Obsessive artists/collectors

I dont know why the Barbican gallery headlined their exhibition ”Magnificent Obsessions”, but the second part of the title gives a better idea of what to expect: ”The Artist as Collector”. The exhibition allows us, art visitors and aspiring collectors, to learn what inspires artists own collections. As I discovered, there can be a sharp contrast between artists own work and what they collect, which often tends to be a cabinet of curiosities, folk art, and kitsch! Based on a sample of 14 post-war and contemporary artists, I concluded that artists collect for the following reasons:


Andy Warhol’s cookie jars © Image courtesy of Movado Group

Personal interest, taste, curiosity, family 
 

Some artists collect according to their personal interests, unique odd tastes, in continuation of a habit inherited from their family, or compensating for what was missing in their childhood, e.g. Warhol.
 
Hiroshi Sugimoto was a dealer of Japanese folk art – the latter is not shown in Barbican unfortunately – and had a personal interest in anatomy, fossils and medical materials, which he collected.  I believe there is no obvious relationship with his art, other than the themes of preserving memory and time. Damien Hirst also collected peculiar medical materials.
 
Although contemporary photographer Martin Parr collected objects related to his main subject, he also collected Soviet space dog memorabilia.  Similarly, I would define German conceptual artist Hanne Darbovens collection as a bric-a-brac at best, which probably did not feed through her conceptual work of point and line drawings resulting from sets of mathematical calculations.
 
Sol LeWitts personal collection showed, amongst others things, his appreciation for Hiroshige, one of the great masters of the Japanese landscape prints. Finally, Arman, one of the founders of the Nouveau Realist movement, followed in the steps of his father, an antiques dealer. Ceramic artist Edmund de Waal as well as Martin Wong, a New York’s East Village artist active in the 80-90s, had been avid collectors since childhood. Warhol may well have collected childhood artifacts such as vintage tin toys and cookie jars to compensate for a relatively deprived childhood. 
 
Being on the other side as a collector, collecting contemporaries, buying sprees
 
Other artists collect for the sake of collecting, to switch sides from artist to collector, or to collect his/her contemporaries.
 
This is the case of Hirst, who started to collect to see what it felt like on the other side. English painter and printmaker Howard Hodgkin highlighted that he collected as an artist, as opposed to a non-artist collector, looking at the emotional effect and aesthetic qualities. He insisted that he doesn’t see his collection as having any influence on his own painting. His Tate biography describes him as a painter, printmaker and collector, interestingly.
 
Sol LeWitt collected his contemporaries; Arman did it for the act of collecting and the aim to gather a museum-quality collection – please note the fine Gabon reliquary guardian figures. Finally, Warhol was excited by buying itself; some objects he bought were discarded or still in their bags (Mr BB would say it reminds him of someone!). 
 
Use in his/her works, affinity with own practice 

Some artists simply use collected art as raw material for the artists own art, and exploring the theme of appropriation as in Danh Vo installation.
 
Hirst used his taxidermy collection in some of his works, after he started working with formaldehyde in 1991. Speaking of his Natural History series, with its iconic animals in vitrines suspended in formaldehyde, Hirst said that he wanted to create a zoo of dead animals, instead of a zoo of miserable living ones. Barbican shows a Taxidermy lion owned by Hirst.
 
Martin Parr collected kitsch postcards, in direct relationship with his work on mass tourism, which he photographed consistently over the years. Another great example and appropriation story is Danh Vo/Martin Wong. Danh Vo, fascinated by Martin Wong, acquired Wongs neglected collection of Americana memorabilia after beginning a correspondence with Wongs mother and visiting her home. He later presented a selection of the latter in an installation work, for which he received the Hugo Boss Prize 2012, exhibited at Guggenheim in 2013. Vo was also inspired by the embellished boxes that Wong sent to his mother and applied gold leaf to a vodka cardboard box from the Wong house. 
 
Separately, Sol LeWitt collected artists that he thought had an affinity with his practice; tattoo artist Dr Lakra used thrift store paintings as raw material for his art; Pae White fuses art and design using scarves in her installation.




Danh VoI M U U R 2 © Courtesy Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

The exhibition is worth-seeing and as provides many interesting answers to the question of why artists collect. I conclude that a majority of artists collect based on personal interest, taste and curiosity, like just like non-artists. In my view, art collected by artists shown in the Barbican exhibition is not necessarily good, so expect to learn and smile but not to enjoy all art on show. I believe there are interesting stories however, notably Danh Vo’s appropriation of Martin Wong’s collection and Warhol’s obsessive collection, showing another side of his character.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector runs at Barbican Art Gallery until 25 May 2015


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