Frank Maresca opens the door of his Manhattan loft and sticks his head into the front entrance in greeting. Behind him is the first glimpse of his collection — a painting for a 1931 poster by French artist Paul Colin that makes visitors do a double take when they look beyond their host. The image — hands in the act of putting on a pair of round black spectacles — looks as though it were modeled on Maresca and his signature eyeglasses.

Provocative and personal, it sums up Maresca’s feelings not only about art but also about the art of collecting. “Art’s all about having a strong reaction,” he says. “I don’t care if you have a negative or positive reaction; you can love it or you can hate it. I want you to have some kind of reaction because that’s the beginning of the discussion.”

For dealer/collector Maresca, the discussion ranges far and wide and as far out of the ordinary white/grey box as he can get it to go. “I don’t collect anything specific,” he says. “I collect and deal in two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects that have the ability to transport the viewer. The value of the piece isn’t important; only the quality and integrity of the object matter.”

From the circa-1979 ruby-red throne, by self-taught artist Leroy Person, in the dining room, to the shuttle-shaped weather vane in the living room that once graced the roof of a nineteenth-century New England weaving mill, Maresca’s collection does indeed defy categorization. “Whether it’s folk, self-taught/outsider art, found objects, modern, contemporary, or ancient, each object should be able to hold its own against anything in any of the major museums of the world,” he says.

 

 

 

Maresca, who with Roger Ricco owns the Chelsea-based gallery that bears their surnames, began collecting more than three decades ago when he was a fashion/beauty photographer. Although he started with late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century furniture, he took a more modern approach when he started selecting his artwork. “There was nothing on my walls,” he says, “and the traditional things — samplers, Queen Anne brass candlesticks, and portraits of someone’s dead relative — didn’t appeal to me.”


Then in 1976, he attended Folk Sculpture U.S.A., a joint show by the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It changed my life — and my collection,” he says. “This material wasn’t even on my radar.”

That inspiration is felt throughout the 2,200-square-foot loft that he has subdivided to create the best frames for his most spectacular pieces. In the guest bath, for instance, the walls display a dozen framed black-and-white photos from Weegee’s 1952 “distortion” series, counterbalanced by an angular abstract pen-and-ink drawing by Man Ray. The link? Both were photographers.

On the white marble vanity, there’s an eight-by-ten Lucite box filled with blinking dolls’ eyes that bat their long lashes at guests as they look at their reflections in the mirror. The 1950s salesman’s sample, from the Margon Corp., “has no real monetary value,” Maresca says. “As I dealer, I’d have a hard time selling it for $500, but it’s one of my favorites, and if there were a fire, I can tell you in all honesty that it might be thefirst thing I would save.”

The master suite is a self-sufficient series of sculptural spaces that revolve around art and life. In the office, where a sleek white Apple computer sits atop a glass desk, a dozen 1940s plastic dolls in their factory box share bookcase space with a hand-carved wooden whimsy. A burl ash cage, the size of a desk calendar, encircles nine perfectly round balls. It was made from a single block of wood and took the artist, A. D. Eller, four thousand hours to complete, a feat that earned him a spot in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “It’s a testament that anything’s possible,” Maresca says.

 Of the 1930s hand-powered aluminum Allen vacuum cleaner that’s mounted and 
displayed in a bedroom window, says Maresca, “It’s ridiculous, but it’s perfect.” Of the bellows-like apparatus he adds, “The dealer wasn’t sure he wanted to sell it because he used it to vacuum his booth. But I gave him $200 — enough twenty years ago to buy a new contemporary vacuum.”

In the sleeping section, the bed faces the flat-screen TV and a wall mounted with a half dozen heads, including an Independent Order of Odd Fellows1 head of Goliath splashed with red paint to represent blood from the stone wedged in his forehead. Above the headboard, there’s a 1950s diner painting of bacon and eggs that smiles, sunnyside-up, at Maresca every morning. “Nothing in here is random,” he says. “Everything is here for a reason. I have arranged things to create a sense of mystery and theater; I don’t want everything to be revealed at once.”
As far as the heads at his feet, “It’s fun for me to sit in bed and watch all of them like an audience,” he says. “It’s strange, it’s intimate, but they’re not inanimate because they have a presence. They’re not just wood and paint and fiber; whether you reference Pinocchio or Tim Burton, they’re friends that I enjoy, and they watch me too.”

 Maresca also is watched over by a trio of nearly life-size portraits. The large lady in the bright orange bathing suit once was part of a 1920s circus banner; the 1954 painting of roller-skate champ Peggy Wallace, signed prominently by one Captain Rudy Vigneault, was copied from a flier; and a 1940s Eve, with apple and snake, was found in an attic. “I like the fact that all of these were real people,” Maresca says. “Eve, for instance, was made to be viewed privately; it was not made to be displayed in a home.”

To keep things interesting, Maresca rotates pieces of his collection at least once a year. To make this easy, he built a large storage cabinet that acts as a wall that separates the foyer and living room. “Presentation is everything,” he says. “When I rotate, it’s like I’m seeing something for the first time. I’ve already paid for it, so it’s like I got it for free.”

 Recently, for instance, he added ten metal face sculptures —1950s molds from a toy factory that made Halloween products — to the living room. They are right at home with his 1985–1986 William Hawkins paintings, the four foot-high truncated torso of a circa-1885 terra-cotta angel, and the circa-1880 gilded and carved face of the mythical messenger Mercury made for a Baltimore courthouse to remind everyone of the speed of justice. 

It isn’t the age of the piece so much as its history that speaks to Maresca, and the human form says the most to him. “Art is a Rorschach test,” Maresca says. “You see what you want to see, you feel what you want to feel. Each person sees different things that change with the mood and time.”

 “There’s a very real thread or cable that runs through everything in my collection,” he says. “It all hangs together, and collectively it tells a different story to each person, but it tells who I am. The picture of who I am is the sum of what I’ve collected.” What he ultimately collects, though, are lively conversations. “I enjoy having friends over in the evening,” he says. “We hang out, have some wine and talk for hours.”