Art & Design Magazine

Collectors' Roundtable with Helen Zell

By Americanart
Helen Zell

Collector, Helen Zell

In the more than sixty years since first collecting dolls and Katy Keene comics (complete with cut-out costumes!) as a child, Helen Zell, smitten with what she called "the collection gene gone wild," hasn't stopped. In more recent years, the Chicago born-and-based Zell and her husband Sam have amassed an important collection of twentieth century artwork as well as early ethnographic pieces. In her talk titled "From Paper Dolls to La Poupee," the second of three in the Collectors' Roundtable series at American Art Zell, a self-described obsessive collector, took us through her constantly evolving collection. She talked about the different roles and aspects of the collector: the obsessive, the scholar, the curator, the conserver, and the historian. Zell relishes each one and is as serious about acquisitions as she is about display and documentation.

Zell still has the first piece of serious art she purchasd by Robert Natkin in the early 1970s. The colorful abstract hangs in her Chicago apartment next to more recently acquired work. In the mid-1990s her husband Sam asked, "So, are you interested in being a serious art collector? What do you want to collect?" She answered, "I really love surrealism." And the idea for the collection was born. All they had to do now was acquire the pieces. Before long, the Zell Collection boasted master pieces by the surrealists including Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Yves Tanguy, as well as works by Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo, and Jean Miro.

Zell then took us on a tour of some of her favorite pieces including Hans Bellmer's, La Poupée from the 1930s (photos of life-size female mannequins); Arshile Gorky's Untitled from 1945 whom Zell noted for forming a bridge "from surrealism to abstract expressionism"; Frida Kahlo's La Venadita from 1945, and Man Ray's exquisite photograph, Swana, a solarized gelatin silver print from 1931.

According to Zell, "living with the collection is the ultimate reward," as images from the artwork in her homes in Chicago and California made abundantly clear: sometimes the best view is the one inside your home.

View the webcast of Helen Zell's talk.

The Collectors' Roundtable series concludes tonight at 7pm with D.C.'s own Robert Lehrman, speaking on the Secrets of the Art World.


  • Art Collecting, American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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