Helen Zell’s Old Fashioned Approach to Collecting Contemporary Art


Art collector Helen Zell is one of those people who thinks best on her feet. Given the option of a sit-down chat or being interviewed while touring the modernist Streeterville condo she shares with her husband, businessman Sam Zell, she immediately chooses the latter. It’s quite a trek, encompassing 18,000 square feet of space that contains some 800 objects, including major works by René Magritte, Joan Miró, Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, Remedios Varo, Giorgio de Chirico, Louise Bourgeois and a host of younger and emerging artists, along with ethnographic material and the occasional foray into Pop art.

Associated for two decades with the Museum of Contemporary Art, where she has held several positions including board chair, Zell is sleek and chic—her draping silver hair set off against an elegant all-black outfit—but entirely down-to-earth, her husky alto regularly erupting into laughter. Here’s an edited transcript of our visit.  

CGN: How did you get started with collecting?

HZ: The collection was originally conceived as a Surrealist collection. It was 18 years ago—Sam and I weren’t even married yet—and we talked about collecting art. Over dinner one night, he looked at me and said, “Do you like art?” I said, “Yeah, I like art. Like it a lot.” Then, “Well, what do you like?” I said, “Well, I like a lot of things. I’ve been a museum-goer my whole life.” He said, “Well, I like Surrealism!” I said, “You do?” 


You didn’t know that at the time?

I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know he was interested in art, let alone Surrealism. 


Am I correct in thinking that you, rather than your husband, take the lead in the collecting process?

That’s right. When we first decided to do this, Sam looked at me and said, “OK. You do all the work and I’ll write the checks. It’s really going to be fun.” And that was it.


So, you’ve always been in the driver’s seat.

Yeah. But he loves it. And takes great pride in walking around and learning about the collection. It’s a really big part of what he likes to show people. 


And did you have a background in art when you started the collection?

Not really. I was always a museum-goer, but I never took an art history course. I was always a literature person, and I played the piano. 

I was afraid to go to galleries. Terrified! Because they were so snooty. I lived in New York when I was young, and was horrified by walking into these places that were so quiet. Nobody talked to you - kind of looked down their noses at you. I was really uncomfortable and didn’t feel like I belonged there.


So the two Magrittes on the wall there are foundations of the collection?

Right. Also Dalí, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy. Our criteria generally was the quality of the work—how it affected us. Did it intrigue us? Did it make our hearts beat a little faster?


That’s a good yardstick.

And pretty consistently, that’s been true, whether it’s Surrealism or work that has nothing to do with Surrealism. You have Magritte and you have these Mayan ceramic figures that are 2,000 years old, and you think, “What do they have to do with one another?” Well, maybe nothing.


Maybe the connection is those African masks that inspired Picasso.

To me, it’s about the way the artists express themselves. (Pointing to a piece.) That’s by Gertrude Abercrombie, an American Surrealist from Chicago whom I had never heard of until Julie Rodrigues Widholm at the MCA did a collection show and revealed to me for the first time that there were a couple of Abercrombies in our permanent collection. She juxtaposed some of those pieces against more contemporary work and showed how they influenced one another. I loved the work and found out that we had a dealer in Chicago with access to it, so I went to Corbett vs. Dempsey and they found me an Abercrombie! That’s the part I really love—the story, the hunt. Making connections, finding out I really love something that fits in with the other work that we already have, then going to find it. That’s always fun. 


Well, “eclectic” is the word of the day.

It’s actually not. If you look at a lot of collections today that are put together for hedge-fund guys and people who are into buying for the sake of having trophies on their wall, buying and selling. . . that’s very different from what we’ve done. We’ve done what the collectors did once upon a time. They collected what they loved, and they took little side trips, had little adventures. I like to think I’m an old-fashioned collector.


It’s not about buying and selling. 

We never sell. We buy it and expect to eventually give it away.



Next, we encounter a group of neo-primitive sculptures by Louise Bourgeois.

One of my favorite artists is Louise Bourgeois, who died a few years ago. There were originally about 50 of these sculptures, called “Les Personnages,” first exhibited together at MOMA in the ’50s. The group has been reassembled a few times, including once at the Guggenheim in New York. When you think of her work juxtaposed with Tanguy’s, I think she has a Surrealist DNA. I just find them very compatible. 


They seem to have a relation to your ethnographic art.

Yes. Absolutely. They’re like totems. That’s the kind of thing that makes it all make sense for me. 


One of the sculptures has a mirror for a face.

My grandkids love that. It’s like you become part of the piece.


There might also be a reference to women carrying baskets on their heads.

Or it might be some strange figure with a whirlibird on his head. (Laughs.) Later in her life, she did some incredibly huge monumental spiders. One of them was in the Turbine Room at the Tate. Then she did some that were much smaller, like this one (points to a spider sculpture on a table). There are about five of these, and in this case she combined it with one of the little cloth figures she was making at the end of her life. I love this piece. You can say it’s strange or tortured, but I like to think of it as a more powerful version of her—sort of stalking her prey. 




In the hallway, Zell pauses in front of two paintings hung side by side, both featuring couples—the first very happy together, the second not so much.

These are two of the pictures that started the collection. We’re at an art fair early on, and Sam zeroes in on this piece (of the happy couple). He says, “Who’s this artist?” It was Dubuffet—early Dubuffet, from the ’40s, didn’t look like his later work at all. And Sam said, “I really like that piece.” 


One of the faces looks like an Ed Paschke face.

Definitely, although Paschke wasn’t working yet. Anyway, the couple looks very happy together. I think it’s a classic example of, you know, you see something that resonates, because it means something for you.


You were newlyweds.

We weren’t even married yet. We were very happy and very romantic. It’s also very colorful, and we both love color.


(Pointing to the other painting): This is later in the relationship—darker, more serious

(Laughs): We still weren’t married yet. Although I have to say, we’re not dark, not very serious. Sam’s one of the most upbeat people you’ll ever meet. I’ve learned a lot about optimism from him. Anyhow, the next year, there was another painting with another couple. This is Heinrich Campendonk, a German Expressionist.


The piece has a Rousseau-like feel.

I see that. I think it also has some interesting references to sex. 

As Sam will tell you, that’s a big thing for him. Lots of naked ladies. Tits and ass! (Laughs.)




We turn the corner, where there’s a large Roy Lichtenstein painting.

That was in the Lichtenstein retrospect at the Art Institute a few years ago, wasn’t it?           

That’s right. It was one of the few pieces in the show that wasn’t owned by someone who wouldn’t sell it.  It was offered for sale by [New York art dealer] Larry Gagosian. (Cont. on next page...)

So when Sam and I fell in love with it, we were keenly aware that we could probably buy it.


You bought it after having seen it at the Art Institute?

Right. I immediately contacted Larry—I knew him very slightly—and we started the dance, the negotiation, which lasted about three months.


That’s a long dance.

He’s tough, but so am I. (Laughs.)


I’m sure you drive a very hard bargain.

It’s just that I’m tenacious. Sam would never—he would say, “How much does the painting cost?” The guy would tell him, and he’d say OK and write a check. I cannot do that, because I’m too familiar with the way the art world works. 


There’s big markup.

They mark up their paintings with the idea that they’re going to deal with you, negotiate. That’s all part of the process.


And you did get Gagosian to come down on the price?

Yeah. He finally broke down and sold it to me two days—or maybe a day and a half—before a big auction where the values of Lichtenstein went up 40 to 50 percent. 


So it wasn’t a good move to sell when he did.

No. He should have waited. And I would have had to be satisfied with a worse price for me because of what happened at that auction. That’s where the art market really influences what you’re doing as a collector. I hate that part of it, but you must be aware of it.




We move to another large space down the hall, formerly a separate apartment which now houses the Zells’ photography collection and works by younger and emerging artists, many with a Surrealist bent.

A lot of the work in here is collected in tandem with institutions, especially the MCA and the Art Institute. If they’re doing a show and want to collect the work—like this piece by Marlo Pascual—and I like the work, I buy it and promise it to the institution. It’s a way of supporting the local museums and keeping work moving in and out of the space. It gives me the opportunity to be flexible without having to store things. I like to keep moving on.


Do you think of this as a separate collection, or as part of a single collection?

It’s one collection with two pretty clearly defined parts, but a lot of the young artists in here are influenced by Surrealism, so it’s the perfect time to start mixing them together.


This is an interesting piece (referring to a large panel covered with peacock feathers).

That’s a Carol Bove, another artist I discovered through my association with the MCA. They did a show called The Language of Less, and she was one of the artists included. So I bought this from the show, and it will eventually go back to the MCA. 


We come to a collection of small pieces, including maquettes, driftwood, seashells and other objects, in what appears to be a sandbox.

This looks like Lee Bontecou.

It is! And it’s actually one of my favorite stories. She did a show four or five years ago for Ann Freedman in New York, and I loved it, and was very interested in these three things called “Sandpits,” which were included in the exhibition to show how Lee works in her studio. They were not really considered works of art; they were just to show how she puts things together, experiments with shapes and forms. Well, I fell in love with this. I didn’t want to buy one of the pieces of art—I have a lot of her art—but I really wanted to have this. I’ve always been fascinated with her, I’ve met her, spent some time with her. So I asked if I could buy this, and Ann said, “I don’t think she wants to sell this.”


It’s work product, essentially.

Exactly. It’s a sandbox you play in to decide what you’re going to make next. I said, “Oh, Ann, just tell her I’ll give it to the MCA! Beg her!” (Laughs.) Months went by, and then Ann called me one day and said, “She finally agreed to do it.” So finally it arrives in a box—all the sand, in bags, and all the little objects, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper. I had Ann photograph the whole assemblage when it was in New York, so I made a grid and proceeded to put it all together. And it worked. Then Ann called me again and said that Lee had said, “You know, she doesn’t have to do it like I did it. She can do it the way she wants to do it.” And I said, “I thought I’d start off the way Lee did it.” (Laughs uproariously.)


Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer  Twitter @KevinNance1