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Photo Finish

A world-class collection of vintage and modern work finds its ideal setting

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As you enter the Park Avenue apartment of Gary and Sarah Wolkowitz, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the couple once surrounded themselves with oversize pop art and color-field paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Noland. Of course, that was back in the 1970s, in a different life and a different home—a three-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. By contrast, this serene, sparsely furnished aerie on the opposite side of town, complete with some 1,800 square feet of wraparound terraces, was deliberately designed by architect Michael Gabellini as a flexible exhibition space for the collection of vintage and modern photographs the couple has amassed. At the same time, Gabellini created, in his own words, “a frame for living”: a warm and comfortable domestic sphere in which the two can pursue their daily lives. 

Whether it’s paintings or photography, the collecting impulse runs deep in this couple, perhaps because their lives have always been steeped in art. They met 51 years ago—Sarah was 15, Gary 16—as students at Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design (other notable alumni include Art Spiegelman, Calvin Klein and Lorna Simpson). “He saw me going up the escalator, and I saw him going down,” recalls Sarah, a six-foot-tall blonde who undoubtedly made quite an impression on that adolescent boy from the Bronx. “We’ve been together ever since.”

The two married in June 1970, and by Labor Day, they’d hatched their business. Their idea—to put colorful, arty designs on the lowly sock (“hot pants were big at the time,” says Sarah, “so we thought, Why not hot socks?”)—took off like a shot. The Hot Sox brand became the licensee for Polo Ralph Lauren’s hosiery collections, and its success allowed them to start buying the modern paintings they loved. It’s no surprise that their son, Bryce, born in 1973, was an art aficionado from infancy. After all, as Sarah notes, “there was a Warhol Marilyn hanging beside his crib.” 

Indeed, it was Bryce, now the owner of the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea, who turned his parents on to photography. As a teenager, he went off to Oxford University to study it one summer and fell in love with the medium. He knew his parents had stopped buying paintings and missed collecting. Their Upper West Side townhouse “was lovely but narrow,” says Gary, currently the chief creative officer of Hot Sox-Ralph Lauren Hosiery. “Once the walls were filled with these enormous paintings, there wasn’t an inch left to acquire more art.” When they’d decided to focus on vintage photography, the Wolkowitzes threw themselves into learning everything they could. The couple’s first purchase was Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Rue Mouffetard (1954), an iconic shot of a happy-go-lucky Parisian boy walking with a wine bottle cradled in each arm.

They quickly established themselves as top-notch collectors. “Sarah and Gary are connoisseurs; that’s the key,” says Jeff Rosenheim, head photography curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Gary has served on a patrons’ committee for the past 15 years. “The pictures they buy all have that ‘best in class’ quality—the form and texture, the exquisite printmaking, the way they’re installed.” 

Vintage still forms the core of the collection. Among the couple’s most treasured works are an Edward Weston pepper, a Paul Strand portrait of his wife Rebecca and a Josef Breitenbach nude whose face reminds Sarah of her mother. But in recent years the Wolkowitzes have ventured into more contemporary works, buying what Gary calls “wow” pieces by some of the most interesting visual artists working today—Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand, Edward Burtynsky, Thomas Struth—as well as the occasional sculpture that appeals to them, such as a witty riff on Jeff Koons’ metallic balloon dogs by Paul McCarthy.  The Wolkowitzes rotate often. “It’s about assembling suites of images that we feel work together,” Gary says. “What we add or subtract really depends on our mood.” What they strive to maintain is a minimalist aesthetic.

Their Park Avenue apartment provides a perfect backdrop for that aesthetic. Gabellini reoriented the space (originally two apartments that divided in the middle of the current living room) to give it the light-suffused feel of what he calls “a horizontal terrace,” cleverly equipped with moving panels that allow the apartment to expand or contract for public or private use. The furniture is simple and low to the ground; colors are a neutral palette of whites, beiges and blacks that, appropriately enough, replicate the tones of a vintage photograph. “I find it reassuring,” says Gabellini, “that this space has managed to adjust accordingly as Gary and Sarah’s photography collection has moved from infancy to maturity.”   

Like most collectors, the Wolkowitzes relish the hunt. Yet neither finds any particular thrill in ownership per se. “These pieces will live on far longer than we will, so it’s kind of pointless to say we ‘own’ them,” Gary says. “But what’s wonderful about having art in your home versus viewing it in a museum is that the pieces really fill up your life in an intimate way. When I take my coffee in the morning, I’m looking at images I’ve lived with for 10 or 15 years, but I see something new all the time.”