It could almost be mistaken for a giant theme-park figure. But Tomato Head is, in fact, a piece of sculpture—a very cheeky one, at that. Measuring seven feet in height, the fibreglass-and-rubber work by California artist Paul McCarthy is an adult version of Mr. Potato Head. And the irreverent hybrid—complete with cartoonlike sex organs, carrots, forks and other accessories that can be plugged into its eyes, ears and nose, as well as into its more intimate orifices—has cropped up in Portraits, the latest exhibit at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto. Hendeles, a brave and imaginative collector of contemporary art, has planted Tomato Head in a group show with one of the major achievements of 20th-century photography—an acclaimed collection of portraits by German photographer August Sander, from his masterful 1929 book-length photographic study, Face of Our Time. The effect is as provocative as a splash of ketchup on a white shirt. And it is no accident. “I wanted to devise an experience by bringing these things together,” says Hendeles, 47, who wears a fuzzy teddy-bear purse and several pounds of metal jewelry with as much flair as she mixes pop sculpture and vintage photography. “People never know what I’m going to show next.” Portraits—which opened in May and runs until next March—is Hendeles’s 20th show since she founded her own art museum in a renovated downtown factory eight years ago. “I really love putting on the exhibitions,” says the former commercial gallery owner, an art addict since the age of 14, when she toured the great museums on a solo trip to Europe. “There’s such a high.” But there was a low point in 1988, when Hendeles—who championed such internationally acclaimed artists as Vancouver’s Jeff Wall and Toronto’s Liz Magor early in their careers— was unable to find a market for their avant-garde work and decided to close her money-losing gallery. ‘You can only write off so many losses,” she recalls. “So we decided to call it what it is—a charity.”
Now, the real-estate heiress, an art-school graduate, practises a unique form of philanthropy. She not only buys the works she displays in her private foundation, she also acts as curator—designing and installing exhibitions in the 13,000-square-foot space, which is open to the public on Saturdays or by appointment. In total, Hendeles has donated approximately $10 million for the exhibition of contemporary art in Canada, including about $2 million in actual works given to other museums—and excluding the cost of the foundation building and the collection. “Contemporary art is not a priority in this country,” says Hendeles. “I’m trying to make it one.”
Hendeles has managed to pique the interest of the art world by collecting and showing works by such luminaries as British photographer Eadweard Muybridge and American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. “These works are sought after by any great institution in the world,” says Marcel Brisebois, director of the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. “She has a great eye. When she buys something, we look at her and say, ‘Oh, why is she doing so?’ ” Her bold esthetic vision led ARTNews, a respected U.S. journal, to twice include her in its list of “the art world’s 50 most influential people” in 1993 and 1995—the only Canadian and one of just a handful of women. “Every museum curator who is not asleep knows about her,” says Robert Storr, a curator at New York City’s renowned Museum of Modern Art. Storr adds that for exhibitions of videos, films, photography and installations, “there is ab-
solutely no better place in the world” than Hendeles’s foundation.
Hendeles shows an intense commitment that falls just short of obsession. “I know the difference between high standards and neuroses,” she says. Still, Hendeles’s perfectionism extends to the reconfiguration of the foundation’s two-storey space for each new show. And, last spring, she hired a sound engineer to construct a special theatre for I.N.I.T.I ALS., a sound and slide work by Irish artist James Coleman that appears in Portraits, and is running simultaneously at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Artists, dealers and curators remark on Hendeles’s confidence. “There is a certain kind
of big-time collector who is rather deferential to artists,” observes Storr. ‘Ydessa is not like that—she is a fairly overpowering personality in certain circumstances.” Maxwell Anderson, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, adds that “you return her phone calls and, if she expresses strong views on a matter, you give it the benefit of extra attention.” And, says Rick Wester, head of Christie’s photograph department, Hendeles is “very discerning—she knows exactly what she wants.” She is also willing to pay the price. In 1993, Hendeles spent near-
Hendeles has optical nerve
ly $100,000 at an auction for a rare 1920s blue German teddy bear named Elliott. Then, last year, she pushed the limits of art by displaying the plush toy in its own gallery. “Art can be a teddy bear,” argues the eclectic collector. “It doesn’t matter what it is—it’s what’s being said.” Earlier that year, Hendeles paid $544,750—the most ever paid for a single photo—for Georgia O’Keeffe, A Portrait—Hands with Thimble, a 1920 picture by American Alfred Stieglitz. “I have been pioneering the paying of serious money for photography,” says Hendeles. “It’s not just an indulgence. It’s a statement— it says that it’s worth something.”
Still, Hendeles—the German-born daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada in 1951—is sensitive about money. “I always rejected the finances that were available to me through my family,” she says about the commercial real estate fortune amassed by her late father, Jacob. Hendeles, an only child, went through a rebellious stage in the late ’60s. She abandoned her parents’ luxurious Rosedale home,
moved downtown and supported herself working as a cocktail waitress and a salesclerk. “I was trying very hard to be independent” she recalls. She led a bohemian lifestyle, hanging out with artists including Michael Snow. Later, she taught art history and practised art therapy. Less than a decade ago, she notes, “I wound up with the money I had been shunning all my life but, in the end, it stopped mattering because I felt comfortable enough in my abilities.”
Face of Our Time—Hendeles’s most expensive acquisition, valued at $1.6 million—is the centrepiece of Portraits. Each of the 60 richly detailed photographs tells a story. In one of the most famous images, Odd-job Man (1928), a laborer balances a load of bricks on
his shoulders. Staring boldly, the young man seems ready to support the weight of the world. Taken together, the collection—which captures artists, farmers, businessmen, politicians and even a pair of boxers—forms a poignant inventory of a culture innocently unaware of the horrors that will soon be unleashed.
Tomato Head, installed in an adjoining gallery, offers a twisted reality check. Only a short corridor from Sander’s photos, the mutant figure is vastly distant in time and vision. “I’m trying to play one thing off against the other because it throws them into sharp focus,” says Hendeles, suggesting that the genderless, highly ironic Tomato Head reflects the tumultuous social changes that have occurred since Sander created Face of Our Time, including a war, the bomb and the new Information Age. “We know so much more now,” says Hendeles, “so how does that affect our perceptions of ourselves?”
Despite critical acclaim, attendance at Portraits—like earlier exhibits at the foundation—dropped off drastically after opening night, which was attended by more than a thousand. “I never intended it to be a numbers game,” says Hendeles. “But people don’t come. You feel a bit crazy at times. It’s a strain on me to do this.” Hendeles, who lives with artist Max Dean in a 16,000-square-foot Rosedale mansion, says that she works 12 hours a day on the foundation and spends more than $400,000 a year—not counting the cost of new works—to run it. Sometimes, she says, she feels like her money is “going into a hole.” Still, with the moral support and financial co-operation of her mother, Dorothy, and her son, Jason, from a brief marriage to a Toronto lawyer, she plans to carry on—for now, at least—in her drive to prove that “art can be fun.” Works such as Tomato Head may indeed be playful, but for Ydessa Hendeles, they also have profound meaning. □
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