Irving Stenn Jr.
Irving Stenn Jr.
Irving Stenn Jr., a retired attorney and art collector, donated 105 works of art to the Art Institute of Chicago this year. “Most people buy art with their ears,” artist Mel Bochner said. “People buy what they hear is good and what they should have. They buy with their ear. He buys with his eye. That’s instinctual.”
Irving Stenn Jr., a retired attorney and art collector, donated 105 works of art to the Art Institute of Chicago this year. “Most people buy art with their ears,” artist Mel Bochner said. “People buy what they hear is good and what they should have. They buy with their ear. He buys with his eye. That’s instinctual.” — Michael R. Schmidt

He likes the action.

It starts when he receives a tip. New artist. New style. Available now. Word spreads fast in the collector world.

Off to the gallery or a studio or art fair to view the work. It must be seen in person. There’s no other way. That’s how he found his first Bochner, his first Malevich, his first LeWitt.

See the art. Trust your gut. The lines. The shading. The color. Or perhaps black and white. He likes those too.

After a trip, ideally, he brings one home or maybe a few. He lines them on the floor beneath empty wall spaces. He considers the light, the placement and how they’ll pair with their “neighbors.”

“In art or in collecting,” he said, “seeing is everything.”

That’s the motto of Irving Stenn Jr., a retired plaintiff attorney who since the late 1960s has turned himself into one of Chicago’s pre-eminent art collectors, particularly of contemporary drawings.

In April, Stenn, 84, finalized a gift more than a decade in the making: 105 drawings to the Art Institute of Chicago.

See the Collection
The Irving Stenn Jr. Collection can be viewed by appointment from 1:30 to 4:15 p.m., Tuesday through Friday at the Art Institute, 111 S. Michigan Ave. E-mail to make an appointment.

The gift “fundamentally changed” the museum’s holdings of minimalism and sub-minimalism contemporary art, said museum curator and Stenn collaborator Mark Pascale.

Those interested in seeing the collection can make an appointment any time.

But to really see where Stenn’s hobby began, consider the first piece of art he ever collected.

His house.

So many white walls

When Stenn and his wife, Marcia, first saw the three-story Victorian in Lincoln Park where they would end up living together for 30 years — the house where Stenn still lives, even after Marcia’s death in 1999 — it was condemned by the city.

The building was a relic from the 1880s, a former German women’s rooming house which prior to that was a single-family home. Neighbors were concerned it would be torn down and replaced by a “four plus one” — a style of five-story apartment building popular in Chicago.

In 1969, Stenn and his wife asked Chicago architect Harry Weese to examine the house to decide if they wanted to save it from destruction. They found waterlogged floors and walls due to a broken water tank that flooded the home. They also found a basement filled with junk.

Weese — whose work included the Seventeenth Church of Christ at 55 E. Wacker Drive — found a hammer and began exploring the 12-foot walls, which were covered with plywood.

“He starts hitting on the walls and starts peeling away and he finds stained glass,” Stenn said.

Weese also found six marble fireplaces concealed by the plywood.

“It was rather startling,” Stenn said.

Once Weese finished gutting and rehabbing, the Stenns had a contemporary house filled with white walls.

“My wife had good taste,” Stenn said. “Knew a little bit about art. I didn’t. And we bought a print — a Frank Stella print. First thing we ever bought. And it’s still in the house.”

A J.D. from the University of Michigan, Stenn is a former Cook County prosecutor who co-founded Cooney & Stenn with a fellow ex-prosecutor, the late Robert J. Cooney. (The firm is now Cooney & Conway.)

Over the next three decades, Stenn and his wife focused their collection on contemporary art, starting with prints and lithographs.

“As we got more confident with what we were doing, we started to buy canvasses — paintings,” Stenn said. “And then some sculptures and other things.”

His home is filled with pieces of art of varying size, color, shape and type. A giant pencil leans against a wall in the living room. A bundle of oversize cigars rests on the vestibule fireplace mantle beneath a Roy Lichtenstein banner.

Quote marks the size of heads are on a door frame. A painting of a light bulb is on an opposite wall, cut out in the bulb’s shape, with the cord “dangling” below.

And that’s just the first floor.

Collecting, Stenn learned, is not just about buying the piece. One must also consider location in the home.

“A lot of people buy art to fit a wall. ‘I need a piece of art five-inches-by-seven-inches.’ If you’re going to collect that way, that’s dressing the wall. That’s not collecting art, in my view,” he said.

When Stenn buys art, he lays the pieces on the floor next to others, rearranging rooms to suit new work. He looks at the art at different times of day, as the sun shines through the stained glass, affecting the color.

“There’s nothing more exciting than when you get something home, and you open it up, and you take it, and you put it on the wall,” Stenn said.

“You never know how much you really like the art until you see it in its site.”

Stenn has other interests — he is a minority owner of the Chicago Bulls — but art dominates his life. Along with collecting, he sits on the Art Institute’s board of trustees.

Marcia served on the museum’s advisory committee for contemporary art, a group that helps the museum with acquisitions.

She called the couple’s collection a “collectionette” — something small and fun that lacked presumption.

“I was working and running around like a nut, so this gave me a calm,” said Stenn, who became a sole practitioner in 1986 and remained one until his retirement last year.

“There’s something very absorbing about it. The pursuit. The study. And I learned a lot and got to travel a lot with it.

“It was a nice offset to work.”

Filling the void

In 1999, after Marcia died, Stenn met his next collaborator.

“He wanted to understand what ‘museum quality’ was for drawings,” said Pascale, the museum’s curator for prints and drawings who has taught at the School of the Art Institute since 1981 and worked at the museum since 1990.

The two men began traveling together to view art, with Pascale serving as Stenn’s sounding board.

Many of the pieces Stenn purchased during trips with Pascale are ones he eventually donated to the museum.

“When we started in 1999, it never occurred to me that any advice I was giving was going to come back to us in any beneficial way,” Pascale said.

“I was just doing what we were supposed to do as people who are interested in the good of art.”

It was on one of their trips that they met Mel Bochner.

Known as a “conceptual artist,” Bochner describes his work as a mix of the conceptual — the idea expressed in the piece — and the material, the physical creation of the piece.

Bochner came of age in the 1960s and has continued working since then as a painter, sculptor, and draftsman — an artist who draws.

They have since become friends, a rare bond between artist and collector.

“I think he’s brave and I think he’s daring,” Bochner said.

“He has a really passionate eye. And his collection is great. … The only collection (of drawings) that I know of which is comparable would be the Werner Kramarsky collection,” he said, referencing the famed New York collector.

“Most people buy art with their ears,” Bochner said. “People buy what they hear is good and what they should have. They buy with their ear. He buys with his eye. That’s instinctual.”

Stenn previously donated 10 early Bochner drawings along with eight related sculptures that Pascale called “the most important early mature work that Mel made.”

“I didn’t want to sell anything individually from that early work,” Bochner said.

“You could only understand it as a group. And not only was he willing to purchase it as a group and in conjunction with the Art Institute — they bought it together — but that it would eventually all go to the Art Institute. What can be better than that?”

Stenn’s donation includes “the most important example” of Russian minimalist Kazimir Malevich’s work, Pascale said: a black square “representing the void.”

“Irving eventually understood that this artist, Malevich, was the grandfather of all the minimalist artists he was interested in,” Pascale said.

The donation also includes many minimalists from the 1960s and 1970s whose work was lacking at the museum, including “a huge important group of Sol LeWitt drawings,” Pascale said.

“He basically made our collection of Sol LeWitt.”

The dearth of art from this period was due to the museum leadership’s “old-master focus” and a disinterest in contemporary work.

“We missed out on a tremendous number of artists,” Pascale said. “What Irving did for us was enormous.”