The Guts and Glory of Robert Scull
“Suddenly, it is all quiet as hell here, and cold. Bob Scull stares out into the galactical Tastee-Freeze darkness of Queens and watches his breath turn white in front of him.” – Tom Wolfe
At some point in the early 1960s, the rapidly emerging New York City pop art collector Robert “Bob” Scull was invited to one of several ritzy high fashion stores along London’s Savile Row. This particular store – like many of them on Savile Row – was notorious for being adamant about keeping a closed door on its level of class: visits were by appointment only, the appointments were by referral only, and the ones who did the referring itself were, in great number, the topmost cream of English socioeconomic stature; sons of royalty, media moguls, editors, big-name bank benefactors, etc. The day Scull visited, he had been referred to the store by Harry Lawton, the writer, and Murray Leonard, the actor. He requested a sport jacket made entirely out of riding pink.
“You know that material they make the riding pinks out of, those coats when they go hunting, riding to the hounds and everything,” Scull explained, after the tailor begged his pardon, “that material, they call it riding pink.”
The ensuing exchange is documented pound-for-pound in Tom Wolfe’s essay ‘Bob & Spike.’
“I am familiar with that, yes sir,” the tailor replied.
“Well, I want a sport jacket made out of that,” said Scull. “You don’t have the material?”
“It’s not that–”
“I know where I can get you the material. There’s this place, Hunt & Winterbotham.”
Now Scull had crossed a line that seldom anyone – let alone an American – had the guts, nor the resolve, to come as close as drawing remotely near to. Telling a Savile Row tailor that “There’s this place, Hunt & Winterbotham,” was, as put by Wolfe, like telling a Seventh Avenue coffee shop that there is this thing called a cheese Danish.
“We are aware of the availability of the material, sir,” the tailor started. “It’s just that we don’t do that sort of thing.”
“You can make a sport jacket, can’t you?”
“Oh, yes sir.”
“And you can get the riding pink.”
“Then why can’t you get the riding pink and make a sport jacket out of it?”
“As I said, sir, I’m afraid we don’t…”
“…do that sort of thing.”
“Well, all I know is, Harry Lawton and Murray Leonard said you could take care of me.”
“Oh, you come very highly recommended, sir, it’s just that we…”
“…I know… All right, let’s go over this thing again. You can make a sport jacket and you can get the material…”
In no more than two weeks, Scull emerged from Savile Row with (1) a brand new riding pink sport jacket, and (2) a sizeable crowd of puzzled onlookers to go along with it.
It was a similar if-you-have-the-means-then-why-not-do-it ethos that permitted Robert Scull to rise through the tricky infrastructure of 20th Century New York City Art Society with the odds immeasurably stacked against his cause. Born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (“Scull” is an anglicization of the surname Sokolnikoff), he spent his childhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, later fielding an interest for modern art upon visiting the Met Museum at ten years of age. Scull dropped out of high school, then began taking various arts-adjacent classes across the city whilst working up-and-down low-income jobs in freelance illustration and industrial design. In 1944, he married longtime wife Ethel – whom he called “Spike” because Ethel was “(such) a terrible name” – after a monthslong courtship. Ethel, conversely, had emerged from a more privileged family framework. Her father, Ben Redner, owned one of New York City’s most sprawling taxicab operations. She was a tall, dazzling white woman who studied at the Parsons School of Design, then the Art Students League. Together, albeit, upon marriage, the pair lived in relative poverty – with both of their funds combined, they were only able to afford living in a single room on West 56th Street with a Murphy bed. They bought a $12 membership in the Museum of Modern Art, two blocks away, on West 53rd Street. When guests came over, they used the Museum’s restaurant, garden, and miscellaneous exhibitions as a pseudo-living room.
But when Ethel’s father retired from his profession, he split his hefty shares in the taxi business among his three sons-in-law, Scull being one of them. Within years, Scull had built up his portion into a fleet comprised of 130 cabs and 400 drivers. Money was coming in. With some financial contribution from Redner, they moved into a house in Great Neck, New York. And then Scull got the idea to collect abstract expressionist art.
The game of collecting, itself, was not as sustainable as such a brashly put decision would lead one to believe. For one, it was a widely known fact that the hyper-desirable newest work by any artist depreciated faster than a used car (by the time it was purchased, just like that, Wolfe wrote, it lost anywhere from one third to one half of its value). The market for sought-after art pieces was, too, mainly made up of a core group of about twenty or so affluent collectors who had been doing this for the better portion of their lives. Any other bidders were the museums themselves.
When Scull began collecting, his intention was solely to discover the next best thing and attach himself to that cultural wave before anyone else did. One of the most notorious early business decisions of his, for instance, was to make a public investment into purchasing Jasper Johns’ 1964 piece Ale Cans: a painting of just that… two Ballantine Ale cans. Newspapers and tabloid magazines flocked Scull to take pictures. Scull was particularly proud of what he had done. He either was not aware, or did not care that the newspapers and tabloid magazines were actually making fun of him. Fellow students would approach his kids in school, wrote Wolfe, and say: “Hey, is your old man the nut who bought the beer cans?”
But Scull continued collecting. Little did any of his detractors know, at that point, that he had stumbled upon a movement that would quickly take the New York City Art scene by storm: pop art. Scull would soon become synonymous with it. And with time – once again, just like it did with the taxi business share – money would start coming in. He and Mrs. Scull found themselves invited to high-end evening dinner parties in the homes of New York’s most prosperous and well-known socialites. Among their tight inner circle, friends included Andy Warhol, Marina Consort (wife of Prince Michael of Greece), Sammy Davis, Alex Liberman, Dean Acheson, Averell Hariman, and Lady Bird. They moved out of their Great Neck residence, and into the grandest address in the Metropolitan area at the time: Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, in a larger-than-life eight room apartment. They were the bigshots now.
One of the most distinguishing elements of Scull’s ascent over the 1960s was that he was, unlike the vast majority of fellow rich art collectors who shared his stature, somehow able to keep a foot planted in one New York while the other rested in a polar opposite. Scull never did walk away from the taxi business (which, according to Wolfe, was packed to the brim with Mafia rejects) to make his art pursuit a permanent one – despite being reminded of the allure of doing so on an almost daily basis. Certain elements of the job that Scull had to put up with far exceeded the general tolerance level of any typical bearer of his Art Society prestige. One driver dubbed Do-Nut, for example, started out of the garage every morning with a large brown paper bag of donuts and other pastries seated beside him in the front passenger seat. Every day, he ate. The more he ate, the bigger he got. Scull had the driver’s seat in Do-Nut’s car pushed so far back at one point that the only passengers he could pick up were infants and midgets. Then, they took the padding off of the seats, and he was back up against the metal plates. And then one day it was all over: he was able to manage a tight squeeze into the driver’s seat, but when he tried to turn the wheel, it would only go about fifteen degrees before it lodged into his belly. He had eaten himself out of the profession.
Life for Scull was an exquisitely balanced dance between New York’s most squalid ratraces, and, simultaneously, its most exclusive, exquisite, inner societies only procurable by either tangible cash or tangible class. Scull had both walks of life ingrained into his pneuma, which made him a dynamic figure in his respective scene for all the years he held his placing: whereas others were born into their positions – whether their fathers were esteemed collectors, their mothers were royalty, or their families were the namesakes of entire museums – Scull was raised on the go-and-get-it ethos of the City’s most primordial lower-middle class populations, and grafted by trade into a system where there was supposedly nothing to ‘go-and-get’ anymore; one had it all. Still, yet, it wasn’t like Scull could remove his ambitious dynamism if he wanted to. He still carried his urban grit, his social audacity, his candid idiosyncrasy. It was the reason why he could strut his way into England’s most exclusive high-end fashion store, and walk out a week later with the embodiment of the impossible on his back, puzzled onlookers gawking away in the distance.
But it was also why, in many ways, even with as much cultural cache as he saw attached to his name, Scull became more and more of an outcast the further up in New York City’s Art Society he advanced. For his entire life, up to this point, he had transcended the boundaries of class one door after the next, whether by luck, skill, inheritance, or willpower. Now, it often seemed like any further widening of the gap between his past and his present was in the hands of those who already held his desired future – filthy rich, classy, powerful – and the future was just as elusive as any possibility of getting there early.
In one telling manifestation of such a dynamic, the night before they transferred their backing to the Whitney Museum, the Sculls found themselves at an evening dinner party hosted by Alfred Barr, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and his wife, Liza Parkinson, the Museum’s president. Robert and Ethel contributed $1000 to the Museum on a yearly basis so that they could serve on the International Council, and Ethel helped the institution’s bigshots out by organizing their parties for them, this evening being one.
At some point amid the night’s festivities, Parkinson beckoned toward Mrs. Scull. This was the moment that the Sculls had been waiting for – as put by Wolfe, “where Liza (was) going to say to Spike something like, Could you serve on this board or whatever, or could we get yours and Bob’s advice on this or that vital project, or, at the very least, would you come to such-and-such a dinner — you know, something that (would) symbolize the fact that Robert and Ethel Scull (were) now in the inner circle of this whole thing.”
Parkinson whispered something in Ethel’s ear. Robert could hardly wait to hear the news upon her return.
“What did she say?” he asked.
“Are you all set?” asked Ethel in return.
“You sure your heart’s OK?”
“She said, ‘Ethel, would you mind telling me who does your hair?’”
“Well, what did you say to that?”
“I told her.”
“Then what did she say?”
“She said would I ask him if he could do hers.”
“That’s all she said?”
“No. She wanted to know how much it was.”
By several means, yes, the Sculls were in there. Right where the epicenter of popular culture was, you would see the Sculls someplace within the vicinity like clockwork, whether it was on Andy Warhol’s canvases, in the biggest fashion magazines, or at the parties all the celebrities attended. But no matter what, their role was unshakably that of the outsider looking in – even if they could see their reflections on the glass.
Even so, Robert Scull’s general approach to life was simple enough to transcend the most impossible of predicaments: “Spike, you know what my philosophy is?” he said to his wife after the hair incident at the party. “My philosophy is, Enjoy.”
And enjoy, he did. At some point along the road to high art presence for the Sculls, a psychiatrist friend of Robert’s said to him: “Bob, did it ever occur to you that when you commission young artists to create works of art, you may be influencing the course of art history?”
This struck a valve in Mr. Scull that would permanently alter his approach to collecting writ large: why wait for the pieces to get to the gallery and then take part in a dogfight-esque bidding war against New York City’s most prolific high art moguls, when you could get to the artists before all that? Even better: why not discover them?
It was the principle that would lead Scull to cross paths with Walter De Maria. One Saturday afternoon in New York City, he was out and about, walking through a myriad of newly exhibited outdoor galleries that seemed to pop up more and more frequently as the weather got warmer. At some point, he looked up into the window of one gallery – it was fairly empty – and saw two young girls sitting inside. His interest was not as much a matter of him wanting to make a pass at them, as it was one of genuine curiosity about what art could possibly lie therein. He went inside. There were two very tall pillars of wood, along with a set of framed blank sheets of paper on a wall somewhere. In disbelief, Scull went to inspect the sheets close-up. In very soft pencil scribblings not visible from afar, he discovered the words: “Water, water, water.”
All right,” he said, upon interrogating one of the girls about the artist. The girls had not been asked this deeply about these specific pieces before – the price, which seemed to be one they had come up with on a whim upon Scull’s request, was $110. “I tell you what. This whole thing bugs me. I’ll buy this drawing for $110 if you’ll give me the artist’s name, address, and telephone number. I want to see what he has to say about this.”
So, Scull called the number, and it was Walter De Maria. He asked him to visit his studio. De Maria told him no. He pressed him further. De Maria reluctantly agreed. Upon his arrival at the location (a loft apartment, atop five flights of stairs), the artist hesitantly showed Scull, after being practically interrogated into doing so, a collection of other ‘blank page’ drawings stashed in a drawer somewhere.
Now, Scull was frustrated. He asked De Maria to show him what, if anything, he had been doing before he started with the drawings – this couldn’t possibly be it, right? De Maria proceeded to walk him into a larger room down the hall, and there it was: one skee-ball sculpture, and a file cabinet full of unfinished ideas scribbled on paper. It suddenly dawned on Scull that this was an opportunity to do exactly what the psychiatrist made him realize was possible: Bob, did it ever occur to you that when you commission young artists to create works of art, you may be influencing the course of art history?
He commissioned him to make a sculpture for him, and provided basic materials. After a period sprawling across the better part of a year – during which, after it had already taken quite a long time, De Maria called Scull only to ask for a large plate of silver – the sculpture was said to be complete. De Maria drove it up to the Sculls’ residence in a large truck, lugging it to their living room, where it stood, authoritatively, beneath heaps of velvet drapery. He pulled the strings. The drapery fell to the floor. It was the silver plate that De Maria had gotten from Scull. The only change: on the back, an inscription on a tiny piece of chrome read: “Nov. 5, 1965, made for Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull.”
Robert Scull loved it. “I was overwhelmed by it,” he told Wolfe later. “It’s impossible to describe what happens to a collector when he commissions something and it turns out right.”
Enjoy! That was the name of the game. Scull could enjoy himself, alright. He could enjoy himself to the point where he would invest loads of money and loads of time – nearly a full year of his life – into a regurgitation of a silver plate that he himself purchased, only this time with his own and his wife’s name inscribed onto it. But, no matter how much he enjoyed, there were certain things he couldn’t change about the reality he existed in: Robert and Ethel Scull were stuck. Liz Parkinson was never going to whisper some life-changing opportunity into their ears. The Whitney Museum wasn’t going to treat them any better than the Museum of Modern Art did. The taxi fleet was always going to be the taxi fleet.
One freezing night (17 degrees) in Flushing, Queens, the Sculls threw an exquisite post-World’s Fair party for their friends, the artistic elite. By the end of it, the drunken, upper-class revelers had taken over the band area and the dance floor: De Maria was pounding away at the drums; Pat Oldenburg was singing alongside Robert Rauschenberg; Larry Poons – or “Poonsy,” as Ethel called him – was stripping out of his fancy clothes; Robert Scull was watching the entire scene like a proud father, chuckling in his chair, yet still ostensibly disconnected from the action.
One by one, bus after bus came to pick up the celebrities and whisk them off into the night, safe from frigid temperatures. The Sculls were the last to go outside. There was no bus waiting for them.
“Suddenly, it is all quiet as hell here, and cold,” Wolfe wrote, concluding the essay. “Bob Scull stares out into the galactal Tastee-Freeze darkness of Queens and watches his breath turn white in front of him.”