TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1994

ALL AROUND ESTHETES

Artists' Collections

WHEN ANDY WARHOL’S CELEBRATED collection of goodies (everything from Kenny Scharfs to cookie jars to a bed canopy loaded with watches) went on the block at Sotheby’s in 1989, its Citizen Kane–like breadth and eccentricity (not to mention a peak-market haul of more than $26 million) cemented his reputation as this century’s ultimate artist pack rat. While no one we interviewed this month rivaled his voraciousness (at least in sheer quantity), nearly every artist we called was eager to recount exploits at flea markets, obscure galleries, and junk shops. Their collections ranged from refined selections of antiquities and old master prints to lively hodgepodges of fun folk novelties and rubber toys to the obligatory accumulation of contemporary pieces traded with artist friends. Whether focused or all-over-the-place, methodical or obsessive, their collections proved anything but humdrum.

Is the desire to collect simply a bourgeois compulsion? Does an artist’s collecting amount to a mere distraction or an essential part of “the work”? Do artists’ refined sensibilities put them one step ahead of the rich throngs that mob the auction houses? When asked to discuss the motives that drive their acquisitiveness, our interviewees revealed reasons as diverse and unusual as their collections. Whether the acquisitive impulse proved an essential part of the work, a form of procrastination, or a deep-seated compulsion to undermine their own finances, we found collecting these collectors thoroughly engaging.

FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES

I started buying rubber and plastic toys from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s in 1990—a really rough time for me. One day at the flea market, which is one of the places I love most, I bought a couple and took them home. Their buggy eyes and big ears made me happy, and I thought, Well, if I get more, perhaps I’ll get happier. Then they became an obsession. Last time I counted I had 1,500.

My favorite characters are Minnie and Mickey; after that, the Flintstones, and Pee-wee Herman. I hate Barbies. When I went to art school every queen from the Midwest had them; they always cut their hair, painted them. The rubber toys I collect have been altered too, but by kids. My favorite thing is when little girls take Minnies and do their eyelashes.

People ask me, “Are you ever going to do something with them?” I already do—I live with them. I teach, and my students always ask, “How come you never show your work?” And I say, “I did, all semester.” This is also my work—why separate the two?

I also collect George Nelson clocks made in the ’50s for Howard Miller. When you look at them you think, This is so ’50s—very optimistic, very utopian; they’re tough clocks to live with. They have names like Nova, Atomic—space age names. When I started collecting them, time was very real to me; it was very solid. And I thought, If I’m going to have this fucking time on top of my head, it had better be a beautifully designed clock.

LUIGI ONTANI

I’ve traded work with artist friends—Alighiero e Boetti, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel—but I have other collections as well. I’ve collected stamps since childhood. Then there’s the colored paper with figures printed on it used to pack oranges from Sicily. I’d like to do a catalogue with this kind of paper, but it’s too fragile. I put these pieces of tissue in big suitcases and bags and don’t really look at them again.

My first exhibition was a collection of small statues of saints arranged in alphabetical order. I began to collect them on a trip to India. Now my studio is full of them, and I even have a number of them here with me in my hotel room.

I also collect recordings of falsetto voices—children from all over the world—and recordings of the real voci bianchi, the last castrati. Now, of course, castrati are forbidden. Yet for me they represent a confirmation of the mythology of androgyny.

I never use the word “work” in connection with collecting. It gives me so much pleasure, joy, diletto—it is so much a part of my life. I lack the jealousy or the passion of a real “collector.” If I see something I like, I get it. It’s all very immediate.

JANET FISH

My companion, Charles Parness, and I collect all kinds of stuff. I started picking up Depression glass because that’s what I was painting; now it’s Murano glass. Charles was painting himself wearing masks, so we started looking for masks wherever we went. My favorites are from the Dominican Republic. They’re papier-mâché and have spikes all over them.

I also like little bits of folk art. Years ago, at a flea market in Albuquerque, I got a small carving of Nixon and Kissinger in the Middle East, with a sheikh sitting on an oil drum. Also a little Saint Francis with a skunk. I have about eight wind-up eggs. They’re not beautiful or historically interesting, they’re just colorful and amusing.

Recently I’ve started to collect prison art. I have a couple of tables with ladies-dancing-in-the-moonlight motifs done in burnt wood. This summer we picked up an ashtray shaped like a jail with a little prisoner standing inside. The inmates put a lot into these objects because they’ve got a lot of time on their hands. Their stuff is a little kinky, but it doesn’t have as much of an edge as you might expect. The objects they make are more childlike than evil.

There’s a T-shirt somewhere that says, “Whoever has the most toys when they die wins.” Collecting is a hit like building a shell is for a snail. You keep encrusting. For us, though, collecting is still more recreation than an obsession. I like to go yard-sale-ing and see what I can find. Most of the time we just pick up odd bits. They get my mind rolling off somewhere else—get me turned on.

SANDRO CHIA

I collect objects I like—Biedermeyer furniture, picture frames, paintings (old masters and contemporary ones). I have a little Rembrandt etching called Negresse, the last one he made. It’s very beautiful, very sad. One can even speculate a little about the fact that it is the last work he did before dying. Then I have a few Raimondis, who is, in terms of etchings, as intense as Rembrandt. He has the same intensity, and he also works with light. And then I have a rare Mannerist etching by Juste de Juste. As in a Parmigianino, the figures are a pretext for an intense, almost abstract effect. I also have a Palma Il Vecchio painting of Perseus freeing Andromeda from the dragon. It’s not very large, but every inch is meaningful.

I also have Etruscan vases, one or two of which not even the Metropolitan Museum can equal. I got them from a man who is now dead. They had been in his family, an old Tuscan family, forever. I think they found these pieces a couple of centuries ago on their land.

I don’t think I’m a real collector. A good collector is more systematic. In my place I mix periods, an Egyptian sarcophagus next to a Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture Ezra Pound loved—not because I am creating an intentional juxtaposition. In a way, it’s all very casual.

Here in Montalcino, near Siena, I don’t have much up. I have a Tintoretto, but even that I move around. It used to be in a main room, but it seemed excessive, so I moved it to a room where no one goes. Sometimes people say, “It’s such a beautiful painting. Why don’t you display it more prominently?” The answer is, it could come to be consumed too much. If too many people look at it, appreciate it, talk about it, that might dedramatize the painting and deprive it of the intention it had. So maybe it’s better when it’s secret.

AIMEE MORGANA My house is packed with stuff: it has a certain retro-Gothic, morbid feel to it. I’ve got a lot of natural history objects, a lot of crystals, and a big collection of butterflies. I also have something like 90 ball gowns. I have to allow a half hour just for gawking when someone new comes over.

I enjoy living in my own fantasy world as much as possible. I live near this place that sells gowns for five bucks each; they’re cheaper than T-shirts, so why not walk around in full-length lace and taffeta? When you walk down the street in the middle of the day in a ball gown, people allow you a certain leeway.

In making art, I want to create a world that people can lose themselves in. To do that I need a real physical lushness: I need to create an atmosphere, a whole mise-en-scène. During the Gulf War I did these large-scale pieces full of things like gold-leafed skeletons, rattlesnakes, and machine guns. Getting the stuff is part of the fun for me.

In psychoanalytic terms you could talk about collected objects as transitional objects or surrogate objects, like the blanket that stands in for the mother’s breast. For some reason, objects make me feel anchored in the physical world. I can look around and see all these things that are tangible and say, “Yeah, OK, I’m here.” At the same time, they have a diabolical power. The stupidest objects mock your mortality. You’ll see a spoon that all these soft lips have touched, and now they’re gone, but the spoon remains. A Styrofoam cup in a landfill is still going to be around when we’re long gone.

Artists make the most fetishized objects in the world, so it makes sense that as artists we are aficionados of the power of the object. This whole mechanism of how objects are made precious—that’s our business.

PETER SCHUYFF

I’m a Magpie, with a capital M. I collect the old paintings I paint over to make my own work. Ideally, I use boring, academic paintings. They must be good enough to be convincing in a sort of generic way, but not too good. I find most of them in Europe, where they’re considerably cheaper, but it’s still a chore to track them down. When I go to a flea market I usually do a quick once-over to make sure there are no paintings. Then I settle down and have a good time looking at everything else.

Besides these paintings my studio is virtually empty. My house is a different story. I travel a lot, and I always go with empty bags and come back with full ones—usually of odd things that can be held in the hand: tools, noisemakers, musical instruments, old flyswatters. Walking into my house is like walking into an abandoned room in some provincial natural history museum. I also have a lot of 19th-century African objects—mostly Abyssinian, Ethiopian, Tunisian, Eritrean, Somalian—and right now I’m into old master prints. My most extensive collection is of collages by Ray Johnson; I have twenty-some pieces—one of the largest collections around.

About seven or eight years ago I was collecting the turn-of-the-century artist Louis Eilshemius. I dug his work up at these odd little galleries up in the ’70s and ’80s that looked like nobody had been through in 50 years. Other artists—Louise Nevelson and Andy Warhol—have also collected Eilshemius’ work. He had an intense fondness for the idea of the artist, and he took a vast amount for granted, including his own art. I find that his most pathetically endearing quality; his paintings are actually very bad. The most interesting ones have mythological sub-jects, but most of them feature pathetically painted little nudie girls in landscapes.

Jeffrey Slonim’s column appears semiregularly in Artforum.