In the winter of 1975, several months after he defected to the West from the former Soviet Union, ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov walked into a Paris art gallery and bought his first two artworks.
That 1917 Jean Cocteau drawing of impresario Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and Christian Berard’s design for George Balanchine’s ballet “Mozartiana” are part of a new exhibition in New York.
“The Art I’ve Lived With” comprises some 100 works from Baryshnikov’s four decades of collecting. Never shown in public before, the paintings begin around the turn of the 20th century and include the Russian Avant-Garde, Soviet non-conformists and contemporary art. Many are theatrical, humorous -- and personal.
“I never called myself a collector,” said Baryshnikov, 64, in a recent interview at ABA Gallery, where the exhibition will go on view December 4 through 15. “I was just assembling pieces that caught my eye.”
In spaghetti-striped pants and sporting a black scarf around his neck, Baryshnikov toured the exhibition space, noting last-minute imperfections. He pressed a couple of labels whose corners got unstuck from the wall and removed a painting after seeing a minuscule piece of paper on the side of its frame.
“It’s the most private thing I’ve done in my life in the United States,” he said. “It’s even more revealing than to go on stage. I am a performer. I go on stage and make a fool of myself. Pictures can tell a story.”
Gallery owner Anatol Bekkerman, who specializes in 19th and early 20th century Russian art, concurred. Baryshnikov’s photographs were shown at ABA in October.
“I respect Misha as an artist, as a photographer and as a human being,” said Bekkerman. “It’s the first time ever that the public will have a chance to see the private side of Baryshnikov.”
Initially, the dancer was interested in works that related to Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, including set and costume designs by Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Sergei Sudeikin.
“I knew the names of those artists from the tender age, from textbooks. They are people who worked in the imperial theater in Russia. They left Russia with Diaghilev and did costumes for Vaslav Nijinsky and Mikhail Fokin. It was a community of very gifted people.”
His collection at one point numbered between 400 and 500 works and has been spread among several residences, including his Paris apartment, summer house in Connecticut and a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side.
“I never spent hundreds of thousands dollars on the pieces, because I never had that kind of money,” said Baryshnikov, a slender man with intense blue eyes. “A good Bakst or Cocteau would be a couple of thousands of dollars. But something like a little working sketch of Benois you could buy for a couple of hundred dollars. Now it’s 20 times more.”
The collection is not for sale, though it will likely travel to Moscow for an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in 2013.
“Sell? No, no,” said Baryshnikov, shaking his head. “I would hate to see them at some point disassembled. It would probably be in the hands of my foundation.”
Last year, the Baryshnikov Arts Center sold the dancer’s “View of St. Petersburg” by Petr Vereshchagin for $746,500 at Sotheby’s in New York.
As the word of Baryshnikov’s interest in works on paper got out, people began offering him pieces, often as gifts. Choreographer Trisha Brown gave him a drawing of her two knobby feet. He received a drawing by Mikhail Larionov from choreographer Jerome Robbins.
French dancer and choreographer Roland Petit was the source of another gift, a costume design for “Carmen” by Antoni Clave.
One of the more unexpected presents came from an old man whose name Baryshnikov never learned. Painted on board and rich in purple and green, the work by Valentine Gross depicts Nijinsky in the ballet “Le Spectre de la Rose.”
Baryshnikov often buys spontaneously during his world travel. One of his more recent acquisitions is a small 1903 pencil drawing of a woman by Ilya Repin purchased in Helsinki.
“I am not a scholar,” he said. “I go. I like. I buy.”
ABA Gallery, 7 East 17th St. Information: +1-212-677-2367; http://abagallery.com/.
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine.