When one reflects on art collectors Robert and Ethel Scull, what often springs to mind is Robert Rauschenberg giving Robert Scull an angry shove after the 1973 auction of 50 of the couple’s works at Sotheby Parke Bernet, when the artist’s Thaw (1958), purchased by the Sculls in the late ’50s for $900, sold for $85,000. Rauschenberg famously said, “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit.” However, as seen in E.J. Vaughn’s film of the auction, earlier that night Rauschenberg had proclaimed, “The Sculls helped artists at a time there wasn’t enough activity to support them. They were miracles . . . ,” an endorsement foregrounded by exhibition curator Judith Goldman in the catalogue that accompanies “Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection.”

Were the Sculls social-climbing profiteers or risk-taking, pioneering collectors committed to supporting advanced art and artists? The prescience of the couple and the outstanding work they assembled renders such questions moot. This museum-caliber exhibition gathered 44 works by 23 artists from institutions and private collections around the world. (None of the works were for sale.) The Sculls began collecting in the mid-’50s, when there was virtually no market for contemporary American art, with funds derived from a burgeoning taxicab business founded by Ethel’s father. They bought first-rate Abstract Expressionist paintings, including examples shown here by Still, Guston and de Kooning, whose dynamic Police Gazette (1955) is among the show’s highlights. By the early ’60s, the Sculls had expanded their holdings to include work by Chamberlain and Rauschenberg. They were singularly devoted to Johns and over time acquired 22 major works, seven of which were presented, including his iconic ale cans Painted Bronze (1960) and Map (1961).

Pop art soon became the couple’s primary focus. Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963), Warhol’s first commissioned portrait, dominated Acquavella’s largest downstairs gallery. From 1960 to ’64, the Sculls backed Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery, which mounted solo shows by Oldenburg, Wesselmann, Samaras, Rosenquist, Segal, di Suvero and Poons, who were represented here by canonical works. (Segal’s incisive double-portrait of the Sculls is particularly arresting.) The gallery’s closure shortly after the Sculls withdrew their financial support serves as a reminder that, although the Pop artists had gained wide public exposure, serious collectors remained few in number.

The Sculls were also among the first to recognize the early Conceptual art of Morris, Nauman and De Maria, each of whom had a single work in the show. With proceeds from a 1965 auction of some Abstract Expressionist works, the couple established the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation, which supported little known artists and financed some of the fundamentally “uncollectable” Earthworks of Heizer; seven photographs of Nine Nevada Depressions (1968) are evidence of their transition from collectors to patrons.
The back-to-back, his-and-hers Sotheby’s auctions in November 1986—following the Sculls’s 1975 divorce, an 11-year period of haggling over ownership of the work, and Robert’s death early in 1986—represented the final dispersal of the couple’s collection. (The courts had awarded Ethel a 35-percent share of the art; Robert’s proprietary claim was foreshadowed by his having billed the 1973 auction “Works from the Collection of Robert C. Scull.”) While the 1973 sale is considered to have launched the bullish market for contemporary American art, the collection was formed at a time before art meant money, when instinct and vision could work miracles.

Photo: Andy Warhol: Ethel Skull 36 Times, 1963, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 100 by 144 inches; at Acquavella. © ARS.