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Branching Out

Touring a Brooklyn collector’s cache of botanical art, now on display in a Pittsburgh museum

Hadara Graubart
January 29, 2010
Detail of Plants of Bogs and Swamps. by Alan Singer.(©1989 Alan Singer)
Detail of Plants of Bogs and Swamps. by Alan Singer.(©1989 Alan Singer)

Isaac Sutton’s home, which he shares with his wife and three children in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, is a whimsical overlap of the natural world and artistic enterprise. In his cozy, carpeted living room, glass sculptures, vases, and lamps from different eras are grouped into clusters of greens, reds, and blues; his dining room features a hand-painted, multi-panel mural of a Japanese landscape and a standing lamp, once owned by Lenny Kravitz, with a colorful tulip-shaped glass shade that Sutton bought at an auction in New Orleans; every closet in the three-story house is wall-papered and every doorpost is adorned with the same custom-made mezuzah. His deep backyard has an all-seasons greenhouse full of orchids and succulents; the front gate is a specimen of ornate wrought iron salvaged from the junk heap.

Sutton, who calls his distinct taste “old new,” wears custom suits lined with sumptuous fabric from vintage women’s dresses. But the centerpiece of his aesthetic is his enormous collection of botanical art. Selections from that collection are on display at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh through the end of June. The images of intricate single flowers, exquisitely detailed diagrams of seed pods, and carefully arranged branches hanging in each room of Sutton’s home serve as a reminder that the baroque handiwork surrounding them was inspired by the lush gaudiness of nature itself.

In keeping with his affinity for the natural world, Sutton, a 46-year-old former stockbroker, now invests his money in eco-friendly endeavors including wind farms and a Canadian geothermal drilling company. He was born and raised in Beirut (his family moved to the Lebanese capital from Syria), and he lived in Israel from 1984 to 1990. It was there that he purchased his first landscape—a work by Shmuel Cheruvi, who fulfilled Sutton’s desire to see someone “paint the Israeli landscape before it gets too built up.”

Sutton has long been committed to environmentalism—in the early 1990s, before a city-wide recycling program was instituted in New York, Sutton would “drive around and pick up my friends’ paper,” he said, and then drop it off at a local recycling facility. He’s also always been a collector, an attribute that’s in his blood. His grandfather collected silver, which he would sometimes trade with Russian refugees for money or bread while living in Istanbul during World War I. “I didn’t know how to have seder not on a massive silver display,” said Sutton, fussily straightening the light above a painting of the Israeli desert. (“We have an aggressive new housekeeper,” he explained.)

On a tour of his upstairs gallery (which abuts a mini-gym and a luxurious bathroom outfitted with a bidet), Sutton, who has little use for contemporary art, expounded on the relationship of art to its time—the 19th century was “fuzzy,” said Sutton, lending itself well to impressionism, while the 1950s presented the unanswerable question of “what is nuclear war?,” he continued, resulting in abstract work like that of Jackson Pollack. As for today, Sutton contends that we’ve returned to nature, and that “realism is back.” Sutton is evidently gleeful at this turn of the tide, which he also sees as a connection to Judaism: “One of the first things in the Bible is that you cannot tear down a fruit tree, even in the siege of a city,” he said. “God tells Adam: ‘Watch over the world.’”

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.