A Rare Look at Bob Greenberg’s Collection of ‘Outsider Art’

Bob Greenberg, the digital effects pioneer, legendary adman and founder of creative Goliath R/GA has, as you might expect, an impressive view from his New York office. Through its double set of casement windows, Greenberg can look out on a leafy courtyard and the bustle of West 39th Street in Hell's Kitchen. But as he works, Greenberg actually turns his back to that view. Instead, as he sits at his desk, he faces a wall—a wall hung with an enormous piece of art called "History of the Plant Farm Museum," painted by Howard Finster in 1982. The titanic canvas is among the 1,100 pieces of art in Greenberg's collection, one he's been building since the early 1980s. (A gallery follows below.)

Bob Greenberg R/GA

Greenberg's art collection is on his mind a lot these days, because it—along with he and R/GA itself—is moving. Having outgrown the distinctive but small Bauhaus headquarters just east of Ninth Avenue that Greenberg built just in 1984, R/GA will relocate in mid December to the new Hudson Yards complex now rising a few blocks to the south.

For Greenberg, taking all his art down from the walls (and every inch of R/GA's present quarters seems to hold some piece of it) is a daunting task. "Quite frankly, I never knew until we started to move how much of an effect it has," he said on a recent afternoon, clad in his usual all-black attire with Nike sneakers. But the impending move is also an opportunity for Greenberg think about how his collection will enhance, and interact with, the new space, especially since there'll be so much more of it—200,000 square feet on the 11th and 12th floors at 450 W. 33rd Street.

"We're taking a lot of stuff out of storage. We're buying a lot of additional things. It'll be fun to see it come together," he said. "We're doing a whole exhibit of fish decoys. We're doing Chinese Buddhist art—things that go back to 4,500 B.C. There'll just be a lot of things."

This is probably a good time to explain Bob Greenberg's taste in art, which does not run to Rembrandt or Gainsborough. He instead leans heavily toward the likes of Calvin Black and William Hawkins. Never heard of them? Well, that's sort of the point. Greenberg's devotion is to "outsider art"—pieces by untrained, and usually unheralded, artists who cared little for fame but were instead in service of a "singular vision," as Greenberg puts it, that only they could see. The idea of the untrained artist doing his own thing resonates personally and deeply with Greenberg. "I'm self-taught," he said. "There's a lot of people who are."

Greenberg also collects and admires consumer objects from the past that were never sold as art, but inspire him because they are pure expressions of their time—typewriters, hi-fi turntables, overhead projectors and even motorcycles. (The new offices will have no fewer than nine of those on display.)

The goal, Greenberg said, isn't just to decorate R/GA's new office, but to integrate the collection into the space as an expression of the agency's culture, which is itself a bit outsider: pioneering, edgy, untraditional. "I'm trying to make this place not look or feel like an attorney's office," Greenberg said. "One of the big things we'll do to make us not an insurance company is the art collection."

And since Greenberg's chosen pieces are always evocative and unusual, his hope is also to have them do double duty as part of "an integrated, graphic look and feel," and as facilitators of his own employees' creativity. "Let's introduce people to some of these motivational, inspirational things," he said. "It'll make our work environment better."

Before the movers show up, Greenberg gave Adweek an impromptu tour of his collection, some still on the walls and some already in storage, awaiting the moving truck. Ten of the pieces follow below.

1

The Mystery Numbers

Self-taught artist George Widener is a numerical savant whose mind can calculate figures with computer speed. "He has the same characteristics as Rain Man, so he uses numbers and dates" in his artwork, Greenberg explained. This monumental piece expresses some sort of conspiracy fixation with the year 2012, when Widener created it. Do the dates and numbers have any significance? "To him, I suppose," said Greenberg.

2

The Ginormous Head

In keeping with Greenberg's cherished theme of self-taught artists and outsider art, this wood and polychrome head has a past as mysterious as its present. Nobody knows who carved it, or when. R/GA staffers are known to touch the top of the head as they pass it for good luck. 

3

The Creepy Doll Family

For years Greenberg displayed these waist-high dolls outside a windowed conference room where R/GA interviewed its job candidates. His staffers still joke that the unsettling figures probably gave job applicants second thoughts about having shown up. But Greenberg thinks the dolls (carved from salvaged lumber with a hatchet and pocket knife) are "very cool," not least becuase Calvin and Ruby Black were entirely self taught and lived alone in the California desert—"a town of two," Greenberg added, with satisfaction.

4

The Architectural Fragment

This ornamental lion's head, hammered from copper, once graced the exterior of the Commodore Hotel, built on East 42nd Street in 1919 as part of the Grand Central Terminal complex. Donald Trump purchased the building in the mid 1970s and gutted it. This salvaged piece of ornamentation is a reminder of the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century, when artists and architects lavished decorations on buildings out of pure civic pride. The lion head is an expression of its era, and represents an aesthetic vision that is no longer fashionable. Both themes appeal to Greenberg.

5

The Spinning Wheel

The zoetrope (or "wheel of life") was a toy that furnished the illusion of motion when the user spun the illustrated drum and gazed inward throguh a series of evently cut viewing slots. The coming of George Eastman's reel film in 1889 pretty much put an end to the device's appeal, since the age of motion pictures was dawning. But zoetropes were both beautiful pieces of handicraft as well as cutting-edge technology (for the mid 19th century, at least), and as such has a place in Greenberg's heart—and his collection.

6

The Reverend’s Vision

Self-taught artist Howard Finster was a Georgia minister, poet and radio broadcaster. In 1976, Finster claimed that God instructed him to start painting his various religious visions, and Finster did. The piece above, completed in 1982, is an example of the sort of singular vision that Greenberg admires. This artist actually writes about it right on the painting: "I am Howard," it reads, "and I feel the weight of the world on my back."

7

The Extinct Beast

This big blue dinosaur painted on masonite currently hangs in R/GA's lobby and is familiar to clients who visit. "People really like him—he's become somewhat iconic," Greenberg said. Artist William Hawkins "is just this painter that a friend of mine discovered. He was born in Kentucky and always puts the date he was born [on his paintings]." Though Hawkins died in 1990, his work now enjoys considerable recognition.

8

The Virtual Reality Machine, Circa 1933

Visitors to the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 could purchase this metal souvenir, called a Foto Reel. When the user looked into the viewfinder and turned the knob, a series of black-and-white photographs of the fair would pass before his eyes. Greenberg not only likes old pieces of technology—and the Foto Reel was high-tech stuff for 1933—he likes their aesthetic, which makes a statement even when the device is not being used.

9

The Funny Valentine

Industrial designers Ettore Sottsass and Perry A. King collaborated on this cherry red portable typewriter for Olivetti in 1969. Both playful and beautiful, the machine was a marked contrast to the severe and funtional office machinery of the era and, in that sense, prefigured the iMac computers that Apple would create three decades later. In fact, Greenberg is busy collecting iMacs, too. He has every color they came in except for tangerine. He's asked his curator to go looking in Germany for it.

10

The Childhood Theme

Hospital custodian Henry Darger lived alone and created huge watercolors that frequently featured children in hapless situations. Darger spent a terrifying childhood confined to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, and many of his works feature violent and disturbing scenes of torture and strangulation. Darger frequently worked on both sides of his paintings, and Greenberg has chosen to hang this scene outward for the sake of his employees. "It's pretty violent on the other side," he said.

11

The Cellular Relics

The future always looks exciting—until it becomes the past, and then it looks strange and alien. So it is with Greenberg's collection of early cellular telephones. These three were made by Motorola (including Centel) and British Telecom, but all go by the moniker that soon came to describe all first-generation cell phones: "The Brick." They cost around $4,000 and weighed close to two pounds. Still, their designers struggled to make them as smart looking as possible. As testaments to the way digital technology first influenced our lives, they have a place in Greenberg's collection.