by Edward Leffingwell
I had heard about this great scene in Sao Paulo revolving around a man called Kim Esteve. In February of l999 the opportunity came to check it out. Kim is a bosom buddy of the New York-based photographer Jonathan Becker, and Jonathan and I were doing a piece for Vanity Fair on the fabulous estancias in the lake district of northern Patagonia, so we stopped at Chacara Flora on the way down and spent a few days with Kim and his companion , Barbara Leary, and their interesting and entertaining friends. The scene was physically, esthetically, and in terms of sheer boisterous bohemian geniality, everything it was cracked up to be. Kim himself was an affable, unflappable man of about sixty, a benevolent, Buddha-like Cheshire cat, who in the Brazilian expression, não esquenta a cabeça, doesn’t get worked up about things, a magnanimous soul who genuinely seemed to derive more satisfaction from nurturing the talents of others than from basking in any personal limelight of his own. A great deal of vision and erudition, an extremely refined esthetic sensibility, had obviously gone into creating such a magnificent space as Kim had done on his property, but Kim gave you the impression that it had all just sort of happened. He referred to himself modestly as its “keeper,” when in fact, the whole thing, down to the last detail, was Kim’s vision and energy and it deserves to be regarded as an epic, world class work of art in its own right. Kim calls his compound McMillen’s Place in homage to its previous owner, an adventurous and original American who pioneered the first transcontinental passenger plane route due north from Rio and Sao Paul through the Amazon. Before that, early in the twentieth century, it was the homestead of a German landscaper, who grew ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers on the property for his business, which is why the whole forested district then still on the outskirts of the city was called Chacara Flora. In the thirties Chacara Flora was developed into a residential community which attracted mainly foreigners living in Brazil. Kim grew up down the street, where his parents had a large property, part of which is still wooded with the original forest and is said to be the home of several sloths.
Today Chacara Flora is the Bel-Air of Sao Paulo, a lush, magical district of sumptuous homes secreted behind high walls and exuberant tropical vegetation that is a world apart and a welcome respite from the relentless verticality of most of Sao Paulo. In the middle of it is McMillen’s Place, a little Garden of Eden the size of several football fields, planted with a spongy lawn of Bermuda grass, roses and a vegetable garden. The walls of the buildings are covered with the little dark green leaves of intricate vines. At the top of the property is a large copper-roofed gallery hung with the work of some of Brazil’s most provocative and seditious modern artists, which and whom Kim collects. Many of his close friends— the ones we were entertained by for several nights in a row– are the very artists whose works are on his walls, like the magic realist Wesley Duke Lee, a descendant of Robert E. and the tobacco Dukes whose father brought Methodism to Brazil and who perhaps to counterbalance the radical anarchy of his art is a staunch monarchist (So was Richard Evans Schultes, the legendary Harvard ethno-botanist who spent years in the Amazon collecting and personally taking hallucinogens used by various local Indians.) , and the fiendishly ingenious surrealist Bulgarian-Brazilian Antóno Peticov, who during the military dictatorship lived in exile in London with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and was a prime mover in the formation of the iconoclastic music group, Os Mutantes. Other local characters rounded out the raucous klatch at Kim’s bar like the jovial expat photographer James Granger, son of the British actor James Stewart Granger, who fetched up in Sao Paulo twenty years ago and has been living there, “by the seat of my pants,” he told me, ever since. They called themselves the macacos velhos, the old monkeys, who have seen it all. Jonathan belongs to this fraternity. Had MacMillen been alive, he undoubtedly would have been a member. You can almost feel his presence at the bar.
Late in the morning we would walk over to Kim’s parents’ property for a swim with Barbara’s white Labrador, Harry, growling and raising his leg at the gate of each passing high-walled compound along the road as if he owned the place, activating the guard dogs within, shattering the sultry silence until all of Chacara Flora was a cacophony of frenzied barking. Harry is a dog’s dog, who leaps into the air and snags tennis balls swatted way out over the lawn. Dogs have always been an important part of the scene, since the days of McMillen.
There are not many people in Brazil who have a sense of the past, a sense of place, and a preservationist, curatorial leaning the way Kim does. It is a now-oriented, sensual tropical society. The past is soon forgotten; as per the expression já era,” it’s history”. Not many Paulistanos would have left their parents’ house and the pool house as originally constructed and furnished, so it is a hacienda-style, art-deco time-warp of the forties. The décor, with its heavy brocaded curtains and dark wood-paneled study and somber colonial portraits and furniture, is that of a conservative businessman who takes his Spanish heritage seriously. The Esteves are of old Catalan hidalgo stock. They made their mark as cotton shippers in Savanna and New Orleans. In the thirties, Kim’s father (Kim is the Catalan nickname for Joaquin, decided to light out for Brazil, the last frontier, and made a fortune exporting cotton and coffee, leaving his family comfortably off for the foreseeable future. This property, which is waiting for approval to be developed is interesting because it contains some of the last few acres of the original tropical rainforest in Sao Paulo—I suggested that Kim get in touch with Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution who coined the term biodiversity and is conducting a long-term, ongoing study of the minimum critical size of ecosystems, monitoring various-sized fragments of rainforest outside Manaus. It is also interesting because it shows how the esthetic sensibilities of both Kim and Charles, who did the pool house and then Kim’s gallery fifty years later, have come light years.
Kim purchased McMillen’s place in l972. It was in shambles. There he was able to envision something on a scale and in a grand style that not many people attempt any more. Only Stanley Marsh of Amarillo and a few others come to mind. The heyday of this sort of thing was a few centuries ago. Kim’s scene—perhaps that’s why I felt so immediately at home in it—reminded me my ancestor’s estate in the Ukraine before the Russian revolution. There was a superb collection of Old Masters in the big-columned house; one of the ancestors had collected for the Hermitage, and formal banquets, with a liveried servant behind each chair, inside a huge hayloft. The painter and poet Taras Schevschenko, who became Ukraine’s greatest culture hero, was a regular guest. Schevschenko was a serf, and one of my great grandfathers bought a painting from Bryulov and Bryulov used the money to buy his freedom. Schevschenko, I imagine, was probably like Neil Williams, the Navajo abstract painter, a vital down-to-earth working- class man who painted in the same rebellious spirit that Chet Baker, say, played the trumpet and shot heroine. Kim befriended Williams on Longf Island and invited him to Brazil and even built a studio for him on the property. One of my great uncles inherited a fortune in real estate from his uncle and sunk it entirely into butterflies, financing 80 some collecting trips around the world, much the way Kim sunk his inheritance into Brazilian modern art.
Barbara, the last wife of Timothy Leary (and the second I know, Nena Thurman who left him to marry Robert Thurman, Tibetan professor at Columbia, their daughter the stunning Uma) is a serious cook, and she served up one ambrosial meal after another. A close friend of Helmut Newton, she was also a fine portrait photographer and took great pictures of all the guests. Guomar a radiant, loving woman in her fifties who possessed Kim’s Buddha-like calm, helped her and did the housecleaning and laundry and was an indispensable presence on the scene, an angel.
After a few days we went down to Kim’s beach house in Camburi here the party continued, with a crowd of lively Brazilians, several of whom were velhos macacos. Then we continued to Buenos Aires. Jonathan had persuaded Kim to join us for a few days, and he was a great traveling companion, going along with the flow, never impatient or complaining. He arranged for us to visit the Helft collection of mostly Argentine modern art. Marion Nelft, Jorge’s ex-wife, showed us around. Jorge Helft in the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art’s, international council with Kim. It was a real treat. Then we continued to the estancias, which in the summer become a revolving house party, with endless people visiting back and forth for days at a time. Then Kim went home. I thought he was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. I didn’t see him again for three years, until this spring, when my wife and I took our three little boys, who were on spring break, to see the teeming wildlife in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso. We stopped for four days at Chácara Flora on the way back to Rio. This time I noticed details I hadn’t the first time, like the wainscoting in the McMillen house which Kim designed himself and had done by two local master carpenters. Most of it is painted green, and it is the most elegant wainscoting I have ever seen. There is nothing to compare with it in the Adirondacks. I think Kim was inspired to do this when he lived in Wainscott, Long Island, on Georgica Pond, where the use of thin beaded paneling first came into vogue.
There is a new school of art criticism that studies the psychology of collecting. Hans Magnus Ensterberger, for instance, argues in Collecting: An Unruly Passion, that people collect to compensate for early childhood traumata. One of Henry Clay Frick’s great-nieces has recently written a book whose thesis is that every painting Frick acquired was an attempt to replace his daughter, who died at the age of nine when a safety-pin lodged in her throat. Susan M. Pearce’s book, On Collecting: An Investigation Into Collecting in the European Tradition, has chapters on Collecting Culture, Collecting Oneself, Collecting Relationships, Collecting in Time, Collecting in Space; Collecting the Other, Within and Without; Collecting the Other, Beyond and Before; Collecting The Shape of Things to Come. Of these, the one that most applies to Kim is collecting relationships. Like the old breed of publishers—Alfred Knopf, Roger Straus– who formed close friendships with their favorite authors, Kim has gotten personally involved with his artists. I see no evidence of any deep-seated, subconscious drive; his motives for collecting seem straightforward. “I collect contemporary art because it is what is happening now, and I collect what speaks to me,” he explained one evening. “I don’t collect as an investment, to have names on the wall, although of course you don’t want to lose money. Usually I know the artist personally, so I have some sense of the mind that produced the work.”
What about the mind that produced the scene? Kim is someone who transcends national identity and the confines of any one culture; he is what my wife calls “an international human being.” On the one hand, he is completely Brazilian, the epitome of Brazilian paciência and sweetness. He speaks Portuguese with great relish for the expressiveness and playfulness of the language, and has the Brazilian sense of the absurd. But he is also completely American. His mother was from Dallas, so he has Texan traits, as well: a slow laconic delivery that misses nothing, a tendency to think big and go for it. Then there is another strain of Kim’s American-ness, which was forged in New York and on Long Island: artsy, haut-bohemian, old WASP, sea- and sailboat-loving. Kim is what my grandmother, who lived in Locust Valley for the second half of her life, used to call “cozy.” This is a characteristic of old money, of people who are so secure in who they are that they don’t have to impress you, so they are completely relaxed and easy to be with.
Some of them cut end up having a radiance verging on enlightenment, and Kim I would say is one.
Added to this Northern graciousness is a Southern one— from when the Esteves lived in Savannah and New Orleans— impeccable, instinctive manners of the Spanish blueblood and this begins to suggest what a multi-layered yet completely unassuming and accessible individual Kim is.
I am already scheming to write a Dispatch about the sertão for my Website: DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, which will occasion further interaction with Kim and his scene and will hopefully bring me into contact with one of his most interesting artists, Maciej Babinski, who lives up in this torrid northeastern desert backland. On my last visit, Kim and I spoke a lot about Brazilian and world politics, which I hadn’t realized before he takes a keen interest in and is very much up on. We agreed that Brazil is looking pretty good at the moment, relative to the rest of the world, even though it has its own problems, like the twenty-three million people who are living on less than a dollar a day and the still pervasive mordomia and coronelismo in the government. Brazil is far from the fray, a huge, complete, bustling world of its own. There is a lot of one-on-one crime, but no ethnic violence. People on the whole are very loving to each other. Some of the wildest and most inventive art is coming from Brazil, so I am glad that Kim is finally getting his due with this fine, detailed appreciation by Edward Leffingwell. As Peticov put it, “Kim had the opportunity to do something, and he did something very interesting and important.”