The living room: The living room loft features Jack Pierson’s 1996 word picture To be alive above the fireplace (which is hidden behind more artwork). Family photos line the fireplace. Pierson’s work is a permanent installation; the others are rotated during the year.
Photo: Annie Schlechter
Michael and Susan Hort’s three-story, over 10,000 square foot home in Tribeca is bursting with art. It’s just everywhere: on all the walls, on the stairs, on all the tables (some of which have also been made by artists) and, in the case of a certain Sarah Sze, in a cupboard. You can sit on some of them; there is a 1993 Franz West sofa by the fireplace and a Nari Ward piece, Tired seats, of the same year. It has to be the most comfortably manned museum of contemporary art in the world. And it’s constantly evolving. The couple are constantly changing what’s on display, drawing from their 5,000-piece collection — and counting — of works by emerging artists they’ve built up over the past 37 years.
Susan is the president of their century-old family printing company, Earth Enterprise, but earlier in her career she was an art dealer. When the couple purchased this building in 1996, it was a time of change in their lives. they lived in Westchester. “My youngest was going to college, so the house was empty,” says Michael. “This building has been abandoned. It had more recently been a warehouse for olive oil and cheese. I know because it smelled of olive oil and cheese, so much so that all the floors had to be thrown out.
“We weren’t looking for the fancy,” he recalls of the renovation. “Actually, the architect was a bit disappointed because we thought we wanted to hang art, we wanted bare walls. We said, ‘Leave the bricks.’ The only thing the architect did, basically, was our bathrooms and the stairs.
Works of art that are not exhibited are stored or loaned to museums. The Horts always bought what they liked, but it turns out they were exceptionally picky about artists who would have a successful career. Yet as we walked through the loft one recent afternoon, it wasn’t the famous names Michael was eager to talk about, but rather the lesser-known artists they’ve made it their mission to collect since started with a piece of Italian. the artist Paolo Icaro in 1985.
Michael admits he had no sense for contemporary art at the time. Susan collected 19th century American art, and that didn’t resonate with him. “They were beautiful paintings,” Michael told me, “and I had absolutely no interest in them. To me, they were wallpaper; they were beautiful, colorful, but wallpaper. Interesting, however, was the conversation he and Susan and Icaro and his dealer, Jack Tilton, had had over dinner the night of the sale. “They were amazing and funny and smart. When they left I said to Susan: “You know, I could love contemporary art”, and yet, to this day, 50% of the joy comes from people.
Much of that joy is evident in the fifth-floor living room, where we sit in front of a fireplace now darkened by paintings – all gifts from different artists – with rows of family photographs and Jack Pierson To be alive (1996).
In 1995, their daughter, Rema, died of cancer at age 30. When Michael and Susan started venturing out to look at art again, they walked into the Luhring Augustine Gallery and “there was this exhibition of Pierson, pictures of words,” Michael says. This one resonated with them.
This year they also lost their son, Peter, who was 51, to cancer. Peter was a lawyer, judge and collector and played an active role in the success of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, established after Rema’s death. As you walk through the floors, you notice the many portraits of Rema by artists such as Arjan Martins, Nicole Eisenman, and Stefanie Gutheil. “When Rema died, we had to do something positive,” says Michael. His foundation has the dual mission of granting grants to emerging artists and providing financial support to cancer patients undergoing treatment so that they can surround themselves with friends and family members.
The foundation will hold its 25th anniversary on November 1. “We have nearly $2 million worth of artwork for sale, including works by Nicole Eisenman and Marlene Dumas,” says Michael. “For ten, twelve years, art has become a commodity. Art is like real estate, so a lot of people buy art because they think they can make a lot of money, and they can. But the Horts collect for life.