Beginning with a Frankenthaler in 1970, Ronnie Heyman has amassed an incredible cache of enviable artwork. She walks us through the journey that filled her Palm Beach home with memories.
We flock to see outstanding museum art collections and must-see exhibitions, but nothing compares to viewing the best of the best in a living room of a magnificent apartment with high ceilings; elegant, classical architectural features; and a bright, comfortable atmosphere. In such an environment, each piece of art becomes an individual character inhabiting the space, and the experience is breathtaking.
So it is at the Palm Beach home of Ronnie Heyman. Over 40 years, Ronnie and her late husband, Samuel, built a collection of supreme quality, covering the postwar era and the pantheon of contemporary artists from both sides of the Atlantic, with the occasional look back at artists who influenced those who followed.
The Heymans were a team. Samuel took on the more scholarly aspects, researching each new piece they had their eye on, while Ronnie took charge of the display of the works they acquired. “We were a good combo,” Ronnie says. “It was the focus of our life, a pastime we could pursue together.”
After marrying in 1970 and establishing their first home in Connecticut, the Heymans soon hankered for paintings to fill the empty walls. Ronnie’s father directed them to Harold Diamond, a New York dealer, who introduced the couple to works by Willem de Kooning and Color Field painters Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler. A Frankenthaler painting was their first purchase in 1970, a forerunner to the other premier Color Field works that would become part of their collection in later years.
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
“We got the bug,” Ronnie says. “At the time, SoHo was coming up, and our weekends were spent exploring galleries and looking at a range of works including the incomparable Cindy Sherman, whom we subsequently collected.” A grouping of Sherman’s early black and white Untitled Film Stills is displayed in Ronnie’s Palm Beach home.
The 1990s saw a resetting of their collection. “It was a watershed for us,” says Ronnie. “We were now able to collect museum-quality paintings.” The game changer, she says, was a must-have early Roy Lichtenstein: Engagement Ring. This seminal work, created in 1961 at the height of the Pop Art movement, greets guests in the entrance hall of her home. The importance of its placement speaks volumes about its importance to its owner. An early work by Alex Katz, Thursday Night I (1974); a de Kooning, Untitled XII (1982); and a discreet Jackson Pollack, Number 13 (1949) create a stunning prelude to the living room, where a Donald Judd, a Sam Francis, and a Joan Mitchell immediately catch the eye.
Ronnie recalls the hunt for a Rothko. It took some time before she saw one that spoke to her. In due course, Reds, painted in 1956, became available and now hangs between two extraordinary and powerful paintings by Francis Bacon, Crouching Nude (1961) and Self Portrait (1978).
Behind the grand piano hangs the large Robert Rauschenberg, Press (1964), with its characteristic silkscreen newspaper cuttings and photographic images transferred to the canvas. This is shortly to be loaned to MoMA’s major Rauschenberg retrospective, opening May 21. “I’ll only loan to MoMA,” she says, pointing out that she owes much of her art education to the late William Rubin, director of MoMA’s painting and sculpture department in the 1970s and ’80s. After his retirement, he became Ronnie’s art adviser. “I had Bill all to myself,” she says proudly.
A 1918 Léger painting opened a new window and motivated the Heymans to take a serious look at artists like Giacometti, who became a firm favorite with Samuel. In the Heyman home, the artist’s Walking Man I (1960) stands tall in mid-stride, making his unmistakable presence felt with characteristic elongated, pinched form. In contrast is Land, Sea and Air (1982), a grouping of three life-size figures by British contemporary artist Antony Gormley.
When asked if she feels there were any missed opportunities, or regrets, along the way, Ronnie recalls: “Giacometti’s Pointing Man was the one that got away. Sam always regretted it.”
The Heymans became well known as collectors and, in time, were getting calls from galleries offering works that came onto the market. Samuel would rush over to his library of art books and catalogs to look up each piece and decide whether to buy. On one occasion, he took an overnight flight for a one-day visit to a bank vault in Japan to purchase a large Pollack, which now hangs in Ronnie’s Manhattan apartment, where a great part of the collection resides. “Each apartment has a different mood,” says Ronnie. “The one in New York has darker tones suitable for the city. The two Bacons in New York are dark and fit better up there then they would in Florida.”
Ronnie and Samuel came to Florida in 1978 and moved to one of Palm Beach’s historic buildings in 1981. Ronnie’s attachment to the town has brought her close to the Norton Museum of Art, where she is a trustee who has contributed generously to the current renovation. Says Ronnie of the new Norton: “[Executive Director] Hope Alswang is an intrepid leader, and her choice of British architect Lord [Norman] Foster was a stroke of brilliance.”
Ronnie is affiliated with many other arts institutions, including The Israel Museum, Jerusalem and, of course, the MoMA, where she sits on its board of trustees and is chair of the painting and sculpture committee. “MoMA is the gold standard,” she says with conviction.
Ronnie embraces the future of art, receptive to whatever comes her way—even the more contemporary art one of her daughters collects. “Fashions change, and I am learning the names of those artists,” she says. But she misses the bygone days of “trekking through galleries.” She recalls nostalgically exploring, sitting down with artists, and discovering new works. “The coming of the art fairs [like Art Basel Miami] was radical,” she says. “They’re frantic buying bazaars. New buyers don’t seem to have the same approach as we did.”
And, with a slight note of disapproval, she adds: “Tastes too have changed. Too much glitz.”