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Contemporary Art

David Teiger's Passionate Pursuit of the Avant-Garde

David Teiger’s collection is as surprisingly youthful as it is great. Sarah Thornton considers the works he bought, the risks he took and his impact on the art world.

David Teiger understood complex ecosystems like the art world. “My goal is to acquire works that great museums letch after,” he told me when I was researching my book, Seven Days in the Art World. A successful management consultant, he had an instinctive grip on the psychologies of the players and knew how to position himself first in line to buy coveted works. Never much concerned about the opinions of his fellow collectors, he relished well-informed tête-a-têtes with curators, writers and dealers. Given Teiger’s love not only for art but for the people who worked with it, I’m glad that the proceeds from the Sotheby’s sales of his collection will go to a foundation that supports art professionals rather than art objects per se.

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Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1987. © 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Collecting was a competitive sport for David,” says Tim Blum of Blum & Poe, a gallery for whom Teiger was an important client. “He would research and strategise. He always had his notebook with him. He was very precise.” Teiger was an early adopter of Takashi Murakami, acquiring many pieces, at least two of them masterful: 727, 1996, which he gifted to MoMA New York, and And Then, and Then, and Then, and Then, and Then (Red), 1996–97, which is in Sotheby’s New York Evening Sale this November. Appearing to depict a manic Japanese Mickey Mouse, And Then… is one of only two early large-scale paintings that the artist made of combined with its virtuoso hybridised painting style make it a key icon in the globalisation of Pop art.

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David Teiger

“David mentored us through the gallery’s fledgling years. He took risks on our artists and was generous with his advice,” explains Blum. When Teiger started collecting Mark Grotjahn’s work, the artist was not a hot brand. “It was not easy to sell Grotjahn in those days,” says Blum. But Teiger trusted his gut. He liked art that was direct and visceral. “For Murakami or Grotjahn, it was an honour to be in David’s collection,” says Blum. “He would talk about their work until he was blue in the face… wearing one of his signature blue suits.”

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Exterior view of David Teiger’s Bernardsville home, New Jersey, designed by Roto Architects in close collaboration with Teiger himself. Artwork: Ugo Rondinone, A Day Like This, Made of Nothing and Nothing Else, 2009.

Teiger collected art that he considered to be the best of the best of his time and place. “There are learners and there are the learned,” he told me. “The former like contemporary art, living artists, the art of their time. The latter like the art of the past.” With the exception of a few artists, Teiger, who was born in 1929, didn’t collect the art of his own time as much as the art of those 30 or 40 years younger. His commitment to being a learner was not just an open embrace of youthfulness, but a fascination with the future.

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John Currin, The Neverending Story , 1994. © 2018 John Currin.

Although Teiger did not consciously collect with specific themes in mind, an observer can discern threads. He had a huge appetite for colour and vigorous compositions. Beatriz Milhazes’s Avenida Brasil, 2003–04, for example, vibrates with a multicoloured syncopated beat of straight and curvaceous abstract forms. The work clearly fulfilled Teiger’s official collecting criteria that his acquisitions should have “magic” that continuously bestows “positive energy”. Similarly, Dana Schutz’s Her Arms, 2003, which depicts a blond guitarist with massive pink hands in an orange and green wood, has so much pent-up vitality that its spontaneous gestures might just burst out of its studied structure.

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David Teiger's New York apartment. From left to right: Dana Schutz, Her Arms, 2003; Grayson Perry, Rumpleforeskin, 2005; Maurizio Cattelan, Tourists, 1998 and Mini-Me, 1999; Giulio Paolini, Off Limits, 1998–99; Ken Price, Go-No-Go, 2006; John Currin, The Neverending Story, 1994; Alex Katz, Red Cap, 2003. Artwork: 2018 Dana Schutz; Artwork: 2018 Grayson Perry;Artwork:2018 Maurizio Cattelan; Artwork: Giulio Paolini; Artwork: Estate of Kenneth Price; Artwork: John Currin; Artwork: 2018 Alex Katz.

Teiger’s collection was also distinguished by the frequent presence of the female form. From Robert Mapplethorpe’s lady body-builders to John Currin’s bizarre cast of aunts and nieces, many of the works uphold unconventional beauties. Throw in Marlene Dumas’s watery, wet nudes and Amy Sillman’s friskily suggestive Nose and you have a spirited collection of sexually assertive womanhood.

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Jeff Koons, Bear and Policeman, 1988. © 2018 Jeff Koons.

“David loved the company of women, so it is natural that he would collect images of them,” explains Victoria Miro, owner of Victoria Miro Gallery, London, who enjoyed doing studio visits with the collector. One of the first Chris Ofilis that Teiger acquired from Miro was Afromantics, 2000–02. An important precursor to the romantic red and green works that Ofili showed in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the painting reveals the profile of a majestic African woman, gazing into the eyes of her beloved. Made of acrylic, elephant dung and sequins, the painting is an egalitarian marriage of the sexy, earthy and dignified.

Fewer in number, the male figures in the collection tend towards hip portrayals of metrosexual manhood. Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits of men render her subjects as such pretty boys that they could be girls. Flower Ben, 2002, depicts a long-haired, red-lipped, pale-skinned creature behind a bouquet of what looks like dahlias. In Gavin in Basel, 1998, the young dealer Gavin Brown wears a pink shirt with a red tie and has his eyes demurely downcast. Hirsute in real life, here he is depicted as a lesbian sophomore with peachy skin.

Even Teiger’s holdings of Jeff Koons, an artist known for flaunting a certain he-man virility (think Hulk, Popeye, Dirty Jeff on Top), seem to exist in a new social world. Koons’s 1988 painted wood sculpture Bear and Policeman 1988, features a boyish British bobby looking up at a bear in a rainbow T-shirt with a yellow bow. Whether the character is a big Mama or a burly gay bear will determine whether you see the animal patronising or matronising the policeman.

His official collecting criteria was that his acquisitions should have ‘magic’ that continuously bestows ‘positive energy’

At the beginning and end of the day, Teiger’s relationship to power was playful. He was above being an elitist. Indeed, he was a snob about snobs. He had a great sense of humour and a cocky humility. “I’m just an ordinary rich person,” he said to me once. “These young billionaires with their G5 jets – they’re in a different league. My ‘new money’ is now ‘old money,’ which nowadays means ‘less money.’”

Sarah Thornton is a writer and sociologist of culture. She has written two books about the art world: Seven Days in the Art World, 2008, and 33 Artists in 3 Acts, 2014 (both Granta Books)

The History of Now: The Collection of David Teiger, Sold to benefit Teiger Foundation for the support of contemporary art, will be on view in New York from 2–14 November. Auction: 14 November.
Enquiries: +1 212 606 7254.

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