Home Is Where the Art Is: Modernist

Mario Russo stands in the center of his living room, ruminating about art. He seems at once humbled and energized by the dozen or so contemporary works around him. Suddenly, he’s on the move. Neatly sidestepping a frail-looking, butter-colored sofa, he hurries to the far corner of the room, where a canvas the size of a small book hangs next to a stately Biedermeier desk.

“This one,” Russo says reverently. “This one I went gaga over.”

Mario Russo stands in the center of his living room, ruminating about art. He seems at once humbled and energized by the dozen or so contemporary works around him. Suddenly, he’s on the move. Neatly sidestepping a frail-looking, butter-colored sofa, he hurries to the far corner of the room, where a canvas the size of a small book hangs next to a stately Biedermeier desk.

“This one,” Russo says reverently. “This one I went gaga over.”

He picked up the piece in question, a work by Irish artist Paul Doran, last December at the Art Basel Miami Beach international show. Along with Brooklyn-based Angela Dufresne’s Housing for Divorced Chinese Fishermen in Maine, it is Russo’s most recent acquisition. Outwardly the two paintings look nothing alike: Doran’s is an abstraction of smeared whites and pastels, while Dufresne’s is an organized chaos of oranges and reds. Contextually, though, they mesh perfectly within Russo’s modern art collection, much of which is showcased on the walls of his quietly magnificent Beacon Hill townhouse.

That Russo has an eye for aesthetics should come as no surprise: The hair salon mogul’s eponymous outposts long ago became the first word in Boston beauty. But his other passion is less public. Russo has been involved with the Institute of Contemporary Art for 12 years (he’s currently a board member) and actively supports local artists (his three New England homes are filled with works by Massachusetts talent such as Maryellen Latas and Rob Moore; the Provincetown one is dedicated entirely to pieces by Cape-area artists). He also travels the world—Miami Beach, London, Basel—searching for pieces that will fit into his conceptual collection and antique-meets-avant-garde home base.

“Look at this,” Russo says, now standing before a spectrum of vertical stripes by Ellsworth Kelly. “You can see how he’s pushing the paint off here and then pulling it back on here, and you have no idea how he’s done this. The colors, the layers, the technique—it’s just incredible.”

Some might say the same about the way Russo and partner Frank Gilligan have appointed their pied-à-terre. It’s as if they borrowed Kelly’s approach and instituted a similar give-and-take, one where contemporary art mingles seamlessly with classic décor. An electric-blue aluminum print by Paul Seawright, for example, looks almost computer-generated, hanging as it does over a grand 1400s Venetian commode; delicate Louis XVI armchairs sit below a vibrant, colossal Sol LeWitt. Indeed, though whole epochs separate the art from the furniture, the overall effect is one of cohesive and comfortable splendor—and Russo feels right at home with all of it. “I could sit in this room day in and day out and always feel blessed to be here,” he says, his eyes wandering over the LeWitt, the Biedermeier, Dufresne’s divorced fishermen’s cottages. “Somehow, it all comes together.”

Russo left his hometown in southern Italy for the United States in 1972. He’s since built a grooming empire that includes two Back Bay salons (one on Newbury Street, one at Louis Boston) and a nationally recognized line of olive oil–infused hair- and skin-care products. The man behind Johnny Damon’s famous shag and countless socialites’ artfully angled cuts, Russo has become a local fixture and an arbiter of good taste—flip through any fashion magazine and you’ll find his thoughts on the latest, greatest trends.

While nurturing his cult following, Russo was simultaneously immersing himself in the art world. He took photography and painting classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, started frequenting galleries around town, and began visualizing a collection of his own. His first serious breakthrough came in 1994, when he bought his LeWitt from the Barbara Krakow Gallery—a grand first purchase by any standards. The 5-by-5-foot work, a controlled riot of vivid color titled Brushstrokes in All Directions, now dominates his living room. “I was looking to buy something much smaller to start,” Russo admits. “This took me a while to pay off, but I’ll always have it. I never tire of it.”

And so began his evolution from student to aficionado, infatuation with conceptualism, and lifelong passion for collecting. Unlike most serious enthusiasts, Russo has no agent or adviser; he relies on his own knowledge and instincts when it comes to purchasing. He keeps current on what his favorite local galleries—Barbara Krakow, Allston Skirt, Samson Projects—are showing, and will follow an intriguing artist for years before zeroing in on a piece. His collection spans decades and fills the aforementioned three houses, and he still picks up two to six major works a year. The method, he says, is slow but steady, with two important rules: Keep your collection tight, and practice patience. Russo has been known to wait a small eternity for something he wants; for instance, the diminutive Stephan Balkenhol wood and paint sculpture in his living room took him five years to acquire.

“There are vast numbers of people buying up contemporary art today,” says Russo’s longtime friend and sometime art confidante, Newbury Street art dealer Barbara Krakow. “They’re concerned about having the ‘right’ artist, like some are concerned with drinking the ‘right’ wine or vacationing on the ‘right’ island. These people are not collectors. Mario is. With him, it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the passion. It’s about falling so in love with something, you have to have it.”

In Russo’s case, that great love centers on conceptual art—the notion that something is only really beautiful if the concept behind it is powerful. “The idea has to be strong for the work to have value,” says Russo, striding through his art-lined hallway and pausing before a piece that at first appears to be a needle and thread encased in glass. “See this? This is a Cornelia Parker. She took three thimbles and melted them down into a fine, silver string.” This thimble-string loops and circles through the work, creating a picture of fragile, stark grace. “In the end,” he adds, “it’s just beautiful. I would never buy anything that’s not.”

Eight years ago, when Russo moved from the Back Bay to Beacon Hill, he knew he needed an apartment with enough space for his growing art collection. He found one in a majestic 1840s walk-up at the top of a sloping street. The unit had two superfluous bedrooms, so Russo and Newton-based architect Adolfo Perez set about transforming it into a comfortable one-bedroom with lots of display space. “I’d say it’s modern with a lowercase ‘m,’” Perez says of the finished product. “Mario was very enthusiastic and encouraging, a rare client who knows design and what looks good. It’s not a statement apartment but a merging of historical details and modern character—a great setting for art.”

The rooms are bright and airy, and filled with paintings, photographs, art installations, and sculptures. A mélange of furniture—the neoclassical Italian couch, a pair of 1960s copper and brass lamps, a polished Federalist foyer table—culled from auctions and antiques shops complements such architectural details as traditional ceiling medallions and replicated original moldings. The walls and ancillary décor are rendered in white and beige tones that let the art do the talking. Several opaque glass doors play off glass fixtures in both bathrooms and a giant glass backsplash in the kitchen. But, as intended, it’s the art that takes the lead, while the décor plays a strong supporting role.

So seamless is their pairing, though, that in a few cases the décor is the art, such as with the Maryellen Latas installation in Russo’s bedroom. He commissioned the local artist to rework his closet doors however she saw fit, and Latas applied her signature minimalist style to the project: She left the doors untouched but mounted a row of solid, heavy titanium- and gold-leaf blocks above the closet. Russo was delighted. The same can be said for the Rebecca Warren abstract ceramic piece that rests on a waist-high pedestal. It looks at once like a serious work and an offbeat tabletop decorative sculpture.
“In Mario’s apartment, you really notice the interrelationship of the art and the environment,” Krakow confirms. “You could take the same art and hang it in another apartment and it would look terrible. Mario’s eye for where things hang and what hangs next to them is very keen; he has built a kind of rhythm where one work of art talks with another. It’s very impressive.”

Yet there’s nothing boastful or overbearing about Russo’s well-appointed home. The cornerstones of his collection—the LeWitt, the Kelly, and a small oil-on-metal by Gerhard Richter (whom Russo considers the most important living painter)—aren’t given their own walls or highlighted by elaborate track lighting. They hang next to other, less significant works by emerging artists. The overall effect is less MoMA gallery, more tightly woven collection.
Eventually, Russo says, he might loan his pieces to major museums, or even donate a work or two to the ICA’s permanent collection. Any blank wall space, though, is primed for a new contemporary purchase. “I’ve slowed down a bit because prices have gone insane,” Russo says. “But I started collecting before I could even afford it, and there’s no letting up now. If these things weren’t around me, I’d feel totally empty.”