Day 6

Swapping furniture for Andy Warhol's art in the Village Voice classifieds

Sydney and Frances Lewis were among America's most prolific collectors of 20th century art and it all began when Sydney offered a television and vacuum to the father of pop art.

With a big-screen TV and a vacuum, Sydney and Frances Lewis became curators of 20th century masterpieces

In this Nov. 27, 2013 photo, plastic newspaper boxes for The Village Voice stand along a Manhattan sidewalk in New York. Village Voice publisher Peter Barbey announced on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, that the venerable alternative weekly will cease publication. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
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The late Sydney Lewis and his wife Frances can trace their private collection of 20th century American art  — possibly one of the largest in history — back to the early days of the Village Voice.

Lewis, who founded a catalogue showroom company called Best Products, came upon a classified ad posted by a little-known artist named Andy Warhol back in 1963.

"The ad that Andy Warhol had placed said that he would trade art for anything," recalled Isaac Butler, a New York-based writer, theatre director and Lewis' grandson.

The Village Voice, known for its muckraking investigations and coverage of bohemian New York during the '60s and '70s, officially closed shop last month after a 63 year run as the city's legendary alternative weekly.

Sydney and Frances Lewis are pictured in their Richmond, Virginia, home circa 1972. (Photo Archives, Virginia Museum of FIne Arts)

Butler, who twice wrote for the Voice, says it's a loss to New York City's arts and culture scene.

"You cannot tell that story without the Village Voice and you can't understand what that world was without reading it," he told Day 6.

Sydney's Harem

The Village Voice classifieds, filled with apartment listings, performance times and sex ads, helped fund the small paper's journalists.

Before seeing Warhol's post, Lewis had suffered a heart attack. On the advice of his doctor, he decided to take up a new hobby: art collecting.

American pop artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol holds an example of one of his posters. (John Minihan/Getty Images)

When the housewares magnate came across Warhol's offer, he wasn't sure if it was a joke or not, which made it all the more appealing, according to Butler.

"My grandfather liked jokes where it wasn't clear if you were joking or not," he said.

So, Lewis sent a Best Products catalogue — think IKEA meets department store — and offered to send Warhol whatever he wanted.

According to Butler, the artist chose the biggest television the company offered and a vacuum cleaner. In return, Warhol screen-printed portraits of Frances Lewis in various colours and named it Sydney's Harem.

From there, the couple started a program trading home goods and electronics with up-and-coming artists for paintings and sculptures.

"They sort of joked that they furnished all of the lofts in [the New York City neighbourhood] SoHo because artists lived in these really rundown unfurnished apartments," Butler recalled.

That barter system amassed one of America's largest collections of modern art — a feat the Lewis family only became aware of when they donated it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

'Permission to do weird stuff'

The Lewis family were friends with many of the artists they supported, including Warhol and composer Philip Glass. As a child, Butler spent time with some of them. 

"I grew up ... thinking of these people as human beings — I mean, geniuses sure — but also as human beings who created this work and needed a couch or a stereo one day," he said.

Isaac Butler is a writer and theatre director based in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Heather Weston/Submitted)

Being a part of that world, and surrounded constantly by art and sculptures, inspired Butler to become an artist himself.

"I think that gave me kind of a permission to do weird stuff," he said.

The Village Voice, he said, played a huge role in his own understanding of that world.

Theatre, performances and art exhibits, often ephemeral, were documented in its pages and, for years, often nowhere else. The paper was an "essential" part of New York City's arts scene, he added. 

The paper's owner, Peter Barbey, announced on August 31 that the weekly would no longer publish online, one year after the presses stopped on the storied paper's print edition. A small number of staff will remain to archive its history online.

"If the Voice hadn't been the kind of paper that would print half-joking ads from Andy Warhol, literally none of this would have happened," Butler tweeted, reflecting on the closure.

"And that's just one of what I am sure are countless examples of articles, ads, errata in the Voice changing people's lives."


To hear Isaac Butler tell the story, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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