A love of prints and friendships with artists inform one Palm Beach
couple’s contemporary art collection
Joan and David Genser wasted no time in their art-collecting journey together. “We started on the day we got married 56 years ago,” Joan explains. “We purchased a piece of sculpture with wedding present money; we spent $100 a month and paid for it in 12 months.”
At the time, the Gensers lived in Canada and focused on collecting Canadian art. When they moved to Boston, they sold those pieces and shifted their attention to American contemporary works on paper, which was what they could afford. “The first piece we bought was a Roy Lichtenstein print, Mirror (1972),” notes Joan. “It was $400 and a wonderful way to start.”
Her next purchase was Robert Motherwell’s St. Michael III (1975). A friend saw it, loved it, and asked Joan if she could get one for her. Joan called Kenneth Tyler at Tyler Graphics, a master printer renowned for technological innovation in limited-edition printmaking. There was a dealer in Boston selling the prints, but Joan successfully persuaded Tyler to let her buy them from him. From that one Motherwell, she was able to sell a third of the edition. Thus, a new venture began.
She continued a fruitful relationship with Tyler, who worked with such great contemporary artists of the day as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, and David Hockney. Joan would visit Tyler’s workshops in New York, as well as Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and Crown Point Press in San Francisco, where she’d watch the artists at work and sell the prints hot off the press. In California, Joan became familiar with Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn and was drawn to Pop Art in a big way, eventually incorporating works from the movement into her own collection.
Friends urged Joan to open a gallery on Newbury Street in Boston, but she wanted to work in the more personal and private setting of her home. She credits some of her success to early morning trips to New York City, when she would arrive even before the galleries opened. “I went to Antoinette, wife of gallerist Leo Castelli, also a print dealer, and it just mushroomed from there. I became the largest print dealer in the United States. I became a dealer to support my passion.”
As she progressed in this field, her friendships with artists flourished. In 1984 David Hockney produced his Moving Focus series of lithographs with Tyler. Joan bought 400 of them and Hockney gave her all of his proofs to sell. On an early trip to Boston, Hockney stayed with Joan and David, and they stopped into galleries together. “We went to visit him in Normandy this past year, and he sends me iPad drawings in the morning on my phone,” Joan says.
Joan has witnessed the many stages of Hockney’s artistic development and says he has never been afraid of change. As a great admirer of Picasso, Hockney used a Cubist approach in his works on paper, remarking to Joan that Cubism should never have ended since we live in a three-dimensional world. Joan remembers him painting the face of his model, Celia, cutting up the paper, and making a collage. He then painted the frame, asserting that a picture need not end at the frame. “He made a print, Pembroke Studio Interior, and put a white frame on it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘David, it sort of dissipates at that frame.’ He said he would paint the frame. It was an edition, so he had to paint 36 more frames.”
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
Joan and David always wanted to own one of Hockney’s paintings and sold prints in their personal collection in order to make that dream a reality. Untitled (2018) hangs in their Boston home. One of the highlights in Joan and David’s Palm Beach collection is a screen by Hockney, Caribbean Tea Time (1987), a lithograph with collage and a hand-painted frame. It stands in pride of place in their open-plan apartment at the center of the dining area, enveloping guests within a brightly colored scene.
Joan attended all of Leo Castelli’s gallery openings in New York City. His stable of artists included Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, all of whom Joan counted as friends. She was always fascinated with their processes and would go to watch Johns’ prints being made in a studio in Brooklyn. “A lot of people think a print is a copy or a poster, but a good print, I think, is harder to make than a painting,” she says.
Later Joan and David decided to collect younger contemporary artists. They searched for unique pieces for their collection in Palm Beach, where they now have 110 works. “I would go to the New York galleries and look and look,” notes Joan. “My husband and I would travel to all the international art fairs and look and look and look. Gradually the galleries began to know who I was and what I was looking for and offered me anything that was new. We never bought anything for investment, only what we loved.” She chuckles remembering an encounter at Art Basel Miami Beach with celebrated abstract artist Mark Bradford, who started as a hairdresser. “He said to me, ‘Joanie, I can still do your hair!’”
David’s favorite piece in Palm Beach is Rashid Johnson’s Walking (2013), which was made with mirror tiles and lumps of dripping black soap and wax applied to the surface. “Rashid is a very close friend,” says Joan, adding that they’ve visited his Brooklyn studio. “He gives back a lot to the art world and the community. He’s a very special guy.”
For Joan, it’s hard to choose a favorite. John Wesley’s Kissing Blond (1999) and British artist Tracey Emin’s neon Just Love Me (1998) are at the top of the list. Paintings, photos, prints, and sculptures by contemporary and Pop Art luminaries fill every nook and cranny in the spacious apartment—Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, Alex Katz, Matthew Wong, Phyllida Barlow, Jeff Koons, and Jaume Plensa, to name a few.
When asked about the future of collecting, Joan believes that COVID-19 will bring about the end of art fairs. “The art fairs are crowded with people who don’t know what they are looking at, and so much is presold,” she says. “Galleries send collectors JPG files of works they are going to show at the fair in advance, and they are sold. I now buy everything from JPGs sent to me by email.” Joan attests that if you have a trained eye, you don’t need to see the work in person.
She says collectors should get to artists before the big four—galleries, that is—do: Hauser & Wirth, Zwirner, Pace, and Gagosian. Her general advice is to keep looking and doing your homework. “Get someone to help you. You don’t buy a refrigerator or a car without comparing the prices and getting some advice. Train your eye and get some help. I’ve never bought at auction. I’ve always bought at the first round from the gallery. If you have a relationship with a gallery, they’re going to offer you the pieces first.”
Above all, she concludes, make sure you’re following your passion and pursuing art because it brings you joy. From gallery hopping to nourishing friendships with artists, the collecting process has long been a great source of pride, accomplishment, and fun for Joan. “I’d go to the opening of an envelope if they had art there.”