Photo: Theodor Dalenson

In artistic Aspen, a couple finds a perfectly blank canvas to showcase their contemporary art collection.

by Hilary Stunda

When Theodor and Isabella Dalenson came to Aspen looking for a home, they weren’t working from the typical mountain wish list of natural stone fireplaces, exposed beams, and floor-to-ceiling windows with mountain views. What they wanted was simple: wall space and plenty of it — bare, white, and well-lit.

They found it in a contemporary box 20 feet wide, 70 feet long, and 21 feet high, set on a foundation of polished Italian marble. “Our only criteria were wanting to see our art and finding appropriate space,” says Theodor Dalenson. “We don’t like buying things and sending them to storage.” Hanging in that space today, under museum-quality lighting, are works that include Frank Stella’s Flin Flon from 1969-70 and Jeff Koons’ 2007 work Monkey Train (Orange).
In their 20 years of collecting art, the Dalensons have acquired works by early contemporary masters such as Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, as well as pieces by minimalist artists such as Joel Shapiro, Donald Judd, and Robert Mangold.

A philanthropist who supports environmental and social causes as diverse as the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and SOS Children’s Villages International, Theodor Dalenson divides his time between overseeing businesses in his native Scandinavia and serving on the board of the Aspen Art Museum and as a trustee to the Guggenheim Foundation. Though he is Swedish, Dalenson is passionate about American art.

“The past 50 years have been totally dominated by American art,” he says. “You cannot look at contemporary art without seeing influences from artists like Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Stella.” Dalenson’s first purchase was a Russell Chatham. “He used to come and fish for Atlantic salmon with me in Norway,” he recalls. “His paintings were beautiful minimalistic landscapes, and he was such a great character.” Today, Dalenson particularly treasures his collection of Frank Stella’s six 1961 Benjamin Moore paintings. Over the last decade, artists Frank Stella, Joel Shapiro, and Marilyn Minter, among others, have developed relationships with Dalenson, whom they count as a patron and friend.
The couple’s holdings now extend across nine time zones: Their New York collection reflects the art movements of the 1960s, Aspen is contemporary, and Stockholm has a mix of everything. As collectors, they have developed a keen eye, but that eye is prone to wander. “We have tried to focus, but it is next to impossible, at least when you collect with your heart,” says Dalenson.

“When I see a great work of art, my initial feeling is wishing I could create something as inspiring,” says Dalenson. “Since we live in a materialistic world and I’m a collector, it usually develops into a desire to own. But Isabella has taught me that you can actually look at art and enjoy it without having to own it.”

Then again, when you’ve got blank white walls to fill

Theodor and Isabella Dalenson