HIRSHHORN: Medici from Brooklyn by Barry Hyams

HIRSHHORN: Medici from Brooklyn

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The self-styled ""little Hebe from Latvia"" who cornered Canadian uranium and left his mark--in the form of a concrete doughnut called the Hirshhorn Museum--on the august Washington Mall may serve to inspire some new, ill-favored immigrant; and we are all well reminded that LBJ and Ladybird were not the only petitioners for Hirshhorn's massive modern-art collection--Queen Elizabeth offered him a plot in Regents Park. Hyams, a tacky writer, brings to this upstart's life-story only appreciation and the subject's cooperation; but the unsifted particulars exert a perennial fascination. Joe Hirshhorn came to his calling, it seems, on an outing with his Brooklyn fifth-grade class; they passed the Curb Market, then still conducted on the street, and Hirshhorn, mesmerized by the spectacle, never reached the day's destination. At 15 he left school, and by 16--after a stint on a financial newsletter--he was trading on Broad Street himself, undersize (but then so were many of his heroes) and still in short pants. Bullies were soon routed, though, by strategems he'd later use in Canada, and within a few years the tireless, untamed Hirshhorn was ensconced in Great Neck as head of a growing, unhappy family. His subsequent family troubles (even his children sued him), like his subsequent brushes with Canadian law, remain somewhat impenetrable here; but Hyams lets everyone speak for themselves and offers no excuses--a stance eased, on the domestic front, by Hirshhorn's admitted failings as a father and undeniable philandering, and, on the business side, by official acknowledgment that his manipulations were not actually illegal. Artists resented his hard-bargaining studio raids too--""the way of the gambler,"" one observed astutely--but he supported them when they were unknown and held on to their work when its value soared. Is his uneven collection worth its cost in perpetuity to the U.S.? On this too Hyams doesn't deliver himself, but Harold Rosenberg's estimate, of the many cited, puts the matter well: ""The Hirshhorn is an expression of the changing mind of the art world,"" imbued with his unstinting, infectious enthusiasm.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1979
Publisher: Dutton