Magazine article The Spectator

The Artist as Collector

Magazine article The Spectator

The Artist as Collector

Article excerpt

Artists often make good curators. They bring to the task of selecting an exhibition their enthusiasms and skills, plus the understanding of the fellow-maker, whereas professional curators and art historians all too often have a hidden agenda. Historians have a regrettable tendency to invent arguments into which they squeeze artists solely as justification. An argument makes an exhibition, an exhibition makes a book, a book makes a reputation. Up goes the individual's academic standing, and hugely augmented are the future job prospects. Like most things today, it all comes down to money.

Artists, however, tend to become obsessive about different things. If they are closely concerned with material success, they will seldom allow themselves the sizeable chunk of time away from the studio necessary to organise an exhibition on another subject. But when their passions are engaged, they make formidable curators: extreme, contentious and creative. Think of R.B. Kitaj's trail-blazing 1976 Human Clay exhibition which made out a strong case for the continued relevance of figurative painting at a time when it was unpopular, as well as coining the term `School of London'. Or, more recently, Richard Wentworth's free-form survey show Thinking Aloud, which visited Cambridge, Manchester and London at the beginning of this year. It consisted of an unexpectedly wide range of objects, from street signs to a doodle by Lloyd George, and from imperial standard measures to video art and pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales. Something of the eclecticism of Wentworth's thought-provoking show distinguishes A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Collections of Peter Blake, currently on show at Morley Gallery, 61 Westminster Bridge Road, SEl, until 11 November.

Here I have to admit that I had a hand in curating the exhibition, so who am I to ascribe inglorious motives to others when I am equally open to attack? Admittedly, my role was really only to suggest the project, and then to assist Peter Blake in the selection and installation of it at Morley. Do I own to a hidden agenda? As a very occasional curator, who remains firmly outside the establishment system of place and privilege, who by choice has remained freelance rather than become safely institutionalised and pensioned, I could say that I have only my living to earn. Yet I readily admit I am activated by other desires. I wanted to help Morley Gallery to raise its public profile, to put itself back on the gallery-goers map, and I wanted Peter Blake to have the chance to show his mettle as a collector and installation artist. Selfless fellow, you're no doubt thinking. Not a bit of it.

If I call myself an independent observer, I am also well aware that no one can form an opinion entirely without prejudice. (If they did, it would be bland beyond belief.) The self-elected outsider sees some things clearly, but only some. One of the axes I grind is to promote the artists I admire and believe in - and I have very definite opinions about who falls into that category, and who does not. On the other hand, when acting as a critic, one must endeavour to keep as open a mind as possible to new developments and to reassessing work that in the past did not immediately appeal. Although undoubtedly and proudly partisan, I also believe in the abstract that is Art. …

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