An Art World Figure: Howard Tullman
By KEVIN NANCE
Judith Tullman has a special name for the Art Loft, the office/clubhouse/gallery space of her husband, the entrepreneur, venture capitalist and prolific art collector Howard Tullman. She calls it “The Breast Home.”
No wonder. Perhaps one-third of the roughly 1,200 pieces on display in the 6,000-square-foot loft are paintings and drawings of nudes. The vast majority of them are female, and most are naturalistic in style, including several photorealistic pieces lifelike enough to appear in Playboy.
Overall, Tullman’s collection is merrily eclectic, if almost exclusively figurative, and includes sculpture, paintings and works on paper. Most of the pieces are by young and/or emerging artists from Chicago and around the world (especially Germany and Mexico) who exude a youthful, often alternative or outsider sensibility. Several are witty, impish riffs on pop-culture figures, including David Hevel’s sculptures of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson made of taxidermied animals, and Lizabeth Eva Rossof’s faux-Chinese warriors referencing Batman and Bart Simpson. One large painting, I’ll Have What She’s Having by John Jacobsmeyer, is a Renaissance-fair parody of the famous scene from Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally…,” with Linda Lovelace, Harry Reems and other 1970s pornography stars acting out the parts. (The exception is the director’s mother, Estelle, who appears in the painting in her original role as the speaker of the title phrase.)
But there’s also an elephant in the room, and she is bodacious indeed. Visitors to the Art Loft are routinely dazzled by the display of pulchritude—which is housed at the loft, rather than at Tullman’s home, out of deference to the wishes of his wife and co-collector, Judith, whose artistic tastes lie elsewhere.
Would it be accurate to classify Tullman, 70, as an admirer of the female form?
“Yeah, I’d say that,” he concedes with a you-got-me smile during a recent visit. “But I also have to say, what I really admire is the execution of a lot of these artists; it is quite extraordinary.”
Tullman isn’t kidding. Gazing at a realistic painting by New York artist Jenny Morgan of a young nude woman standing in a swimming pool, he says the most interesting part of the work for him is the highly accomplished way Morgan has rendered the water in the pool. “Now, I realize that that’s like saying you read Playboy for the articles, but it’s true,” he says. In front of a different painting—this of a young woman kneeling in a bathtub, presenting her glistening derriere to the viewer—Tullman focuses on the bathtub rather than its occupant. “That’s someone’s rear end, I get that,” he says. “[But] the most complicated thing for the artist is to represent water and motion.”
To some extent, Tullman’s focus on the figure is an outgrowth of his desire to narrow the choices he’s forced to make as a busy executive who also happens to be an art collector. “I think it’s almost impossible to keep on top of what’s going on in the art world across all its different dimensions,” he says. “One of the ways I’ve addressed the glut—just the sheer volume—has been to say to the galleries I work with, ‘Please don’t send me an abstract piece or a landscape.’ My philosophy has been that I want to see the world’s best examples of realist, figurative representations. That’s how I’ve made my life more manageable as a collector, and that’s how I explain the concentration. Certainly I don’t acquire things to aggravate my wife or make her life more difficult.”
At the same time, Tullman—a restless business innovator whose latest enterprise is a technology startup incubator called 1871, whose offices at the Merchandise Mart now house parts of his art collection—seems to enjoy his reputation as a sort of art-world Hugh Hefner. He tells with evident pleasure an anecdote of the president of a company who was photographed at the loft, but the next day, a member of his staff called and said, “Can we come back? We need to take different pictures.” All of the artwork shown in the background, it turned out, featured nude female figures, perky as can be.
Tullman’s interest in the figure dates back to his early years as a collector when, as a young corporate lawyer, he and his wife came to know several of the Chicago Imagists, the Pop-and-Surrealist-influenced group that included Ed Paschke, Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and others. The Tullmans amassed a significant collection of Imagist painting, almost all of it figurative, before donating most of it to the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art about two decades ago.
Tullman then found himself attracted primarily to photorealism—again with the figure front and center—before drifting away from that genre, which he came to regard as too technical, in favor of somewhat less naturalistically drawn or painted works with greater subjectivity, drama and storytelling. “Over the years, photorealism became a little boring,” he says. “These things were pristine but had no story, no particular emotion. After a while, they didn’t seem as alive as some of the pieces which are a little looser in technique but have more personality and more narrative.”
During the past decade or so, Tullman has increasingly bought sculpture—much of which, in high contrast to the naturalism of the two-dimensional work in the collection, is decidedly non-realistic. Examples include works by two Chicago artists: Joe Seigenthaler’s Fly Dog, a striking male figure with a canine face hovering mournfully at the top of a ladder near Tullman’s desk, and another large piece, by Christophe Roberts, resembling a neon orange lion made from Nike shoeboxes carved up with an X-Acto knife.
In these choices, as in so many others, Tullman sometimes differs from his wife. At one art fair, a quirky sculpture of a policeman prompted Judith Tullman to ask, “Who in the world would buy that?” The answer, she later discovered, was her husband.
“Howard has a taste for the bizarre,” says Linda Warren, one of three Chicago art dealers—the others are Ann Nathan and Carl Hammer—with whom Tullman works most often. “He likes a lot of things that are just weird. He likes nudes, he likes eroticism, and he likes things that reflect subcultures: young people, people with tattoos, people with a very 21st-century mentality. He also likes very strong images that are almost iconic from the beginning; there’s not a lot of subtlety in what he goes for. You walk in there and go, ‘Whoa! This guy’s a wild man.’ But there’s nothing amateur about the work he collects; there’s a cohesiveness to the insanity. And you know, he wouldn’t be where he is today if he didn’t think outside of the box all the time.”
The other major element that has shaped Tullman’s collection is his commitment to supporting young and emerging artists (the latter group including several painters and sculptors who turned to making art after long careers in other fields). Unlike many collectors in Chicago and elsewhere who keep artists at arm’s length by dealing exclusively with gallerists, the Tullmans are in direct, regular contact with many of the artists they collect.
“As a young lawyer and having friends who were struggling artists, it seemed reasonable that we should spend some of the money we were earning to support what they were doing, which we thought was (a) more fun and (b) certainly more rewarding than being a corporate lawyer,” Tullman recalls. “That’s how we got connected with some of the earlier Imagists. They were trying to make a go of it, practicing their art, and it was a very challenging time. It’s always been a challenging time for young artists.”
Today, the Tullmans work with about 20 galleries around the world that “regularly keep us in the loop on new work by artists that we have and, more importantly, work by artists that they think we should see,” he says. “Most of the artists in the collection keep us abreast of what they’re doing. A number of them are also teachers, so they feel free, and sort of make it their business, to call our attention to new artists that they think are worthy. Sometimes these artists are their students, or just young artists they’ve been exposed to one way or another.”
It’s that generosity, in part, that has earned the Tullmans the respect and affection of much of the Chicago art community. “Unlike a lot of collectors, Howard doesn’t feel like he has to have a lot of blue-chip artists hanging on his walls,” Hammer says. “He’s more interested in taking risks, taking a chance, and expressing confidence in the new artists coming along. Here’s a guy who can afford pieces by established artists, but he seems to have this vision of moving the next generation along, which is a great thing.”
Unlike many collectors who acquire pieces only after lengthy deliberation, Tullman is known for his quick trigger finger. “Someone comes along and he makes an acquaintance with them, or he sees their work somewhere, and he just buys it,” Hammer says. Adds Warren: “I told one artist, ‘Howard Tullman’s going to buy this.’ And the second he got the exhibit invitation, Howard picked up the phone and said, ‘How much is that?’”
It helps, of course, if the piece features a figure. If she’s not overly burdened with clothing, so much the better.
Top image: Howard Tullman at ease among his art. Photo: Kevin Nance.
12/17/15: Editor’s note: Because of inaccurate information given to reporter Kevin Nance, an earlier, printed version of this article in the January-April 2016 issue of CGN misattributed the phrase “Breast Home.”