The minimalist: at home with collector Catherine Walsh
Clutter is banned but pared-back art is welcome in the John Pawson-designed home of this self-styled ‘orthodox minimalist’. Claire Wrathall meets the beauty industry innovator
Among the images Catherine Walsh keeps on her phone is a piece of typography that reads: ‘Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece.’ It’s an unexpected motto for a collector. Most tend towards a certain acquisitiveness. But when it comes to art, Walsh, who styles herself both an ‘orthodox minimalist’ and a disciple of Donald Judd, exemplifies the maxim ‘less is more’.
That said, she has been collecting since her early twenties, when, having grown up in rural Pennsylvania in a town too small to have traffic lights, she arrived in New York City in the mid-1980s. There, she embarked on a stellar career as a product innovator and marketing genius in the beauty industry, chiefly at Estée Lauder and Coty.
Her achievements included a succession of bestselling fragrances launched in collaboration with the likes of Jennifer Lopez (more than $2 billion worth of Glow by JLo has been sold worldwide), Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein.
But she was buying art well before that. As a master’s student (at Ithaca College, upstate New York) with an interest in art history, she had come across the photographs of Harry Callahan. His understated studies of skeletal trees and plants against snow struck a chord.
‘They look like etchings or drawings,’ she says. Better yet, they were affordable. And so she had begun to buy his work almost as soon as she was earning. ‘Even before I bought a sofa! I didn’t have anywhere to sit, but I had something to contemplate. I have never gotten tired of them.’
Walsh continues to put aesthetics above comfort. ‘If I counted, there would probably be nine pieces of furniture in the whole house,’ she says of her Colorado home, which was designed for her by John Pawson.
She also has apartments in London, where a piece by Edmund de Waal has just been installed, and New York, which is home to works including Josef Albers’s 12-panel Grey Instrumentation. ‘It’s super-serene,’ she says. ‘A homage to the square for sure.’ Though, unlike ‘classic’ Albers, it doesn’t have ‘that intense colour palette’.
But her real passion is Judd — she is on the board of the Chinati Foundation, the museum he founded in Marfa, Texas, in 1986 — whose work she also first encountered as a student. ‘Back then, I don’t think I could have articulated that I was a minimalist. But I was always confused by too much stuff. I like rigour in my life. I like to be very focused.’
‘Curating was almost the same as creating my home: you start with the space, and everything else follows’ — Catherine Walsh
Initially, she ‘graduated towards Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt’. But then she began to read Judd’s essays, and something about his writing and the single-mindedness of his vision really influenced her: ‘the fact that, for him, the art, the architecture and the landscape are all equally important’. Hence the mountain fastness that Pawson designed for her.
‘I met John in 1997,’ she recalls, ‘right before Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart really put him on the map in America.’ His first book, Minimum, had just been published, and she had read in The New York Times of a lecture he was giving. It had sold out, but Walsh went anyway, arriving to find him talking to Stewart.
‘I rarely get starstruck,’ she says, ‘but I was pretty nervous. I walked over, and politely asked if I could have a conversation with him. Martha said of course, and I said, “Hello, my name is Catherine Walsh and I’d like you to build my house.”
‘Not being a man of many words, he said, “Oh, right. Where? New York?” I said, “No, it’s in this tiny little town in Colorado.” And he said, “What’s the name of that trendy place, Tell-you-something?” And I said: “How did you know?” Because Telluride [where Walsh had been living on and off since 1994] was pretty much off the map.’
A few weeks later they met for dinner, and, in time-honoured tradition, Pawson sketched the house on the paper tablecloth. ‘I have it still,’ says Walsh. Yet more impressively, he calculated its cost on the same sheet. And even though it was a slow build, complicated by planning regulations (because Telluride Historic District is a National Historic Landmark), as well as the logistics of getting a 47ft-long, three-inch-thick marble countertop to the heart of the Rocky Mountains, ‘He came in on budget.’
In less than three years, she had moved in, and that house has shaped her collecting ever since: the Judd wall box (Untitled, 1986) found for her by the San Francisco-based dealer Anthony Meier; the Jenny Holzer LED sign (with red diodes) ARNO, which quotes the text inscribed on the marble bench that Peggy Guggenheim bought for her garden in Venice; Maya Lin’s Drip Drop, a wall-mounted sculpture of antique silver drops apparently falling to the floor where they coalesce in a puddle.
On the bench that runs the length of the main, first-floor living space stand two austere blocks of carved coal by Jim Zivic and, by the fireplace, a candelabrum (Burning Bush 19) by Michele Oka Doner, whom Walsh initially approached to create a perfume bottle. ‘Unfortunately, it was never launched. But I spent a lot of time in her studio. I love what she does and was really inspired by her jewellery.’
Cast in blackened bronze, its tangled branches terminate in a dozen small circular platforms, each bearing a slender candle. ‘It’s a contemplation piece,’ she says. ‘And when it’s illuminated, I just sit and look at it. I’m a big candle person. I’d love a Gerhard Richter candle painting.’
The only real surprise is the painting that hangs in her bedroom, above a Judd chair (No 1, bought in a sale of works consigned by the artist’s children, Rainer and Flavin Judd). Framed in gilt, it is an 18th-century portrait of a young man in a white linen collar, attributed to the school of the French Romantic painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, which she found at a flea market in Paris, the city she moved to when she joined Coty. ‘I love that kind of art in an über-modern setting.’
Living in France forced her to relax her environment a little, she concedes. ‘My apartment wasn’t what you’d call Haussmann-ian, but it was more a World of Interiors version of minimalism than a Donald Judd one.’ Her years there broadened her tastes.
‘New York at that time was so much about contemporary and modern, but in Paris I kind of went back to my student days, spending any time I could at the Louvre, especially in the 17th-century Northern European galleries. That really broadened my aesthetic.’
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Walsh ‘left corporate life three or four years ago’, but a new career may be beckoning. This autumn she curated her first exhibition, at von Bartha in Basel, a survey of works by the British artist Anna Dickinson, who sculpts in glass, blowing monumental shapes, refining them with a diamond cutter, then attaching a metal skin: blackened aluminium, for instance, which Walsh says is ‘quite Donald Judd-like’. As is the fact that ‘once a piece is complete, you do not see the artist’s hand at all. It looks like something that has been manufactured — like the Judd boxes, where the point was not to have [any sign of ] the hand there. I am fascinated by that.’
Curating was an experience she relished, and found altogether less intimidating and complicated than she had anticipated. ‘The process was almost the same as creating my home: you start with the space, and everything else follows.’
But then Walsh, whose elegant attire and ballerina deportment speak of restraint and self-discipline, is by her own admission a ruthless editor who lives by her ideals; although, as she concedes, ‘The saying “no” part can be brutally hard.’