NEW YORK - There are plenty of perks that come with being an artist: you can wear a T-shirt and comfy jeans every day, set your own hours, be your own boss, spend your time smearing paint on canvas. You also probably get to make lots of other artist friends, who are not only interesting and keep you on your game but also make great trading partners. It’s hard to find a practicing artist out there, young or old, successful or struggling, who has not swapped works with friends to form at least a fledgling art collection. But that’s as far as it goes for most.
Then there are artists who find themselves nearly as drawn to collecting work by other artists as making their own. They enter the art market at least two steps ahead of run-of-the-mill collectors: first, they enjoy relatively easy access at galleries and second, they presumably have not only a keen understanding of who’s who in the history of art, but also a highly developed eye. Andy Warhol was an insatiable collector, not only of contemporary art but also of everything from world’s fair memorabilia and Native American artefacts to flea-market cookie jars. Today, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are among the most active artists-cum-collectors.
Hirst has amassed an estimated 2,000 artworks, forming a collection (which he has dubbed Murderme) noteworthy enough that he is building a museum in London’s Vauxhall neighborhood to house it which is slated to open next year. “It’ll be great to be able to have so much of the work out there on show for people to see rather than keeping it in boxes,” Hirst says. “That’s what the art is there for, and that’s what makes it alive. I hate having it in storage.”
British artist Damien Hirst has been collecting for his entire career, and is building a museum in London to exhibit the 2,000 works. PHOTO: © SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY IMAGES.
As would be expected, Hirst started trading with his fellow Young British Artists. “After that, when I had some cash in my pocket I started buying work from friends who hadn’t made much money, which worked better than lending them money,” he says. “Collecting is exciting but addictive and dangerous. But I’ve got a bit more perspective now and realise there are always going to be some things that it just isn’t possible to own. I still find it amazing and it blows my mind that I have Bacons, Picassos and Warhols.”
Hirst compares his collection to “a collage of my mind or a map of my life,” as each acquired object reflects some part of its collector’s path. The pieces he owns are so intertwined with his thinking that it’s difficult for him to identify which have affected his own art-making and how, though he singles out Francis Bacon, Kurt Schwitters and Chaïm Soutine, as well as his friends Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. “It’s a soup,” he says. “It’s hard to separate it out as it’s all part of lots of different influences on my own art.”
His five Bacons are among his favourites. “I’ve always loved Bacon right from when I was young,” Hirst says. “Man in Blue II hangs above my bed at home. It’s a nasty work, very dark. They say it's a portrait of a guy Bacon used to meet in hotel rooms for sex, but nobody really knows who the figure in the painting is. I never tire of looking at Bacon’s work.” Hirst also is particularly enamoured of Koons' pieces. “He makes beautiful objects; they have real brilliance,” he says, noting that he keeps Koons’ small “inflatable” sculpture Elephant in his office. “It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the room. I love it. It looks like you could pop it with a pin, but it’s cast metal so it can last forever.”
The natural world and death are two of the major themes running through Murderme, mirroring the strongest threads through Hirst’s own work. There is even a preponderance of one of his recurring motifs – skulls, by artists ranging from Picasso to Fairhurst.
In a similar vein, George Condo, best known for his flamboyantly strange portraits of imagined characters, tends to collect more portraits, from Old Masters and English portraitists George Romney and Thomas Lawrence to influential contemporary artists like Warhol and Paul McCarthy. His most recent acquisition is a 1979 Philip Guston, which he describes as “like a big head.”
“I love to collect,” he says. “I’ve always collected art, since the early 1980s.” In those days, Condo traded with his fellow art stars and friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His first real purchase was a Picasso drawing. “If I can find a high-quality drawing by Picasso, I always love those,” Condo says. “But they’re becoming rarer and rarer.”
Condo’s strategy involves identifying underappreciated artists or underappreciated works by acknowledged masters. “Unless you’re mega-rich, you can’t really buy masterpieces by your favourite artists,” he says, “but you can always get your hands on something they’ve done.” He insists there are (relative) bargains to be had, from late de Chirico paintings to Garry Winogrand photographs.
Collecting serves two purposes, in Condo’s view. “One good thing is I don’t have to hang my own paintings in the house,” he says with a laugh. On a more serious note, he says that “physically having” a piece of art – looking at the real thing, not a facsimile in a book – is tremendously helpful in understanding it. “I like to see the dialogue between artworks.”
American artist George Condo has wide-ranging collecting interests, including Old Master portraits, Picasso drawings and Garry Winogrand photographs. PHOTO: © REX FEATURES VIA AP IMAGES.
Koons’ collecting places a heavy emphasis on Old Master and 19th-century paintings. There’s an early 16th-century Jesus by Quentin Massys, along with canvases by Manet, Courbet, Poussin and Rococo darling Fragonard. “Art has this ability to allow you to connect back through history in the same way that biology does,” he told The New York Times in 2010. Though his Pop-centric output may seem far removed from the classic pieces lining the walls of his townhouse, there is a unifying thread – an obsession with the body and sexuality. “I’m always looking for source material,” he noted in the Times.
Nabil Nahas, on the other hand, insists his broad collection is purely for his viewing enjoyment, not his artistic inspiration. “I don’t think I’m influenced by other artists,” he says. Known for his nature-inflected abstractions, Nahas says that when it comes to collecting, “I’m all over the place.”
“In the 1980s, when nobody wanted them, I bought Fontanas,” he says. “When I bought them, they were very inexpensive. Then it became more of a worry to have them around.” As Fontana’s market heated up, Nahas sold. He has since collected everything from furniture to ceramics – now he’s high on the late ceramicist Lucie Rie – frequently selling when the prices rise or something else catches his eye. “I don’t look,” he says. “I kind of stumble onto things.”
Nahas divides his time between New York and Beirut. In New York, he says, “what I have now is a lot of Alex Katz paintings, which is what I enjoy living with. I never get tired of looking at them. They’re very fresh, beautifully painted.” He has a portrait of Katz’s wife and muse, Ada, as well as a couple of portraits of himself that his old friend painted in his signature reductive style. Nahas’ Beirut collection focuses on Middle Eastern artists as well as Orientalist work, paintings by Western artists who take the Middle East as their subject. Though he concentrates on pieces from the 1930s through the 1960s, Nahas has also bought some contemporary artists. “The new ones are very good,” he says. “The younger generation is very interesting.”
Zhang Huan, too, is interested in his heritage, collecting all manner of ancient Chinese artworks, including Buddhas, books and furniture and broken Buddha figures from Tibet. He started in the 1990s while living in Beijing. Now based in Shanghai, he trolls the antiques shops every weekend looking for stone and pottery coffins and other artefacts from China’s burial culture. “My favourites are the stone coffin of the Han Dynasty unearthed in Sichuan Province and a wooden figure of Buddha dated back to the Song Dynasty,” he says by e-mail, adding that he’d like to open a museum of coffins one day.
Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s work, such as Buddha of Steel Life, is influenced from his Buddha collection. PHOTO: © MARCO SECCHI/GETTY IMAGES.
Zhang’s own work often references his ancestors and ancient Chinese culture, and he says his collection affects his art-making both directly and indirectly. Other artists’ collections have had profound impacts on their oeuvres even if those collections are not comprised of art, per se. Richard Prince has made works not only of celebrities’ publicity stills that he stockpiled but also of their canceled checks. Philip Pearlstein has long used his enormous, idiosyncratic collection – meandering from antique toys and Navajo blankets to Etruscan sculpture – as props in his paintings of nudes. Ellen Gallagher has taken pages from her vintage Ebony and Sepia magazines and fixed them to her paintings and drawings.
Sometimes the influence can be subtle. Yoshitomo Nara began collecting records decades ago, well before his manga- and music-inspired renderings of childlike figures became a sensation. “When I was a teenager, I never thought to buy art books – I think I learned about art from looking at the album covers that were all around me,” he recently told a Japanese publication. “Getting a new record from abroad was an invaluable opportunity to see new art. While listening to music play, I expanded the realm of my imagination by entering into a dialogue with the album covers. I think that the act of doing that taught me not just how to verbalise the images that sprung up in my mind but how to visualise them.” He paid close attention to such details as the paper stock, the fashion depicted or whether the band omitted its name from the cover. Ever since, and as his record collection grew exponentially, there has been an unmistakable pop-culture sensibility to his paintings, sculpture and installation art.
And then there’s James Siena, who began seriously collecting vintage typewriters in the 1990s. Until this past winter, the biggest connection he could draw between the Underwoods, Remingtons and IBMs on his shelves and his geometric pictures, which he paints according to “rules” he conceives, is that he considered his work “machine-like.”
American artist James Siena collects vintage typewriters, which he then uses to create art. PHOTO: RENATE PONSOLD © JAMES SIENA, COURTESY PACE GALLERY.
For the most part, the typewriters – he estimates he owns about a hundred – sat in his small studio in New York’s Chinatown, though he also enjoyed writing letters on a few of them. Then, while living in Rome on a two-month residency with the American Academy this winter, he decided to try using a typewriter as an art-making tool. He went to a local flea market, bought an Olivetti Studio and says, “I started typing these patterns.” His first “drawing” was a field of parentheses – half the page left parentheses, half right, with a white stripe down the middle. Then he began riffing on that design, playing with the parentheses in different patterns and experimenting with other symbols, such as quotation marks, degree signs and numbers. “They’re fun,” he says. “They’re really weird things.”
Siena has a thing for office supplies in general and also picked up eight packages of old-fashioned carbon paper while he was in Europe. Is he going to make art with it – maybe do-it-yourself editions? “I might,” he says with a laugh. “I never thought I’d make art from a typewriter.” Ah, the life of an artist.
Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and The Financial Times, amongst other publications.
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