Financial Times, May 27th 2006
Six of the eight bedrooms in Norah and Norman Stone’s mansion have been given over to art. But the San Francisco power couple assure me that the encroaching collection has required no real sacrifice on their part and no significant alterations to their beautiful Arthur Brown-designed house.
“I was actually pleased to have the housekeeper move out and be replaced by Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney,” says Norah, referring to the top floor where they now keep several pieces by the two artists.
A tour of Stones’ home, which has views from Presidio Heights over the city and the bay, reveals just how inventive they have been when it comes to sharing their living space with their art. What is particularly striking is the juxtaposition of the many uncompromisingly modern pieces with the more traditional, elegant surroundings, originally created by the renowned interior designer Frances Elkins.
In the entrance hall, against a background of sumptuous antique Chinese wallpaper, hangs “La Poupée” (1938) by Hans Bellmer. One of Joseph Beuys’ ”vitrine” works, housed in a rectangular glass case on legs, stands nearby. “You don’t see many of those in people’s hallways,” quips Norman. Tucked into a closet – the Stones admit they struggled to find the right place – is a sound piece by Stephen Vitiello that includes recordings made in the World Trade Center in 1999.
In the relatively small, formal dining room two giant wall pieces by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog” (1996) and “Cheeky” (2000) face off against a large Andy Warhol self-portrait, “Fright Wig” (1986). Strolling through the living room you spot a familiar image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee – Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1940).
The Stones like to contextualise their collection by including pieces by a previous generation of avant-garde artists that influenced many of the younger names in their collection. Thus, on an upper floor, Robert Gober’s “Pair of Urinals” (1987) echoes Duchamp’s succès de scandale, “Fontaine” (1917).
Norman, who is president of his family’s foundation, explains the rationale behind their acquisitions: “The wisest thing to do is to know your end-game,” he says. “We collect museum-quality pieces so that in the end they will go to museums.” (The Stones have ties to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Tate Modern, among others.) “Our mission is to act differently.”
Some of the work is highly provocative. But, says Norman, who is a psychologist by training, and who works regularly as a psychological counsellor with young people at a local community centre: “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them but they exist and should not be shirked.”
As one explores the house, it’s clear that every possible nook and cranny has been exploited as space to show art. In a labyrinthine series of rooms in the basement one happens across Keith Tyson’s 2002 Turner Prize-winning “Bubble Chambers”. Also below ground-level, a long whitewashed room acts as a minimalist gallery with works by Donald Judd and Richard Serra as well as one of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings.
Even the garage, which houses his ‘n’ hers Porsches, has been put to use. When Norman decided to buy “Electric Earth”, a video piece by Doug Aitken, he realised the five screens and 1,200 ft of space it required would pose something of a challenge. The solution was a linear version of the piece, created by the artist, with just one screen which drops down for viewing once the cars have been relegated to the street.
Maintenance issues inevitably arise with such an eclectic collection. A Jeff Koons work, “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985), which consists of two Spalding basketballs in a tank of distilled water, requires a regular water change. Unfortunately the person who had been performing this task for the Stones – and was familiar with the 13-page manual explaining the necessary procedure – recently left town. Norman shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience. “We’ll find someone else,” he says.
In any case, the couple have bigger issues on their mind. At their Napa Valley estate, where they also manage a vineyard, they are drilling below ground into the limestone to create a 5,000 sq ft cave of exhibition space. Also in the planning stages is a James Turrell skyspace which is being built into the swimming pool. Norah says when it is completed LED lighting will allow you to change the colour of the sky.
The Stones insist they always find solutions when they want to install a new work of art. Still, the “art cave” is perhaps an admission that their city home has finally reached full capacity.