How an Israeli and German Became New York's Artistic Power Couple

The producer of a new film about Robert Mapplethorpe met the legendary American photographer in the swinging Manhattan clubs of the pre-AIDS era. Today she and her husband, a former Israeli, have an art collection in which Mapplethorpe is only a bit player.

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Katharina Otto-Bernstein and Nathan A. Bernstein
Katharina Otto-Bernstein and Nathan A. BernsteinCredit: Gary Gershoff, Getty
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

It wasn’t difficult for HBO, the American pay-television broadcaster, to persuade Katharina Otto-Bernstein to produce a documentary about the legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Otto-Bernstein, an art collector and a director of films about art, encountered Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) at social events in Manhattan back during the swinging 1980s, when she was a young film student at Columbia University. Already then he was quite well known, but he was hungry for more fame and money – “ambitious” was too small a word to describe him, by far.

Otto-Bernstein had suffered all her life from the opposite problem: She was too well known and too rich. As the daughter of one of Germany’s wealthiest men, Werner Otto, founder of Otto GmbH, which eventually became the world’s largest mail-order company, she felt that no matter what she accomplished in her country, people would assume that opportunities came to her on a silver platter. As it was important for her to succeed on her own, she left Germany at an early age for a boarding school in England and afterward went on to New York, where she studied philosophy and film at Columbia.

“In Germany, my family’s name always got in the way,” she said in an interview earlier this summer in their New York townhouse. “That’s why America truly seemed to me the land of unlimited opportunity. I wanted to do something that would be only me, but no one thought I could do it. Here, no one knew me, at least until the internet made all the information very accessible. It was always my desire to create a life for myself, not the life that someone else had already created for me.”

Otto-Bernstein, who declines to give her age (according to the internet, she was born in 1964), was born in Hamburg, the fifth and youngest child of Werner Otto and his third wife. Her father died five years ago, at the age of 102, by which time he had amassed a fortune of tens of billions of dollars. Katharine’s siblings continue to manage the family business, which has since expanded into retailing and real estate. But from her childhood, Otto-Bernstein, who is married to art dealer Nathan A. Bernstein had been drawn to the creative world, and New York suited her to a T.

“New York in the 1980s was wonderful,” she says. “It was the most liberal period in American history. The artists and the Pride community were the leaders of New York. Downtown went up to uptown, and uptown came down to downtown, everyone mingled and you could meet them all in the clubs. Times without worries, an extremely creative era. Until the day the music stopped, when the economic crisis and the AIDS crisis struck. The art market collapsed, clubs shut down.”

Work by Robert Mapplethorpe Credit: Courtesy

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” was directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. It is now available for viewing on the satellite channel Yes Docu. The film shows how connections were forged rapidly during that fateful decade between the wealthiest class and creative artists. Mapplethorpe himself crossed the class divide in one swift leap – from street prostitution to flights to a private island in the Caribbean.

Otto-Bernstein, who says she is interested above all in human stories and history, also sought those connections – only coming from the opposite direction. When the party ended, as it were, she started to work in television documentary production, and in short order found herself in another sort of party, no less riveting. She was sent to Berlin to work on a series about East and West Germany, and while she was there, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, leading her to stay somewhat longer than she’d planned.

“I made a film about family unifications [of residents] from both Germanys,” she recalls. “I too come from a divided family – I had relatives in East Germany. I interviewed many spies from that period, such as the real ‘Red Sonja’ [Ursula Kuczynski, a German communist who was recruited by the Soviet Union]. It was fascinating. And then I went back to New York and completed my graduate studies before starting to work as a director.”

Her first full-length documentary, “Beautopia” (1998), was about the dark side of the modeling world. Then, when she met the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, when he showed up at a party at her home, she suggested doing a film about him. The result, “Absolute Wilson,” was only released in 2006. “At the time of the first interview with him, I was in my ninth month of pregnancy,” Otto-Bernstein explains. “And a year later I was pregnant again, so the film was made amid having babies and raising children, and in the course of trips all over the world, because he [Wilson] is a globetrotter.” She also wrote a biography of the same name of the theater director, with whom she says she remains close.

The Mapplethorpe documentary is the first on which Otto-Bernstein has served only as producer, and hasn’t directed. “Sheila Nevins [president of HBO Documentary Films] came to me with an offer to produce,” she says. “She had no idea that two Los Angeles museums, the Getty and the Museum of Modern Art, were about to jointly mount a huge Mapplethorpe retrospective. But she has superb instincts for things that are about to be hot.”

The film’s two directors, adds Otto-Bernstein “were part of the New York pride community in the 1980s. They have the right sensitivity to feel the pain of Mapplethorpe, who, like many others in that community, discovered one day in the middle of his life and career that he was going to die from AIDS. They made the film from a very authentic place.”

Robert Wilson with Calvin Klein and Ross Bleckner Credit: Bloomberg

She finds a clear connection between her interest in both Wilson and Mapplethorpe. “Wilson knew Mapplethorpe well, because they were both at Pratt [School of Art and Design, in Brooklyn], they are both gay and both came from very rigid religious and conservative backgrounds. Both had the absolute artistic impulse.”

Otto-Bernstein and her husband, Nathan Bernstein, who also took part in the interview, have in their art collection a special souvenir of the relationship between Wilson and Mapplethorpe: a copy of Mapplethorpe’s well-known photograph of Wilson with composer Philip Glass, which was included in the Getty’s part of the retrospective. Wilson himself gave the print to Bernstein a few months ago, as a birthday present. “Take note,” she says, “that he gave it to Nathan as a birthday present, even though it’s I who have been following his career all these years and made a film about him and wrote his biography.” To which her husband retorts, with a guffaw, “We celebrated my birthday in Berlin during the Berlinale – we were there for the screening of ‘Absolute Wilson’ – and we went out for dinner. He was a bit tipsy and he hugged me and said, Nathan, I’m going to give you an original Mapplethorpe for your birthday. I didn’t think he meant it, but two weeks later I received the 1976 photograph via FedEx.”

The couple also has a classic Mapplethorpe self-portrait and another work of his, which Otto-Bernstein bought years ago and hung in her office. But the film notwithstanding, Mapplethorpe is definitely not the major figure on the walls of the couple’s homes (they have several). The two are avid collectors, whose holdings are rumored to be between $50 million and $100 million.

‘A Herzl groupie’

Katharina Otto met Bernstein, an art dealer of Israeli origin who has now been living in New York for more than 40 years, some 18 years ago at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, the Long Island resort area. A divorced father of two, he was considered a highly eligible single man not only in America, but also in Europe and Israel. They became engaged within two weeks and were married three months later. Their two sons, aged 17 and 16, attend boarding schools in Massachusetts. When husband and wife are interviewed together they can be a mutual admiration society, but fur also can fly. For example, when each relates how they met the other’s parents.

The encounters took place in Germany and Israel, shortly after they met. “Her parents were very easy compared to my mother,” recalls Bernstein, whose father was already dead by then.

Was that because Katharina is German?

Katharina: “No. His mother asked me why I am so tall, and immediately afterward whether I had considered converting to Judaism. I made it clear immediately that the answer was no.”

Nathan: “Because we are a very old family in Israel, who arrived [from Eastern Europe] long before the Nazis came to power, we had no relatives who perished in the Holocaust. So my mother had no complexes about ties with Germany.”

She: “My father spent two years in a Berlin prison because of his opposition to the Nazis – it’s a well-known story.”

He: “Yes, but my mother didn’t know that.”

She: “I assumed you’d told her.”

Of the two, she is more judicious in her speech, and it’s important for her to talk primarily about her professional work: documentary cinema. He doesn’t mind showing off a little, all in a good spirit. “We are the power couple of the New York art world,” he declares, laughing. But he also backs up the assertion with a few magazines, one of them with a list of the 212 couples without whose presence social events in New York (area code 212) are sad and insipid.

Bernstein, too, is from a privileged family, in Israeli terms. He was born in Haifa 60-something years ago (he too prefers to be coy about his age), attended the city’s prestigious Reali school and was expelled, but after a few years in agricultural and army boarding schools was allowed to return, not least because of his family connections. On one side, his maternal grandfather, Shlomo Nathanson, was director general of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, the forerunner of today’s giant Bank Leumi. He is also a scion of the family of Shimon Friedman, one of the oldest in the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community of Palestine) and the founder of one of its first vineyards. His father, Eliahu Bernstein, was in the insurance and customs-agency business, and also liked to collect art.

Hermann Struck Credit: Courtesy

“My father always bought art, both Israeli and Jewish, and especially of the Paris School, which was very much in fashion in the 1960s and 1970s,” he relates. “It was a respectable middle-upper class collection, relative to Israel. But it wasn’t comparable to the collections of Sami Ofer or Efraim Ilin, two other Haifa residents, who made their fortunes abroad. Ilin was friends with my parents; we lived next to his family and I was a friend of one of his sons. I was very impressed by Ilin’s collection. When he died [in 2011] I wrote a condolence letter to his sons in which I mentioned that one of the main reasons I became an art dealer was the works I saw in their parents’ home. That was an opening.

“It was a period of austerity in Israel, but he had money,” he continues, referring to Ilin’s collection. “He had works by Picasso, Braque and Chagall, and drawings by Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec. You could say I coveted that; I hoped that one day I would have similar things. And in the end it happened.”

In the 1970s, Nathan and his brother, Michael, inherited the estate of Hermann Struck, a German Jewish artist known for his etchings, who was a quite distant relative on their mother’s side. Neither Struck nor the nephew who was his original heir, had children, so it was passed on to the Bernstein brothers. Struck had immigrated to Palestine from Berlin in 1922, settling in Haifa, because – according to Bernstein – that was Theodor Herzl’s favorite city. “To his delight, he was able to attend the World Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1903, a year before Herzl’s death. All the well-known etchings and drawings of Herzl are by Struck. He was a Herzl groupie.”

Struck taught at the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem and was also on the board of directors of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which was then still located in Dizengoff House (the home of Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor). Struck died in 1944, not long after taking part in the wedding celebration of Bernstein’s parents and giving them a work of his, an etching of Venice, as a present. In 2013, Nathan Bernstein donated the funds and artwork for the establishment of the Hermann Struck Museum in Haifa, which displays the works of a range of artists. He is now a member of the board of the Haifa Museums company and is also on the boards of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

As a young art dealer in Israel at the start of his career, Bernstein sold a considerable number of works by Struck, who was popular among local collectors at the time. “Everyone who had any sort of art collection had at least one Struck etching,” Bernstein relates. “These days, he’s already somewhat forgotten.”

After moving to the United States, Bernstein continued to deal in art; he has a gallery on Manhattan’s East 65th Street. He visits Israel three times a year, maintaining what he calls a “bachelor apartment” on Pinkas Street in north Tel Aviv, where aquarelles by Joseph Zaritsky, a painting by Moshe Kupferman and of course etchings by Struck adorn the walls. But that is negligible compared to the artwork that fills the three-story family New York townhouse, located a few blocks north of Bernstein’s gallery. A visitor entering the elegant home is dizzied by the ubiquitous art: It turns out that between Struck and Mapplethorpe lies a whole ocean of possibilities. Before we continue the interview, Nathan gives me a guided tour.

Zhang Xiaogang "Party Member #120"Credit: Via Bloomberg

Hot trend

The couple’s collection is rich, diverse and moving – especially for aficionados of modern art.

“Fortunately, we have pretty much the same taste,” Bernstein notes. “We both brought a little art from home, and together it developed a great deal. We started with Old Masters from the 17th and 18th centuries, then moved to the Impressionists and then modern art from the 20th century. It’s all still here, we have never sold anything, so it’s a nice mixture.”

On the ground floor is a sculpture by Antony Gormley. A large glass cube by Anish Kapoor stands at the center of a covered patio, and on the walls are two matching mosaic-like works by Damien Hirst made from thousands of insects and butterflies set against a black background. The couple commissioned the works from Hirst, to suit the scale of the wall. The second-floor library contains an 1893 oil by Edvard Munch, a painting by Max Beckmann, and four (out of 14) paintings from the “Turned Sheets” series by German artist Gerhard Richter.

“Those are works from 1965,” Bernstein explains, referring to the Richter series. “Some of the others are in museums and some are in private collections. It took us a few years to acquire these four. In each one the page moves a bit, more or less. He is so good that he can do everything, it’s a perfect deception of the eye.”

Otto-Bernstein adds that it would be nice if one day the whole series was in their possession. The large living room displays the “little” that Katharina brought from her home, including a landscape painting of simultaneously bold and gloomy colors by the German-Danish Expressionist Emil Nolde. A portrait of her father done by Andy Warhol hangs above the fireplace. A pair of Gormley sculptures placed next to the window have been dubbed “Nathan and Katharina” by the couple.

At the outset of their life together the couple accumulated a small, romantic collection of paintings of children. “It was the emotional moment when our children were born,” Otto-Bernstein recalls. “So we bought three portraits of Renoir’s sons, at approximately the age our children were then. That was the start. We also have a Picasso painting of his children and a Cezanne drawing of his son, and a painting by George Grosz. We did it for our children, from thinking about them.”

But perhaps the most important part of the couple’s collection these days is that devoted to contemporary Chinese art – reflecting the new, hot trend in the market. Otto-Bernstein says she was always attracted to China, so it’s not surprising that she was also drawn to Chinese art when it began to crop up in the major Western galleries and at fairs.

“It’s very rare to succeed at the beginning of a completely new movement,” she observes. “But it happened in China, when political changes began to take place there. Art reflects the politics and culture of our time – that is what makes it meaningful and also what excites you.”

Their interest in Chinese art was not spawned by economic considerations, she adds: “No one knew it would become so valued and in demand. It wasn’t a financial thing. China has always had very skilled artists, but they produced propaganda art, the kind we know from the Soviet Union. And suddenly all those talented people had something else to say.”

They chose the first painting together by chance at an art fair 10 years ago, when they browsed separately and found themselves admiring the same work. It was a canvas by Wang Ziwei, whose prices haven’t actually gone up much since then, according to the couple. “We frequently have the same taste,” Bernstein says, “and for the most part we buy things that we both love.” Pointing to a large painting in striking colors of chewing gum, by the American-Swiss Christian Marclay, which hangs above the sofa, Otto-Bernstein says, “That, I didn’t like at first.”

Bernstein: “Yes, it was a shock for me the first time I saw it. It just arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m still getting used to it. It definitely made the room 20 years younger.”

After purchasing the Wang Ziwei work, they began to take an interest in which other Chinese artists to acquire – and not a moment too soon, in terms of the prices. “We were able to obtain them in time, we acquired them very early,” Bernstein says. An artist whom Katharina is particularly fond of, and whose large and somewhat unsettling paintings are also on display in the New York townhouse, is Zhang Xiaogang, who does huge portraits of children in black and white with a small red stain or a depiction of red thread somewhere in the painting.

“I was always fascinated by the stories behind these paintings,” Otto-Bernstein says. “They are of children who were taken from anti-regime parents [during the Cultural Revolution]. There are books of pictures, like graduation books, in which the children appeared. This series is called ‘Bloodline,’ because these children were connected to one another in the sense that all were taken from their parents. It’s a subject that haunts me.”

Nathan: “Today these paintings fetch insane prices, millions of dollars. But we bought them at an auction in China before he became so well known.”

“The irony is that this is art that had its genesis in social criticism, including criticism of capitalism in China, but in the end it’s sold to rich people, and thanks to that the artists themselves become very rich,” notes Otto-Bernstein, who is currently working as an artistic consultant for a new film about changes that have occurred in the art market. “It’s a key question that has to be put to them: How do you reconcile the fact that you yourselves have become capitalists? This art was originally classified as ‘forbidden art,’ but then it reached the West and fetched excellent prices, and now it is returning to China. These days its biggest collectors are Chinese. All the major galleries in the West have opened branches in China.”

The two are at pains to emphasize that they do not collect as a financial investment but are impelled by love of art and by the intention of displaying all their numerous works in their homes. When one home is full, they move works to another. Some works are in storage.

Even if the collection is not intended for investment purposes, both Nathan and Katharina have vivid memories of good deals – and bad ones. He recalls how, “In the 1990s, even before I met Katharina, I had a few works by Warhol and Basquiat, and I sold them prematurely, because I needed money. That was a mistake. The market was low at the time. I had things that now are worth 50 times as much, which I barely managed to sell back then.”

Otto-Bernstein had the opposite experience: “In the dining room here below, there are three small Warhol paintings of Rorschach inkblots, that I bought in the 1990s. They all went up. The market was depressed at the time. In our previous apartment they hung in the kitchen, unframed. The children were little then and ate in highchairs and used to throw food every which way. About 10 years after I bought Warhol’s Rorschach inkblots, we went to an opening at the Michael Werner Gallery, and they had one on display. I told him that I had one like that, too, and I asked him how much he was selling it for. For $250,000, he told me. I rushed home, removed the paintings from the wall, made sure they had no food stains on them and immediately had them framed. That’s what goes on in this bizarre market.”

Is there any chance that this artistic richness will one day finds its way to a museum in Israel?

“We’ve never talked about what will be done with the collection after we die. I don’t even have a will,” Bernstein says with a smile. “I totally consider myself to be 20 years old.”

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