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    Extreme (art) makeover

    Noted collector John Axelrod’s recent gifts to the MFA left him with blank walls. There was only one thing to do: keep searching for new works.

    Retired attorney John Axelrod with his collection of so-called “Loisaida” art; above and flanking the fireplace, three paintings by Martin Wong. The sculptures represent a mix of 20th century American styles.
    Keller + Keller
    Retired attorney John Axelrod with his collection of so-called “Loisaida” art; above and flanking the fireplace, three paintings by Martin Wong. The sculptures represent a mix of 20th century American styles.

    JOHN AXELROD HAS A PROBLEM. “I swore I would not buy anything to put in storage,” he says, standing in the entryway of his Back Bay flat. “If I can’t find a place for it on the wall, I’m not going to buy it.”

    He pauses and looks around. “It’s killing me.”

    The 66-year-old retired attorney is standing in one of the smallest spaces in his home. At issue is a 7½-foot-tall Martin Wong painting that has come onto the market. It would just fit into a space to the right of the doorway. The late Wong, a Loisaida (Latino pronunciation of Lower East Side) artist of 1980s New York, is a staple of Axelrod’s most recent collecting focus. But should he consider a work that could only be seen in the entryway or the bedroom?


    Axelrod has been through this before. A collector for decades, he still owns the first picture he bought, though he has given away and sold several hundred more as his tastes and interests have changed. One constant is a small oil painting of fishing boats he bought in Gloucester 40 years ago (price: $60) that hangs in his bathroom. Why has he kept this one piece for so many years? “I still like it,” he says.

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    Axelrod’s modus operandi is building up and breaking down collections that populate his house-slash-museum. He will focus on a specific segment of 20th-century art, cover the walls of his 2,100-square-foot home with works, and then, when the time comes, do the unthinkable: He will replace it. In fact, Axelrod’s generosity to the Museum of Fine Arts — the MFA has received as bequests or bought at a discount hundreds of his pieces since 1985 — has led to a gallery in the American wing named after him.

    But his latest craze, the New York City street artists of the late 1970s and early ’80s, is a collection he is actually threatening to keep. For one thing, he’s not sure the MFA has any interest in owning it. Axelrod also loves the works, which are generally large pieces splashed with color, energy, and clever slogans. “I may grow tired of this in two years, but I don’t think so,” he says during an interview in the condominium he shares with his Australian terrier, Myrna Loy.

    Much of Axelrod’s collecting begins in his office. On one wall, he keeps his first Martin Wong, a piece he acquired three years ago, and works from David Wojnarowicz’s sex series, others of which can be found in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. On a table rests a pile of auction catalogs for Jean-Michel Basquiat works. On his desk is a MacBook loaded with images and other research. At about 1:40 on a Monday afternoon, a call comes in from his New York dealer, Stephen Snyder of the Web Gallery, someone Axelrod has relied on since 2009, when he began acquiring graffiti art.

    With his walls covered, Axelrod has made his no-more-collecting promise. Except, has he? With Snyder on the phone, Axelrod mentions the early Basquiat he’s interested in that another dealer is selling. Axelrod has made an offer and is waiting to hear from the piece’s owner.


    “Any news?” Axelrod asks.

    “No news,” Snyder says.

    That settled, Axelrod walks into the hallway to offer an informal tour. It’s a dramatic space, and the furniture — much of which is pledged to the MFA when Axelrod “no longer needs it,” he says — is as fine as the art. In the last year, he has given this tour to groups from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Yale University Art Gallery, and Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art, which is considering an exhibit of this new collection.

    In the hall, there’s a Keith Haring chalk drawing on black paper and a spectacular almost 6-by-8-foot piece by Dondi. The living room is better. Another Haring, more Wongs, and works in every alcove.

    “I’ll tell you what,” Axelrod advises. “It’s a lot easier to hang a wall with one big piece than having to figure out how to arrange four or six smaller paintings.” That’s when the conversation turns back to the Wong he’s considering.


    “It’s very simple,” says Axelrod. “Nature abhors a void. I guess you go from there. Obsessive collectors abhor blank walls.”

    And the Wong?

    “I’m still thinking about it.”

    Geoff Edgers is an arts and culture staff writer for the Globe. He can be reached at