Inside Art World Legend Gracie Mansion’s Collection of Art and Ephemera

Red Bull Studios creates a portrait of the pioneering art dealer.

Gracie Mansion in 1985. Photo: PEOPLE Magazine.
Gracie Mansion in 1985.
Photo: PEOPLE Magazine.

If you’re checking out the Neville Wakefield-curated installation currently on display at New York’s Red Bull Studios, be sure to also make time for “Shelf Life,” a new, ongoing exhibition series from the gallery that offers a snapshot of important cultural figures through a selection of their belongings, displayed on a shelf. Kicking things off is artnet Auctions‘ own Gracie Mansion, founder of the seminal Gracie Mansion Gallery.

“The premise is essentially finding really fascinating people and telling their story by way of their most coveted and treasured possessions and ephemera,” Red Bull Studios programming manager Max Wolf told artnet News via telephone. “It’s a real cross-section of who they are and what they’ve accumulated over the years.”

Photo of Robert Downey Jr. that Gracie Mansion keeps on her nightstand. Photo: from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Photo of Robert Downey Jr. that Gracie Mansion keeps on her nightstand.
Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Mansion, a pioneering East Village art dealer and veritable art world legend, was a natural fit. “She was definitely top of our list,” said Wolf. “I know about her collection and all the wonderful work she’s done and all the artists’ careers she’s helped develop, so we were really keen to get her in to do the first series of ‘Shelf Life.'”

Red Bull asked Mansion to pick out some meaningful objects, and then sorted through her picks, adding and subtracting as Wolf saw fit, winding up with 22 in total. “It was a quick and painless and enjoyable evening,” Wolf recalled. Mansion shares the story behind each object as well as details about her relationships with the artists featured in an accompanying audio tour.

Cai Guo-Qiang, How is Your Feng Shui: Year 2000. Photo: from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Cai Guo-Qiang, How is Your Feng Shui: Year 2000.
Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

“I think when people collect things, the idea of connoisseurship, whether its art or music or Beanie Babies, it comes out of love, true love,” Wolf said. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity to get an intimate snapshot into someone’s lives and who they care about and what really moves them.”

The notion holds especially true in high-density New York city, where space is at a premium, making it difficult to be sentimental about physical objects.

Erickson and Ziegler, Library of Congress.Photo: from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Erickson and Ziegler, Library of Congress.
Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Mansion’s picks include artworks by everyone from Kiki Smith and Cai Guo-Qiang to Yoko Ono and Walter Robinson, as well as unusual items like library-scented perfume made from rotting books at the Library of Congress, created by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler. “It is a sweet smell like the stacks in a library which was my favorite place to go when I was a kid,” explained Mansion.

Other objects reference Mansion’s own art career. For instance, Wolf actually remade the Gracie Mansion Gallery jumpsuit she had artists Mike Howard and Buster Cleveland wear for a 1985 PEOPLE Magazine photo shoot and article titled “25 Most Intriguing People of the Year.”

Buster Cleveland, Untitled.Photo: from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Buster Cleveland, Untitled.
Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

In addition to the replica of the costume, being sold at the gallery gift shop, Mansion has included the image itself as it appeared in PEOPLE. “Of course the photo was all staged including my partner/husband Sur Rodney (Sur) in the chauffeur uniform,” Mansion recalled.

Some of the picks are also intensely personal, like the Robert Downey Jr. head shot Mansion keeps on her nightstand.

A replica of a Gracie Mansion Gallery jumpsuit from a 1985 PEOPLE Magazine photoshoot.Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

A replica of a Gracie Mansion Gallery jumpsuit from a 1985 PEOPLE Magazine photoshoot.Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

Moving forward, “Shelf Life” run on a roughly bi-monthly basis. While future participants have yet to be confirmed, Wolf says he doesn’t want to work within the confines of the New York art world, citing Charlie Rose as a dream pick. “We’re not focusing primarily on artists,” he said. “We more interested in people who spend their lives telling other people’s stories.”

The trick, of course, is editing down a lifetime of possessions into a single shelf that’s truly representative of their owner.

David Smith, Joanne. Photo: from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

David Smith, Joanne.
Photo: Amanny Ahmad, from the collection of Gracie Mansion, courtesy Red Bull Studios.

“The objects really speak volumes about these folks,” said Wolf. “What words can’t.”

“Shelf Life: Gracie Mansion” is on view at Red Bull Studios, 220 West 18th Street, February 20–April 17, 2016. 


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