Two Scientists Caught in Amber
Two Scientists Caught in Amber
By CLAUDIA STEINBERG - New York Times, 9/9/2004
YOU need 300 objects to furnish an apartment, just for the record," said Stuart Pivar, a scientist and art collector, in a grand tone reminiscent of Diana Vreeland. Ms. Vreeland was a close friend and taught him the effectiveness of pontification.

It can be safely guessed that Mr. Pivar has more than 300 objects in the duplex apartment he shares with Helen Matsos in a neo-Gothic building on West 67th Street in Manhattan. His belongings include figurative art and Renaissance furnishings, modern ceramics and an inherited piano.

Mr. Pivar, 72, has long been involved with the New York art scene. The son of an importer of velvet ribbons and an intensely style-conscious mother, he was a founder of the New York Academy of Art, then in the East Village and now on Franklin Street in TriBeCa, with Andy Warhol. (Mr. Pivar was invited to Warhol's Factory by a friend in the early 1970's, and he and Warhol soon became close friends and shopping companions.)

Made wealthy by the industrial companies he founded, Mr. Pivar bought his apartment in 1975 from an elderly woman who had lived there for 60 years. The apartment, including its contents chiefly 19th-century salon furniture and what he calls respectable Renaissance reproductions cost him $85,000. He then sold all the furniture, except the Steinway piano and theatrical costumes, at Sotheby's for nearly the same amount, in effect getting the apartment free.

"It is a good thing to identify yourself as a collector," Mr. Pivar said. "People will bring you things."

Doormen, recognizing his acquisitive nature, have presented him with art left behind by other residents, including stacks of nude drawings by the American realist painter Leon Kroll (1884-1974, known for his depictions of the female form), who had once lived in the building. Mr. Pivar himself has added, among many other things, a set of twisted Solomonic columns the kind Bernini used at St. Peter's in Rome and a sculpture of a Greek goddess.

He has also amassed precious musical instruments including the 16th-century harpsichord in his study and a platinum flute, which he bought at auction in 1986 for $187,000, he said, after a bidding war with an investment banker, who wanted to buy it for his 12-year-old-daughter.

Warhol's diary entry that year for Oct. 18 recorded the moment: "Stuart kept his paddle up and I could feel his whole body next to me shaking. When the hammer came down, Stuart was just in shock. Just in shock. He then consumed two double martinis and four hot chocolates."

On the floor underneath the harpsichord is a surprising sight: a large number of familiar-looking bronze Rodins. Mr. Pivar refers to them, with a shrug, as his Rodin forest. As he puts it, "Everyone has a Rodin."

When he bought the apartment, he did make the previous owner one promise. No matter what, "I was not allowed to tear down her beloved wallcovering of rose-gold silk brocade," he said, "and I wouldn't dream of committing such an act of cruelty." He covers the shabby spots with paintings. "It's an amazing background for art objects," he said. "I like the lightly anachronistic effect that it gives."

He immediately began replacing her 19th-century furniture, however, with Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque pieces. "Buying is easy," he said. "All you have to do is raise your hand, and if you hold it up long enough, everything is yours."

Competition is relatively sparse for Renaissance furniture. "Not everybody wants to live in a period space," he said. Thus, he was able to buy a fresco attributed to Giulio Romano's studio for $12,000, whereas other things he has bought, including the flute and cookie jars from the Warhol collection, have attracted more heated competition.

And then there are the bones, many displayed against black velvet. Mr. Pivar, who is fascinated by anatomy, has a real human skeleton as well as artificial bones created at his instructions by a young artist. A menagerie of stuffed animals, also on the second floor, is further evidence of Mr. Pivar's fascination with the natural world.

Ms. Matsos, 39, is a biophysicist with a special expertise in looking for fossil life in Martian meteorites. She is a consulting researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the editor in chief of Astrobiology Magazine, an Internet publication based at the Goddard Institute of Columbia University.

The Gothic and Renaissance pieces in the Pivar collection are relative newcomers compared with Martian fossils, and wholly to her taste. "It is wonderful to know that people 500 years ago were creating such grandeur and beauty," she said.

Growing up in an Art Deco apartment in New York City, Mr. Pivar was surrounded by furniture his mother had one day painted white, even the mahogany. He became a collector at 7. First it was an extensive collection of bugs. "Today you can walk through Central Park without encountering a single bug," he complained.

At summer camp in Kingston, N.Y., he traded bottle caps with other boys, manipulating the market by very sparingly trading his Pepsi caps, he remembers. When the price of a Pepsi bottle cap was high enough, he would sell. He was 8.

Mr. Pivar's early interest in insects and their metamorphosis eventually led him to focus on exploring human embryonic development. His scientific interests and his collecting habits are supported by a group of plastic mold companies he founded in 1959 under the name Chemtainer Industries. "I don't work," he said. "These firms are on autopilot."

On the second floor is a large collection of gem stones he inherited from Warhol. Until Warhol's death in 1987, he and Mr. Pivar went on almost daily shopping trips. "He wasn't a very knowledgeable buyer," Mr. Pivar said. "And he'd ask me for my opinion, which he always ignored. Because my opinion was, `Don't buy that junk.' He would buy it anyway."

Mr. Pivar, who plays the piano and a 17th-century Italian cello, is fond of classical music, the three B's, meaning Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and Mozart. He met Ms. Matsos 10 years ago, when a friend took her to his apartment for one of his frequent musical evenings.

A trained opera singer who has toured Europe and the United States, she believes that Baroque music works especially well in their opulent environment. But she and Mr. Pivar are just as likely to play blues and jazz on the long-resident Steinway, which is in the living room. "There is nothing uglier in the whole world than the shape of a piano," he said. "Unfortunately I need it. But it is completely wrong for the room, and I apologize for it."

And then the piano is hard to move. Much of his Gothic and Renaissance furniture is highly portable, chests and campaign chairs that fold up like modern beach chairs. His desk closes up and becomes a trunk: "You can keep all your knickknacks in there," he said. A huge table is put together cunningly in five pieces. "It can be dismantled in seconds," he said.

"Even the wooden walls that fit magically into one of the upstairs rooms come right off and flatten into a stack a mobile home," he said, speaking of the Renaissance walls in his study. "I could be out of here in 15 minutes, walls and all."

But it seems clear he will stay and that he will continue to acquire. "Every time I see an example of something that is better than what I own, I buy it," he said. "Otherwise for the rest of my life I have to live with the knowledge that someplace in the world something is floating around that is better than mine, and that's intolerable."