When artists become collectors (by Margaret Cooter)

“Like the making of art itself, collecting reminds me of prospecting. Some perceived sparkle makes you start to dig and then a seam can be followed.”

Julian Opie is a British artist I’ve never looked at twice. His flat, graphic style always got the “so what?’ reaction. But reading about his art collection has changed that.

Opie has put together an exhibition* of his collection and his own work – and what strange bedfellows they are – portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries don’t, on the surface, connect with his “sculptures”.

Julian with T-Shirt (2005).  LCD screen with integrated software.  "LCD screens are now so flat and high-resolution that they are quite similar to pantings or prints. Like the portrait in the haunted house that moves its eyes, there is a humour to movement when it's unexpected."

Julian with T-Shirt (2005).
LCD screen with integrated software.
“LCD screens are now so flat and high-resolution that they are quite similar to pantings or prints. Like the portrait in the haunted house that moves its eyes, there is a humour to movement when it’s unexpected.”

In an article** about his show (and collecting habit) he says: “A chance encounter with (and purchase of) a ‘School of Godfrey kneeler’ portrait opened up the whole of 17th- and 18th-century portraiture or me. The painting caught my eye due to its powerful purposefulness and sense of being an object…When I started to investigate where it had come from, however, I began discovering a world of art parallel to, but quite separate from, the contemporary art world. … The list of artists kept growing as I found one who taught another or competed with another. … I began to understand the period in a way I had never done before … numerous brilliant, exciting artists I had never heard of, describing a whole world, evoking a whole scene. “

Cornelis Johnson (1593-1661), Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (1631). "Johnson is particularly known for placing the head close to the centre of the canvas, lower than most artists would. This has a very odd and endearing effect."

Cornelis Johnson (1593-1661), Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (1631).
“Johnson is particularly known for placing the head close to the centre of the canvas, lower than most artists would. This has a very odd and endearing effect.”

“It is tempting to see the present as special, but it is also exciting to realise that he past was once today. To me, the art of different periods brings those worlds parallel,” says Opie.

Subsequently he became interested in “ancient art”, buying a small marble Aphrodite and going on to learn more about the whole ancient period, from Roman statuary and portraiture to Tanagra Greek figurines and to all things Egyptian.

A pattern is evolving – stumble on the art, like it, (buy it,) get curious, investigate…  “After the heated frenzy of having found and caught the work there follows a sense of calm. I look forward to having it on view.”

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of a Lady "The dashing clothes and posture do more than the rather blank features to evoke the sitter's character and presence. To me, Nattier's pictures are perfect and an epitome of a certain, doomed moment."

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of a Lady
“The dashing clothes and posture do more than the rather blank features to evoke the sitter’s character and presence. To me, Nattier’s pictures are perfect and an epitome of a certain, doomed moment.”

How does his collection inform his own art?

“Looking at other artists’ work gives me clues in terms of materials, composition, subject matter, colour – everything really. But it also reflects what my interests are, making me feel connected, giving me confidence. [Compared with ancient artists] artists now don’t really know what they are doing and have to invent or find this sense of obviousness and purpose for themselves.”

It works the other way round, too, Opie says. “Making art is in part a conversation with people about whom you can make certain assumptions of sameness. I assume my viewers are living in the same world as I am, that their picture of themselves and their surroundings is built of much the same material as mine. What art looks like, what images we have already seen, has great bearing on how we see new art. What we see is structured and defined by what we know, and a lot of that h=is to do with art from the past … I have always aimed to make my work with all that in mind, as part of its meaning and promise. If I make something that looks a bit like and 18th-century painting or reminds one of an information screen in an airport, it is because I mean it to.”

At Home with Maria 4 (2011) "The focus in a painting is naturally the face and the eyes. By eliminating these, the viewer is free to take in the pose and costume, to read the space that is suggested, t see the whole as a sign, an invention and yet to feel, I hope, the reality of the image."

At Home with Maria 4 (2011). “The focus in a painting is naturally the face and the eyes. By eliminating these, the viewer is free to take in the pose and costume, to read the space that is suggested, t see the whole as a sign, an invention and yet to feel, I hope, the reality of the image.”

“…because I mean it to”…  Through being informed about the history and context of art at different times, as Opie has done via his own art collection, the “meaning to” becomes something wider, deeper than the technical aspects of producing the work.

Telling the readers of this blog about the joys of learning about areas of art outside their own field of practice is unnecessary – you’ve read this far, after all! – but I can’t help thinking that this sort of interest or knowledge seems to be rather lacking in other parts of the textile-art field. Prove me wrong?

And, tell me … what’s on your walls? How does it  influence the art you make?

Aniela Bathing 4 (2013) Black enamel on white marble, 95x95cm. “A song is about neither words nor music but a perfect relationship between the two, the meaning lying somewhere in between and beyond. Subject matter and materials in a painting have a similar relationship.”

 

 

*’Julian Opie Collected Works’, The Holburne Museum, Bath, 22 May to 14 September; Bowes Museum, Durham, 4 October to January 2015.

**Published in Art Quarterly, Spring 2014; a draft is at julianopie.com. Images and captions in this post are drawn from those in the published article.

 

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4 Responses to “When artists become collectors (by Margaret Cooter)”


  1. 1 Kit Lang August 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    I largely collect art I will never make. I love abstract art (not where my talent lies!), sculpture, ceramics, objets made of glass and stone. The fiber artists whose work is on my walls also make art that falls outside of my ‘jurisdiction’ so to speak. Some day I hope to one day own a piece of Deirdre Adams’ work, for instance. It was her work that inspired me to become a fiber artist in the first place, but our work and styles are worlds apart.

    I learn from her, and other artists, constantly though. Generally speaking, I find other mediums more inspirational than my own! Perhaps it’s the same for others…

  2. 2 olganorris May 31, 2014 at 3:17 am

    A question has lingered in my mind by this post of Margaret’s. Why, I wondered to myself, am I attracted predominantly to buying ceramics when my own activities are seriously involved in textiles? Why am I not also a serious collector of textiles?
    Owning ceramics is like having an indoor sculpture collection. I can change groupings and juxtapositions within a relatively small space, which also can change the relative appearance of any one element within the group. This is more difficult to do with textiles, but not impossible. I do have textiles which I have inherited. I have cloth from places I have worked, in Africa, Indonesia, and the West Indies. I do have an interesting collection of scarves and shawls – largely Liberty and Collier Campbell designs, and I have textile work by two close friends. But most of the textile work on my walls is my own.
    I did start out wanting to make art more conventionally: to paint. But it was when I coupled the thinking involved with art with my previous textile-based hobbies that I started to express myself better. And when I read this quote by Anna Pavord in her book The Curious Gardener: ‘The point of gardening is the doing of it, not having got it done. It’s the process that matters, though of course it is directed towards an end result….’ a thought fell into place that chimed with the quotes from Opie about how his collection informs his art.
    Julian Opie’s collection of portraits, Monet’s collection of Japanese prints, Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian art – they all feed/fed into the work of the collector, into their process of making their own art, no matter how obliquely the connection might seem at first. I see now that the sculptural groupings of pots does feed into the compositions of my work, into the disposition of figures in relation to each other as well as to their place in the whole.

  3. 3 clairan May 13, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Monet, of course, had a brilliant collection of Japanese prints in his house at Giverny. They are dramatically displayed –the walls are literally covered by them.

    I have a collection: I have been collecting work from friends, and colleagues, and people who have become friends because I’ve collected their work. Large acrylic, several oil paintings, a watercolor or two, an etching, some sculpture, but mostly fiber! I have many small art quilts (45?)….and other fiber works. I’m not sure how they influence me; they are very varied in size, technique, color, style. I love being surrounded by them. Most are in my studio, which is a very happy place for me.

  4. 4 olganorris May 13, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Interesting. I also did not know about Opie’s collection. And now that you ask, I do not know of many artists who have their own collections – with one exception: Howard Hodgkin. http://www.howard-hodgkin.com/
    He has a wondrous collection of Indian paintings which was on show recently – http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/exhibitions/visions-of-mughal-india-the-collection-of-howard-hodgkin-ashmolean-museum–review-7581253.html
    Examples can be seen here: http://www.ashmolean.org/assets/docs/Exhibitions/AshmoleanPressImagesVisionsofMughalIndia.pdf
    And there is an interesting interview with Hodgkin here: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/9d18a3d4-412b-11e1-936b-00144feab49a.html#axzz31apPANCd

    The ceramicist Edmund de Waal of course owns a collection of netsuke, but he did not collect them himself – he was fortunate simply to inherit them. The original collector was not an artist himself, but a patron and friend of artists. It is an interesting question you ask about artists being collectors. I suspect that many makers and artists alike have examples of work by fellow makers and artists whom they admire, work which they have bought or swapped or been given, but I’m not sure that such accumulations can properly be called collections -?

    I have over the years now built up enough ceramics to call a collection, but strictly speaking the pieces are objects I mostly think of in smaller conversational groups rather than in one large entity which could for instance have a coherent catalogue. And I do not think that they influence what I myself make.


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