It was back in 1995 that I met Tommy LiPuma, who produced albums by George Benson, Natalie Cole, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, João Gilberto, Dan Hicks, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, and countless other musicians of note. I attended one of the recording sessions for Diana Krall’s All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, which Tommy produced and whose liner notes I subsequently wrote. I found him charming—most people did, I gather, though I suspect he could also be scary—but there was no particular reason for the two of us to strike up an acquaintance at the time, so we didn’t.
It wasn’t until I found out eight years later that Tommy was an art collector of high seriousness that I got to know him a bit. I wrote a Washington Post column about a gallery show of his collection of paintings by American moderns, from which he learned that we shared a passion for the paintings of Arnold Friedman. A few months later he invited me over to his Manhattan apartment to look at the rest of his collection.
From then on we had lunch every couple of years, happily eating pasta and trading jazz-world and art-world gossip. He was the perfect luncheon companion, smart, likable, and utterly honest, and he had marvelous taste both as a producer and as a collector. Much to our mutual amusement, we discovered that we had once both bid on the same Friedman canvas (he won, of course—money talks). It was Tommy who suggested to me that Mrs. T and I might want to consider acquiring a lithograph by Louis Lozowick, a piece of advice that we hastened to take.
According to the obits, Tommy died on Monday “after a brief illness,” too brief for me to hear about it. Far too much time had gone by since our last meeting, which was my fault: I’ve always been shy about forcing myself on important people, and I usually let Tommy reach out and suggest lunch. Now I wish I hadn’t. I miss him already, more than I can say, and I wish I’d written more about him than that 2003 Washington Post column, the relevant part of which is reprinted below. “It’s funny how little it takes to remind you of the things you wish you hadn’t done,” I wrote many years ago. It’s not even slightly funny how little it takes to remind you of the things you put off doing until it’s too late.
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I certainly can’t complain about Berry-Hill Galleries’ “High Notes of American Modernism: Selections From the Tommy and Gill LiPuma Collection,” at which I saw nine remarkable paintings by Arnold Friedman. If you’ve never heard of Friedman, who died in 1946, you’re not alone. So far as I know, none of his work is currently hanging in any museum (though the Museum of Modern Art owns a good Friedman, “Sawtooth Falls”), and he almost never gets written up nowadays. Clement Greenberg, long the top handicapper of American art, praised his late paintings to the skies, calling them “an important moment in the history of American painting.” Strong words, coming from the critic who put Jackson Pollock on the map—yet even his fervent advocacy wasn’t enough to keep Friedman’s name alive.
To understand how good Friedman was, take a long look at “Still Life (Petunias),” the prize of the LiPuma collection. In the foreground is a vase of flowers whose vibrantly colored petals all but burst off the canvas. (The thick, crusty surface was heavily worked with a palette knife.) Hanging on the wall immediately behind the vase is the lower half of an abstract painting—Friedman’s way of underlining the subtle relationship between abstraction and representation. The juxtaposition of the two genres is both witty and thought-provoking, unveiling fresh layers of implication at every glance. I was amazed to learn that “Still Life (Petunias)” was owned by Tommy and Gill LiPuma. If their names ring a bell, it’s because you probably know Tommy in a different guise: He’s a big-time record producer, the man who helped put Diana Krall on the charts. I’ve met him once or twice, but I had no idea that he and his wife were interested in art, much less that they were true connoisseurs whose independent-minded taste has inspired them to assemble what is almost certainly the largest private collection of Friedmans in the world.
The LiPuma collection also contains 22 paintings by Alfred Maurer, a gifted American modernist who is as persistently underrated as Friedman, plus fine works by Arthur Dove, John Graham, Marsden Hartley, Walt Kuhn, John Marin and Joseph Stella. Alas, the show is no longer on view, but perhaps the Phillips Collection could be persuaded to bring it to Washington. Arnold Friedman, after all, was Duncan Phillips’s cup of tea—a color-drunk representationalist who flirted daringly with abstraction—and it would be altogether fitting if the best small museum in America were to open its doors to the least-known major American painter of the 20th century.
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The Los Angeles Times obituary is here.
Diana Krall’s tribute is here.
Marc Myers’ tribute is here.
Tommy LiPuma talks about the Cleveland Museum of Art, to which he donated Marsden Hartley’s “New Mexico Recollection”: