The Garfields: Reflections on a 60-Year Passion for Prints

Artsy Editorial
Oct 31, 2013 2:45PM

You can’t talk about prints without mention of New York-based Leslie and Johanna Garfield, keepers of one of the most complete collections of 20th-century prints in the world. But why not talk with them? From the living room of their Upper East Side apartment, overlooking Central Park and Manhattan’s East River Waterfront, there is no better setting to understand a pair of collectors—with 60 years’ experience and a collection rumored to encompass over 6,000 prints—than their home, which is designed around and beautifully overrun with art. From the foyer, where a stack of three-dollar art books reflects a morning scavenge at a bookstore bargain bin (the most important tool for a collector is a good library, they’ll advise) through a hall devoted solely to German Expressionist prints, and on to sliding walls that reveal five nested print-covered walls beneath, every inch of their home bares a telltale mark of connoisseurship and delicate discrimination in collecting. Even the coasters are a memento from one of the Garfields’ own museum shows.

As art philanthropists, the Garfields derive great pleasure in placing artists’ work in museums—convincing the museums to show the work and bringing recognition to artists while they are still alive. As art detectives, they follow their instincts down rabbit holes, and for every work that lines their walls, there’s a story of a passionate—if not delightfully fanatic—pursuit for a print. In a chat with the collecting couple, in the “company” of Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Max Beckmann, and the who’s-who of the German Expressionists, Provincetown School, early 20th-century British modernists, and contemporary printmakers, Artsy asked Leslie Garfield about the spark that lit a 60-year collecting spree, his greatest research discovery, and the advice he’d offer to new collectors who, one day, might aspire to fill their homes with a collection as far-ranging and heartfelt as his own.

On his beginnings as a collector:

“In Germany, I was stationed in Würzburg, and [while on leave] I met a husband and wife at the university. We went down to Munich one weekend to go to the art galleries and museums. We got there too early, and there was an art gallery nearby, and it had a lot of German Expressionist black-and-white prints there. It was just the sudden realization that this appealed to me a lot. I don’t know why, but it awakened some primal scream within. I admired this Erich Heckel woodcut. It was an illustration of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, from about 1917. I asked the price, and it was about $55, which at that time was a lot of money to me. We left Munich, and on the drive back to Würzburg I started thinking: Maybe I should have sprung for it. I decided that I’d drive back to Munich within the month, and if that print was still there I was going to buy it. And the rest is history. It was still there, and now it’s actually hanging on the wall here [in the apartment]. And when I got out of the service, I just started buying German Expressionist woodblock prints, primarily, for about 15 years. And that, I guess, started my collecting. I didn’t think of it as collecting; I thought of it as buying something I wanted.”

On his greatest field research discovery:

“I was given the name of a dealer in New York—this is going back to the beginning—and he said he had a few Provincetown woodblock prints. I remember going over to his apartment; I bought one, and brought it home that night. I turned it over, and a little paper fell out with the name, Grace Martin Taylor, and an address down in Morgantown, West Virginia. [I looked up the number] and I dialed it, but there was no answer. So I put this little slip in my diary and called a week later, and a week later, but there was never any answer. And then about the fourth or fifth week someone picked up the phone and said: ‘Yes?’ And I said: ‘I’m looking for Grace Martin Taylor.’ And this woman with this wonderful speaking voice said: ‘This is she.’”

Within the week, the Garfields were on a plane to Morgantown. “We went to this marvelous house, circa 1910, with a big porch in the front. We walked up the steps and met Grace, who was a petite and beautiful woman in her mid-80s. Her daughter brought four thimble-sized sherry glasses and a bottle of champagne, and poured one for each of us.” After sitting with Taylor and her daughter in their garden, the Garfields were shown available works, and soon after, Leslie arranged for an exhibition of her prints at a club in New York City, and with the help of New York gallerist Mary Ryan, arranged for Taylor and her daughter to travel for the exhibition.

After 60 years of collecting, words of wisdom for new collectors:

“I’d say a new collector should see as much art as they can, and get involved with museum groups that go on tours, like walking tours in New York. I think the person in the museum running the group is certainly an important person, or the lecturers at the galleries. We’re still part of a print group that was formed close to 30 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art. Earlier this week Edward Ruscha spoke to us. So I think going to galleries, developing an eye, talking to people.

I think the most important thing is to have a good library; to know what you’re doing and read about periods in the artist’s life, and to develop a relationship with one or two dealers who specialize in that particular artist. [For us,] Mary Ryan in New York and Susan Sheehan have been knowledgeable. Get involved with other groups of collectors, then you know what you’ve got and what they don’t have.”


David Hockney, Afternoon Swimming, 1979, lithograph, Edition: 55, plus 18 proofs, Publisher: Tyler Graphics, Bedford, NY, Printer: Roger Campbell, Lee Funderburg, Kenneth Tyler, and Rodney Konopaki, Copyright: © David Hockney / Tyler Graphics Ltd. [Find David Hockney works at the IFPDA Print Fair.]

Jasper Johns, Ale Cans from the portfolio First Etchings, First State, 1968, etching and photo-engraving, Edition: 26, Publisher: Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York, Printer: Donn Steward at Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York, © Jasper Johns and ULAE/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Published by ULAE. [Find Jasper Johns works at the IFPDA Print Fair.]

Erich Heckel, Crouching Woman (Hockende), 1913, from the portfolio Eleven, Woodcuts (Elf Holzschnitte), published 1921, woodcut, Edition: 40, plus a few proofs, Publisher: J. B. Neumann, Berlin, Printer: Fritz Voigt, Berlin. [Find Erich Heckel works at the IFPDA Print Fair.]

Blanche Lazzell, Early Dawn, block cut and printed 1933, woodcut, Edition: 3 known impressions, Publisher: unpublished, Printer: Blanche Lazzell. [Find Blanche Lazzell works at the IFPDA Print Fair.]

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