pay attention. My dad preached to Howard and his buddies to start collections of their own. He even lent my brother’s friends money to buy art. I remember that one loan was used to finance a Warhol Electric Chair.”
Besides seminal Tom Wesselmanns, James Rosenquists and Roy Lichtensteins, Kraushar had purchased numerous works by Claes Oldenburg, including an oversized plaster baked potato. There was also an extraordinary eight-foot tall crushed auto metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. But when the movers arrived with a life-size three-dimensional George Segal of a four-member rock combo (complete with a drum kit), Fred knew his days of being able to toss a football around the living room were over. In fact, Fred talked about how a week never seemed to go buy without a moving van pulling up in front of his family’s home, ready to disgorge the latest piece of cutting edge art. Apparently, this weekly spectacle made an impression on the neighbors. They never knew if the Kraushars were coming or going.
As for Leon Kraushar’s three, 40-inch-square Warhol celebrity portraits of Liz, Jackie and Marilyn, Fred said they were bought around 1963 and came from New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. As anyone familiar with the art world knows, Castelli was the visionary dealer who paved the way for the Pop explosion. According to the gallery’s director at the time, Ivan C. Karp, Kraushar paid an average price of $1,800 for each portrait — not an outrageous sum, but real money back in the early ’60s.