Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector

In the old C&A on Oxford street, artist Michael Landy experienced a kind of living death. As part of a 2001 installation entitled ‘Break Down’, he watched impassively as all seven thousand of his belongings were smashed to dust by an industrial wood shredder in front of an invited audience before at last, with nothing left, he walked away dressed in borrowed clothes. No birth certificate or passport. No photos of his past. Sentimental items and keepsakes from deceased relatives all gone. Who was Michael Landy then? Did he exist?

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Similar questions are raised by Sol LeWitt in ‘Magnificent Obsessions’, a group show at the Barbican in which the private fascinations of artists are laid bare through their personal collections. LeWitt’s artists book ‘Autobiography’ (1980) is presented here as a series of framed prints. Each features a grid of nine black and white photos, documenting everything in the artist’s loft apartment. No text is necessary for this kind of autobiography. When our flesh fails, our earthly possessions will outlive us and define us like a ghost. LeWitt died in 2007 but this strange snapshot of his life remains – a collection of bowls, light fittings, pots and pans, food packets, books, clothes and coat hangers. In this sense, we are all collectors and LeWitt’s hoard doesn’t look vastly different to the humdrum collections of things most of us will leave behind. Spatulas. Remote controls. Plug adapters.

My great aunt, by the time illness forced her into a home, was almost squeezed out of her small dwelling by boxes of things. She collected in a different way – with purpose, in service of a deeper and more urgent need. Thimbles, stamps and postcards were her particular favourites, but she also kept hold of her wartime documents, including her ration book – in case, as she said, rationing returned. In her happy yet rather solitary existence, collecting became for her a way of holding back the flow of time and keeping those past moments, such as the war, in tangible reach. Perhaps as her memory failed her and Alzheimer’s descended, these familiar things began to feel almost more real than the outside world.

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This Barbican exhibition displays the collections of well known artists alongside examples of their work, thus – in theory – drawing a line between the two. We’re encouraged to see how the collections have fed the art and yet, as an insight into the wellsprings of artistic inspiration, this connecting line turns out in many cases to be wonky or non-existent. Howard Hodgkin freely admits that his collection of small scale, fascinatingly detailed Indian paintings have no influence on his own large scale gestural pieces. We are free to disagree, of course. As I walk around the display I wonder if Hodgkin’s keen sense of colour has been sharpened by his daily exposure to the masterpieces he collects. It’s not an obvious connection, but it’s there. This show is all the stronger for not falling back too easily on such obvious connections. It emphasises that for artists, as for other people, the reasons for collecting are extremely varied and complex.

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What makes a great collection? I would suggest two things, by no means mutually exclusive. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, it helps if the category of collected objects is unique. This is embodied most beautifully in the show by the inclusion of a portion of Andy Warhol’s famous collection of novelty cookie jars. How many of us would even know that novelty cookie jars existed as a category without Warhol’s collection of three hundred such artefacts? The wall label tells us that Warhol’s attitude to collection was not one of dedicated connoisseurship and intent to display. As with his artwork, consumption was an end in itself – he bought to acquire, and the pieces were immediately boxed, stored and never looked at again.

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The second factor in a great collection is dedication. Photographer Martin Parr’s item of choice, postcards, might not seem at first glance to be the most unique category – but he’s taken it to a near psychopathic level. His book ‘Boring Postcards’, a compendium of dull postwar shopping centres, motorways and civic architecture, has been a huge influence on my own visual aesthetic. Parr clearly isn’t just a collector, he’s an archivist – he knows what he’s got and how to deploy it to comic effect. His display here is effectively a series of collections within a collection. Like Warhol’s cookie jars, these are sub-categories so utterly idiosyncratic you’d struggle to believe they were real if you didn’t see them with your own eyes. A series of postcards of giant hailstones. A set of postcards of chimneys being demolished. Postcards to mark tragedies (‘Remarkable Railway Smash Near Saddleworth’). There’s even a series of comedy nighttime postcards; ‘Dover by night’, ‘Norwich by night’, ‘Redhill by night’ etc.

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The show also gives us a welcome reminder that Parr collects other stuff too. His collection of Russian cosmonaut dog souvenirs proves the old maxim that the truth is stranger than fiction. Two stray dogs from Moscow ended up being blasted off into space, then for a brief period assumed the roles of quasi-religious icons on mass produced souvenirs. The stray dog as Christ-like folk hero proves how deeply nuts we human beings really are.

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There’s plenty more endearing loopiness, meanwhile, in Jim Shaw’s collection of thrift store art. Shaw scours the world for amateur paintings with a surreal slant. The cheap canvases are displayed here in a jumbled, informal salon hang. Technically a few of them are pretty good, but all are off key in some fundamental way. ‘Woman with Teeth’, for example, is presumably a serious portrait that ended up funny.

When a large number of these wonky pictures are brought together on the same wall, the effect is a little dizzying, with more than a hint of melancholy thrown in. I find sadness in the notion that an anonymous artist’s work ended up in a thrift store, but more sadness still to contemplate their promotion to a London show that they will never know about (after all, they could be alive somewhere). Would they be pleased to have smug gits like me calling their efforts ‘funny’?

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Still, these tensions between professional and amateur, scientific and artistic, high culture and low culture, form an unavoidable feature of the show, as artists bring different objects under the lens of their individual obsessions, and as we the observers survey these specialist objects with gallery-goer’s eyes. Hiroshi Sugimoto shows us the eighteenth century anatomical mezzotints of Jacques Gautier d’Agoty, in which the human figure is peeled back, like a still from a Hannibal Lecter movie. These pictures are scientific, yet I’m in a gallery so I read them aesthetically. They lack, to their obvious benefit, the truly analytical dispassion of later works such as the benchmark Grays Anatomy. Their muddy colours evoke actual dead flesh, and the strange, slightly distorted viewpoints encourage comparisons with the hanging meat of early Francis Bacon.

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Elsewhere, Damien Hirst’s eighteenth century wax model of ‘A Surgical Procedure to Remove Nasal Polyps’ stops me in my tracks for similar reasons to the creepy d’Agoty prints. There is something about it, some quality which elevates it above being merely an instructional model. A boy leans his head back on a cushion. Disembodied hands emerge from the back of the vitrine to hold his head in place while, from the front, another pair of hands push surgical instruments up his nose. The boy’s face is cut away so we can see the ends of the instrument seizing the polyps inside his head. The attention to detail is staggering and lifelike, the sliced away face is disturbing – and the whole thing is crowned by the look of frightened, vulnerable anticipation on the boy’s face. Perhaps this detail is put there as a reminder of the need for empathy, or maybe it’s a flourish on the part of the model maker – we’ll never know.

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Though most of the collections in this show are the fruits of single interest research based collections like the Parr postcards or the Sugimoto anatomical diagrams, a few are clearly rooted in the same primal urge my dear great aunt possessed. These collectors form their own unique subset – we can call them ‘the hoarders’.

By the time conceptual artist Hanne Darboven died in 2009, her house was packed almost solid with the wealth of strange objects she had gathered – paintings, furniture, mannequins… the only theme being the lack of a theme. A portion of this collection is laid out in the Barbican show much as she had kept it, piled up and jumbled together. Although this makes perfect sense, since any attempt to impose order would ruin the essence of the collection, it’s hard to know how we are supposed to respond to this splurge of things. The display is, understandably perhaps, surrounded by unseen barrier alarms which trigger as viewers lean in to get a better look. Perhaps Darboven would be sad to think of her treasures now being untouchable, kept inaccessible behind a gallery forcefield?

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Martin Wong, a painter who died in 1999, seems to have collected more voraciously even than Darboven. A snapshot of his four thousand object collection is laid out for us here, again in jumbled fashion, across a horseshoe shaped section of the upstairs gallery. Wong loved mass produced kitsch – badges, paperbacks, gollywog toys, food packets, figurines – and he collected them his entire life.

Yet this isn’t just Wong’s collection. Here’s where it gets a little complicated. After his death, artist Danh Vo became interested in preserving and presenting this assemblage of objects. As the wall label explains ‘it was only after Vo acquired the collection and presented it… as a work titled ‘IMUUR2’ (2013)… that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis decided to purchase it as an artwork by Vo.’ In other words, the younger Vo took on the Wong archive and re-framed it as a conceptual piece- a kind of posthumous collaboration.

This, perhaps unfairly, makes it sound like Vo swooped in and took joint credit for Wong’s work, but it was done of necessity. He’d already made attempts to keep the collection together, and it was on the verge of being car-booted by its previous owners. Presenting it this way turned out to be the only answer to the conundrum of how to make this collection… well… collectible. We’re left with the postmodern scenario where Wong collected, Vo collected his collection and the Walker Center collected Vo’s collection of a collection. Sounds confusing, but one thing is thankfully crystal clear despite all these layers. This room is Martin Wong. It’s very moving to walk among the possessions of this man who died in his forties. It really feels like we can get a sense of him and his passions. He was very close to his mother, who stored the items for him. The boxes in which he sent the objects are here, and they are tear-jerking to see – prettily decorated in blobs of paint to please her eye, and addressed in huge wonky letters to ‘Mom’.

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I feel like the Wong/Vo installation brings me neatly back to where I started with that Sol LeWitt autobiography and its row upon row of everyday, mundane, personal objects… Collections make us look at the world afresh. And I guess it’s only in looking that we really get to see.

‘Magnificent Obsession: The Artist as Collector’ is at the Barbican Art Gallery until May 25th. Tickets £12

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