On Dec. 3, 1985, artist Chuck Close sat between Andy Warhol and painter Philip Pearlstein on a Boeing 727 chartered by Richmond-based Best Products and packed with the luminaries of the New York art world.
The midweek mass migration to Richmond by New York "artlings," as one headline described them, was for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gala inaugurating its new $22 million West Wing.
The 90,000-square-foot expansion, designed by Malcolm Holzman, doubled the total exhibition space and featured a central marble hall.
As Close gazed around the plane, observing artists such as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among more than 100 other art-world luminaries, he remembered a photograph from the 1964 New York World's Fair. Madame Tussaud's wax museum chose to fly a number of its wax figures as passengers rather than risk packing damage. Hitler, George Washington and Mae West sat together.
Close remarked, "You know, if something happened to this airplane, the art world as we know it would be over."
Pearlstein, a longtime friend of Warhol's, replied, "Yeah, and the Daily News headline will be, ‘Warhol, Others Die In Crash.' "
Close made his place in modern art with wall-sized photo-realist portraits created in a painstaking method using painted "pixels." He continued to reinvent his style following a 1988 spinal-artery collapse that paralyzed him from the neck down.
He recently reminisced about the 1985 VMFA gala and its benefactors, Sydney and Frances Lewis, in his central Manhattan studio, wearing a paint-stained smock and his fingers stained by blue pigment. The Lewises were founders of Best Products, an international catalog and retail store.
They also became major patrons of contemporary art.
Frances Lewis was quoted in a VMFA press kit for the 1985 opening: "I do not believe we would have started collecting if fabulous, first-rate art had not been obtainable. Like all crazy, mad collectors, though, once we started, the acquisition of fine works became a passion."
Close remembers, "When [the Lewises] came up to New York, they rented a suite at the Carlyle [Hotel]," he remembers. "They'd bring their own chef. They had a car, and that came up ahead of them, and they'd get driven around. They knew how to live."
The Lewises traded Best's products for corporate artwork, paying cash for their personal collection.
Close received a variety of household and practical items: a refrigerator, a huge color TV, air compressors and routers.
"Trading is how they got all the prints and drawings and stuff," he explains. "The legacy of Best Products — instead of a handful of major paintings — is a real treasure trove of less expensive things, a lot of which are real expensive now. But that wouldn't have entered the collection had it not been for the trading. And for young and emerging artists, they at least got something."
Close once said that he didn't want to know his collectors. If they turned out to be venal poseurs, "Then my work is owned by a--holes, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Around 1970, Close met the Lewises. At the time, he was living in New York City, a floor below Jack Beal, a native Richmonder commissioned to paint portraits of the couple. He invited Close upstairs. "And they turned out, of course, to be great people," he says.
The VMFA expansion housed the collections of the Lewises and "Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon of Upperville," as the press materials then called them.
The Lewises gave to the VMFA 1,200 works by modern artists, among them Close, Willem de Kooning, Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Rauschenberg and Warhol. Other gifts included a huge collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco design objects and furnishings, most used in the Lewises' daily life, and numerous objects designed by the Tiffany studios.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted New York gallery owner Leo Castelli, who guided the Lewises in assembling their collection and attended the event, "The Lewis collection is a unique collection in this country. Their collection of decorative arts is quite astounding. I don't think any collection in the world is as rich as theirs."
The Mellon contribution, no less impressive, featured works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso and Eakins; English sporting paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries and an assortment of 20th-century objets d'art .
The patrons gave $9 million to the wing's creation and $3 million to the museum's endowment. The culmination of five years of planning and construction went public through a choreography of events, beginning with a national press preview on Nov. 22 and the Dec. 4 extravaganza, followed by fetes for museum members and the public. About 1,200 attended the Council Gala Dinner and Ball.
The Times-Dispatch described how "monumental floral arrangements adorned the doorways, banisters and hallways."
The band, led by celebrity pianist Peter Duchin, provided suitable sounds in the Marble Hall. Later, the rock band Liquid Pleasure played in the Tapestry Hall, with tunes like "Billie Jean."
By time the Michael Jackson started, the artlings were exiting through the Boulevard entrance to their waiting cars for flights home.
"Mainly, we were there for Sydney and Frances," Close says. "It was an outpouring of love and thanks to them, who were among the most wonderful and philanthropic and passionate collectors."