Donna De Salvo talks about Emily Fisher Landau
In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York received a historic gift of 367 objects from collector and longtime director Emily Fisher Landau, who died in March at the age of 102. The following year, Whitney curator Donna De Salvo organized an exhibition related to the gift. De Salvo, now senior adjunct curator of special projects at the Dear Art Foundation, remembers her major benefactor.
She made it clear that she collected things that made an impression on her, so she didn’t talk about art historical matters. In her early years, she collected Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Joseph Albers and other modernist figures, who were already legendary at that point. But we never talked about it in terms of -isms.
She really wanted to get to know the artist. She was very attracted to Jasper Johns (he was a major figure in her collection), as well as Richard Ertzschwager and Peter Huger. People talk about how great these artists are, but she really sought them out. What really struck me as I worked on this gift and show were the artists who created such tough work: Robert Mapplethorpe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and David Wojnarowicz. Relevance within the culture was important to her.When she opened the Fisher Landau Art Center. [in Long Island City]she wanted to share her work with the public as well.
She was certainly not a trophy collector in any way. And she was a big believer in museum collections. Of course, it’s always music to a curator’s ears. In Johns’ case, there was a complete set of screen prints that arrived at Whitney from 1968 to 1982. It was unbelievable that I was able to get this much work. There was also a picture of “Catenary”. Whitney had a lot of other things we don’t have, like Ed Ruscha’s mountain paintings. She has always considered the Whitney as a home for her work, and it has definitely been a transformative gift.
She was an incredibly classy woman, very beautiful, very elegant, and always polite. She represented a certain era in New York. When she saw her, not a single hair of her hair seemed out of place. She was beautifully dressed. Some people might think, “Oh, she’s so classy,” but you know, she was a bit of a maverick. And another thing that really impressed me about her was her incredible love for life. Although she suffered many tragedies such as the death of her sons, she still accepted her life. It is very difficult to carry on when something is lost in her life, but she had a very important experience. I think that for her, art was a way of reaffirming that she was alive and alive.