Jeffrey Slonim on 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. …