Look at the lights,” exulted Joseph Hirshhorn as he arrived in a chauffeur-driven Valiant for last October’s glittering opening of the museum named after him in the nation’s capital. The immigrant Jewish boy who grew up in Brooklyn, scrambled to wealth in Wall Street and pyramided Canadian gold and uranium interests into a fortune to beggar Croesus was witnessing at 75 the culmination of a dream. He burst into song: “I’m getting excited, I’m getting delighted, I’m in love!”
Hirshhorn’s glee was understandable. The unveiling came eight years after President Lyndon Johnson gratefully accepted Hirshhorn’s gift to the nation of 2,000 sculptures—the largest private sculpture collection in the world—and more than 4,000 paintings, all valued at some $100 million. The gift, including masterworks by such titans as Daumier, Rodin, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock and Henry Moore, is by far the largest benefaction by any collector in history.
Before the 5’4″ patron stepped onto a champagne crate to acknowledge the opening of Gordon Bunshaft’s granite doughnut of a museum, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. ambassador to India and chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, summed up the sentiment in Washington: “The level of taste, energy and chutzpah shown by Hirshhorn in assembling the collection is miraculous.”
Yet steeped in years and wealth and honors as he is, Hirshhorn’s gargantuan passion to hoard beauty seems unabated. He has recently acquired sculptures by Nevelson and Calder, among others, to augment the 6,000 items still stored in warehouses. Says Hirshhorn offhandedly: “I’m always picking up odds and ends.”