Old, Stiff Oils of Partners Chucked As White-Shoe Firms Get Artsy

A sprawling abstract artwork greets visitors to the 37th-floor conference center of the high-powered law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Painted directly on a wide, curved wall with marker and acrylic, Double Down was installed by conceptual artist Matthew Ritchie some four years ago in an otherwise-refined office environment, all gleaming, caramel-colored marble floors and raw-silk-covered walls. At first glance, it looks like the chaotic scribbling of a mad scientist, with arrows pointing in different directions.

In fact, the paint was barely dry when M&A lawyer and art-committee chairman Paul Schnell started receiving e-mails from some very unhappy lawyers.

“There was almost an uprising,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the Soho gallerist and art dealer who is advising the firm on its art acquisitions, in an interview.

Mr. Ritchie was summoned to 4 Times Square and, as part of a tour of the new collection, led an intense discussion about the piece with about 20 lawyers, who Mr. Deitch believes were more startled by the format of the work than its content.

Double Down, a lawyer will learn if he or she reads the card hanging next to the installation, examines the Big Bang notion of the creation of the world; the title is a reference to the low odds on that great prehistoric event that is theoretically the basis of the known universe.

But four years later, artworks like this are scarcely out of place here; the commissioning of adventurous and abstract work in the offices of a firm like Skadden scarcely raises an eyebrow.

And what’s more, said Mr. Schnell, whose committee purchased the work, “Ritchie’s work has probably increased tenfold in value.”

It’s another sign of the changing culture of the elite law firm. Over the last 30 years, many of the city’s leading firms have been ditching the Oriental rugs and grandfather clocks and dewy partner portraits and hunting prints in favor of cutting-edge photography and Abstract Expressionist prints.

Checks are being written by law firms to people like Russell Crotty, a Los Angeles artist and amateur astronomer whose ballpoint-pen-etched globe hangs near a window on the same floor as the Ritchie piece at Skadden; and Linda Besemer, a painter who works on vinyl and presents her work slung over what some lawyers call (presumably to the artist’s dismay) a “towel rack.”

The reciprocal arrangement between the city’s top law firms and its most cutting-edge galleries is not as strange as it may look on the surface.

“Contemporary art was sort of anti-establishment, anti-corporate,” said Mr. Schnell, who is vice president of the board of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. “Really, in the last five or 10 years, it’s been embraced by the corporate world as a way to brand yourself and convey certain things about yourself. It’s really a dramatic change.”

In some cases, the object is not just to update the firm’s identity, but to do so in a way that cashes in on the booming contemporary-art market.

“They are generally more concerned about the prices of the pieces than the integrity of the work,” noted Elizabeth Burke at Clementine Gallery, who has sold to consultants buying on behalf of law firms.

But the cultural cachet also helps when it comes to recruiting; beyond purchasing significant works, many firms offer tours of Chelsea art galleries and studios for summer associates, eager to temper the summer revelry with some substance (and to dispel the perception that the firm is an old boys’ club).

Arthur Fleischer is an expert on the topic of art at law firms. A legend in legal circles for his sage M&A counsel, which he has proffered from the offices of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson since 1958, Mr. Fleischer is also the dean of law-firm art collectors. He gives tours of the Fried Frank collection to groups from Aperture, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as to summer and first-year associates.

On a recent afternoon, he wore a conservative three-piece pinstripe suit as he offered concise and informed assessments of his firm’s collection in a deadpan baritone. (“That’s Lise Sarfati,” he said. She’s “a young lady photographer.”) It doesn’t take much imagination to picture him with his feet up on a chair, chomping a cigar.

In the late 1970’s, Fried Frank moved from 120 Broadway to its current space at 1 New York Plaza. An art committee worked with gallery owners Brooke Alexander and Paula Cooper—acquiring paintings by Elizabeth Murray and Al Held, among others, prints by Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg and Terry Winters, as well as drawings and prints by Frank Stella.

(The firm has made at least one sale from that era: a “fabulous”—Mr. Alexander’s word—untitled large abstract Gerhard Richter painting from the 1980’s. Mr. Fleischer said it was too valuable to keep around.)

“There was a committee; then I became the committee,” Mr. Fleischer said.

“I remember once when we showed them a Robert Mangold monochrome brick-red painting. They said, ‘It looks kind of empty to me,’ and we said, ‘That’s kind of the point,’” recalled Mr. Alexander.

“It taught me how to be relatively articulate in the face of a lot of questions that were not necessarily friendly,” he added.

Maybe that’s because some of his early purchases were—for an institution as august as a major law firm—radical.

“I think that one of their concerns was that whatever they had on their walls would not disgrace them in front of their clients. More than once they said, ‘What are people going to think?’ I said to them, ‘They’re going to think that you know more about this than they do.’ That seemed to mollify them a bit.”

Since the late 1990’s, mirroring trends in art-buying, Mr. Fleischer has turned his attention to photography. Strolling through the halls, he reels off the names, histories and contexts of the photographers whose work he’s acquired—more than 500 pieces purchased from her, estimated his current gallerist, Yancey Richardson. The firm employs a permanent curator.

Many of the artists represented are famous—Robert Frank, Thomas Demand, William Eggleston, Kiki Smith, André Kertézs, Thomas Struth—and the firm’s collections are appreciating rapidly as a result. But there are also works by young prodigies like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hellen van Meene, Doug Aitken and Vik Muñoz, which will increase the value of the firm’s collection even more in the present art boom.

Mr. Fleischer pointed out a work by Collier Schorr, a photo of two boy wrestlers in a hold.

“This is like a Caravaggio painting—the way she’s using the light and the dark,” he said expertly. “It’s very strong.”

No More ‘Damn Hunting Prints’

A review of spending on branding and business development a few years ago at London-based firm Clifford Chance concluded that the firm spent too much on Knicks and Rangers tickets.

“We decided to reallocate some of our money to find some other way to build a brand,” said John Carroll, a white-collar defense lawyer who was managing partner for the United States at the time.

So the firm went so far as to make itself the “presenting sponsor” of the Armory Show of contemporary art.

After all, a Knicks ticket isn’t worth much after the buzzer sounds. But a lively abstract screen print by Beatriz Milhazes, who represented Brazil in the 2003 Venice Biennale, is another thing entirely.

“I mean, it was a really Old World space with English hunting prints—horrible stuff, embarrassing,” said Mr. Carroll with a smile, breaking an oatmeal cookie into bits at one of the firm’s sleek conference rooms. “If you walked through our space two years ago, you would have thought, ‘Don’t these people have any self-respect? Don’t people care?’

“I was insistent that we weren’t going to bring the damn English hunting prints over with us,” he added.

The firm’s offices are slick and pristine, with white-and-gray Calacatta marble counters and conference tables, like something out of Match Point. The reception area features James Hyde’s dramatic List, a glass box containing curved plastic sheets painted in oil and acrylic.

“In this work, Hyde disrupts our idea of a painting,” reads the note accompanying the work.

Also popular, said one of the firm’s advisors, Dinaburg Arts executive director Susan Reynolds, is a piece by British painter Simon Aldridge. He paints a highly pixilated image of a car, drawn from a video game, using the style and tools of the Old Masters—oil paint and varnish—and presents it on a formal linen canvas.

“I think people really saw it as something based on media, something that is really current, something that really attaches itself to what people are looking at and thinking about right now,” said Ms. Reynolds.

That is, themselves! At least when they look at A Robe Called Paul Weiss, a multicolored Jim Dine painting on the 32nd floor of the clubby New York headquarters of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

It’s said that the robes in this series were meant as a self-portrait of the artist, but they have also been read as portraits of the many “invisible men” who wear them.

Appropriately, it’s among the many pieces of art submitted as payment for work done by retired M&A partner Neale Albert and others over the past 35 years.

Photographers Annie Leibovitz, Joel Sternfeld, Todd Eberle, Lee Friedlander and Irving Penn also qualified for this special arrangement.

“We don’t do it that much anymore. This was 20 years ago,” Mr. Albert lamented on a recent tour of the firm’s collection.

His preppy striped tie and hiking shoes seemed to convey perfectly his double life as a corporate lawyer and a “serious amateur” photographer.

“They couldn’t afford to hire Paul Weiss; they couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. Now we have about 700 vintage photographs that would be impossible to buy now,” he said about some of his (formerly) starving artist clients.

The art committee at Skadden has arguably taken swashbuckling art-dealing furthest into the 21st century. Since moving to Times Square, they have embarked on a program to obtain art that is humorous and whimsical.

In a small meeting room are two pieces by the Korean-American artist Do Ho Suh, who printed hundreds of yearbook photos so small that they appear to be an abstract pattern. “It’s a great conceptual concept,” Mr. Deitch commented, “the individual in the collective, which is a much bigger theme in Asian countries with greater population density.” Another is a series by Mark Bennett of fictional apartment layouts for TV sitcoms such as The Jeffersons. “Increasingly, pop culture is a subject for high art, and this is a good example of it,” Mr. Deitch announced.

“It’s always interesting,” said one corporate associate rushing down the hall in a double-breasted blazer. “I always have a lot of questions.”

Ten floors above that provocative wall painting, a reception area features an installation by the self-taught artist Chris Johanson. A wooden “river” curves out from a wall, and three half-size people cut out of wood are hanging above the upholstered club chairs, levitating. Reviewing Mr. Johanson’s work in The New York Times, Roberta Smith interpreted these figures as “suggesting that the truly enlightened travel under their own steam.”

“There’s something about this that speaks to the experience of young, overworked lawyers,” remarked Mr. Schnell. “Younger lawyers at this firm love this piece, and a lot of the older lawyers do not like it. It’s a real generational thing. I think people, they’re coming out, they’re having a hard, stressful week, and I think they almost identify with the sentiments.”