Stefan Edlis, a self-described toolmaker who with his wife Gael Neeson created one of the most dynamic and admired collections of contemporary art in the world, has died at the age of 94.
Edlis was a European immigrant and a member of the Greatest Generation: a World War II Navy man who returned from the South Pacific to prosper in postwar America, and become, with Neeson, an unwavering patron of the arts across three American cities. Perfectly happy to be kicked out of his school in Vienna at the age of fourteen, Edlis had just eight years of formal education, but would become the unflappable, discerning collector who gifted Jeff Koons’s Rabbit to the MCA in 1991.
Born in Vienna on June 12, 1925, Stefan Edlis was just fourteen when his father died after a brief illness, and fifteen when he traveled with his mother, his older sister, and infant brother from Vienna to New York, escaping the Nazis with the aid of family in Pittsburgh. For the rest of his life Edlis kept his German passport, stamped with a large red "J" for Jew.
Once settled in the United States, Edlis was obligated to register for the draft and was called up in 1943. After the war Edlis benefitted from the G.I. Bill, interviewing with toolmakers in San Francisco and eventually apprenticing under one. A quick and ambitious toolmaker in a speculative industry, Edlis would work in San Francisco and New York before making his way to Chicago, where he founded his own company in 1965: Apollo Plastics on Chicago’s Elston Avenue.
Shortly after, Edlis started to collect in earnest. In the 1970s he met his second wife, Neeson, who shared his passion for collecting contemporary art. They both consistently preferred the provocative over the provincial. The couple also set off on their decades-long support of public arts institutions in Chicago, New York, and Aspen.
Edlis often spoke of a love of gazing at art, and he explained to friends that he wanted more than anything else to convey to others “the richness of the art world,” which for him was made vibrant not only by great, pioneering works, but also by the kindred spirits he found among auction house representatives, curators, fellow collectors, and museum directors.
One collecting decision in particular reflects Stefan Edlis’s unique mix of audacity, intellect, and foresight. In 2001, he and Neeson purchased Him, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial sculpture of an eerily lifelike Adolph Hitler as a boy on his knees, hands crossed and eyes upward. Edlis put Cattelan in the same company as Marcel Duchamp—highly significant to the history of art—and installed Him in the couple’s Chicago home, between two tall bookshelves stocked with volumes on art. Directly in the rendered-Hitler’s sight line, the cunning Edlis placed a book that his sister, a feminist scholar, had given him forty years earlier: Psychopathia Sexualis by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. When asked in the HBO documentary The Price of Everything, “What’s it like as a Jewish collector to own the Cattelen?” Edlis replied, “It’s a fair question. It’s also irrelevant. Because art is art.”
“Stefan Edlis was a superhuman being who influenced every great cultural institution in Chicago. He loved to be at an idea’s inception and then support it through to becoming an exhibition, an acquisition, or even an entire building. Stefan, joined by his wife Gael, loved how artists expand our thinking and perception of the world, and perhaps most of all, how artists test the limits. The MCA would not be what it is without Stefan and his boundless passion, curiosity, kindness, and optimism. His leadership and philanthropy made him among the most generous supporters in the MCA’s history. For close to forty years, he contributed to every campaign, supported countless major shows, with Gael established an acquisitions endowment that brought in contemporary masterpieces, and gave artworks to the museum that have become MCA icons. Stefan’s involvement in the arts made his life bigger, and in turn, he made sure that art made other people’s lives bigger, and that is what we loved about him.”