The artist as collector

Not all artists are collectors per se -many are simply gifted works by other artists in their circle, but some, like Tom Phillips (with an encyclopedic collection of African goldweights), are accomplished at both pursuits.

At last year’s ‘Paris Tableau’ we saw a special exhibition of works from the collection of Jeff Koons, who among other treasures owns a rather wonderful Gustave Courbet nude. Contemporary art commands such high prices nowadays that artists like Koons are able to collect on an umprecedented scale: Richard Prince has a vast collection of rare books; George Condo has a collection of 19th-century French furniture, etc.

When I think about the artist as collector, I think first of Pablo Picasso and his interest in African art and your collection of Great Masters paintings (Cézanne, Goya, …). The collection of tribal art that Picasso put together had a huge influence on his work, thereby indirectly influencing the countless other artists who followed in his wake. Experts in the field, however, have told that this collection was ‘patchy’ and that he made ‘mistakes’. Picasso looked for form over patina or provenance -after all, he was an artist first and a collector second.

Seeing Luxembourg & Dayan’s excellent Jean Arp exhibition in London recently, I noticed work from the 1920s that had once been owned by the Surrealist poet André Breton; the fact that it had come from a fellow artist’s collection gave it a compelling resonance. While their approaches may not be as thoroughgoing as conventional collectors’, artists are often well equipped, by virtue of their own talents, to ‘see’ things first.

It was announced that in 2014 Damien Hirst will open a new gallery, designed by Caruso St John Architects, in south London to show his art collection. The gallery will take up the whole of Newport Street in Vauxhall, incorporating two new buildings and a terrace of three listed buildings, to provide enough room for the collection, which reportedly include more than 2000 pieces. It features work by contemporaries such as Sarah Lucas and Jeff Koons as well as Francis Bacon, an artist whose influence was most obvious in the paintings Hirst exhibited at the Wallace Collection in 2009.

Parts of Hirst’s collection made up the exhibition ‘In the Darkest Hour There May be Light’ at the londonian Serpentine Gallery in 2006-2007, and it will interesting to see whether the work he has bought since has informed changes in his own art practice. By the experts, I know that he takes collecting seriously, and has recently bought some major works including a Francis Bacon triptych and Crucifixion (1933), the latter of which is currently in show, until 15 July, at Tate Britain (London, also) as part of ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ exhibition. Given how glib Hirst can be about his own work, the serious treatment of his collection may reveal a deeper face to his practice.


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