Modern Influences

Two art-loving Bostonians draw on their world-class collection to transform a Back Bay condo into a masterpiece.

GERALD FINEBERG IS A SELF-PROCLAIMED history buff, but not the facts-and-figures kind. Instead, he sees history through art — and when you get a tour of the roughly 9,000-square-foot condo he and his wife, Sandra, own at the Mandarin Oriental, you begin to understand his perspective. Sitting at his kitchen table, Fineberg gestures to a large cartoonlike painting done in baby-soft blues and yellows, depicting a blond man with an anchor tattoo shooting a blindfolded Wimpy (of Popeye fame). "This is My Lai," he says. "After the massacre, and the publication of that famous photograph of the Vietnamese man getting shot in the head, John Wesley painted this. It’s his interpretation of what was happening."

[sidebar]Here in this modern kitchen, seeing a cartoon character recast as a war victim, one starts to ponder the lingering questions of the Vietnam era. Look closer, and Wesley’s painting also offers a snapshot of ’60s culture (everyone read the Sunday funnies, tattoos were mainly for military men, Americans as a group were more blond than they are today) that textbooks cannot. Standing as a historical artifact rather than just a pretty picture, the painting fits right in with Fineberg’s approach to collecting. "You’ve got to train your eye to look at tough art, look at history, study the artist, and know where it’s coming from," he says.

Fineberg, a real estate mogul and hotelier, and his wife have been listed among ARTnews‘s top 200 art collectors in the world. Unlike investment collectors, though, the Finebergs live with their art and buy according to their own tastes. The couple got started in the early 1980s almost by accident: While renovating their home at the time, a Beacon Hill townhouse with high ceilings, they discovered they had nothing to hang on the walls. So Sandra’s brother, who was collecting in New York, invited them to check out the art scene. "We went down and got introduced to people," Fineberg says. "Her brother took us to shows, galleries, and museums, and we started meeting the artists of the day — Philip Taaffe, David Salle, Enzo Cucchi, Peter Schuyff, Julian Schnabel, all those people. Every show was an adventure."

After a handful of frustrating years coveting out-of-reach works and buying art that they ended up disliking after a few months, the couple began reading voraciously, traveling, meeting more artists, and developing their eye. "When we got in, there were prices we couldn’t afford, like [Jasper] Johns or [Robert] Rauschenberg from the ’60s," Fineberg says. "So we got into pop art, then got into minimalism, then discovered the Zero movement from Germany, and we began to collect forward and backward in time."

As emerging collectors, the Finebergs had arrived during a heady era: The art scene in the ’80s — fueled by drugs and money — was frenetic and star-studded. Fineberg recalls being at an opening in New York when the famed neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat walked in. "He looked terrible. He came to apologize to Diego Cortez [then the Finebergs' art adviser] because they’d had a fight and hadn’t spoken in about six months," Fineberg says. "A couple of weeks later, Basquiat died of a [heroin] overdose."