This wide-ranging exhibition of artists’ collections at London’s Barbican Centre invites us to take a look at the personal, private accumulations of artifacts and curios of fifteen of the most influential visual artists of the past fifty years. The curators of Magnificent Obsessions have been both selective and eclectic in allowing audiences a fascinating glimpse into the range of potential variations on the theme of ‘artist as collector’.
Through the exhibits and the curation, we are asked to ponder the dynamics around the relationship between producing and collecting as linked but distinct activities for the arts practitioners included. The collections on display range from the amassed populist paraphernalia of Andy Warhol, through to Arman’s extraordinary, museum-grade collection of haunting African masks and spectacular Samurai armour.
The Barbican spaces are sectioned into biennale-style pavilions that play host to highlights from the collections of art luminaries such as Damian Hirst, Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Dr. Lakra, Howard Hodgkin, Peter Blake and others. Alongside each collection is presented a snippet of the artist’s own work, which invites both comparison and scrutiny.
Whilst the invigilators were keen to point out that there is no preferred route around the collections, the physical organization of the materials on display clearly offers the ‘wow’ factor in terms of Hirst and LeWitt, with Hirst as the opener. From here on in we are invited to diagnose and deduce the possible causal link between contemporary artistic output and the artist’s accumulated collections of sectioned medical models, stuffed lions and other assorted animalia. Hirst’s frontispiece to the exhibition reassures us of the logic whereby artistic aesthetics and inspirational productivity appear to derive directly from diligent research and objective study.
LeWitt’s neatly packaged collection of carefully organized photographs and sheet music helps us to understand that in the 1960s, LeWitt was buying up the original music manuscripts of fellow Soho creatives Philip Glass and Steve Reich as a genuinely philanthropic act in support of fellow artists. Magnificent Obsessions aligns LeWitt’s version of conceptual compositionally and aesthetically equivalent to the material and ephemera of contemporary musical form. This is but a fragment of a larger story; over his career, LeWitt accrued, recorded, bought and catalogued almost 4,000 audio cassette recordings which featured composers as diverse as Schoenberg, Stockhausen and others, including one of LeWitt’s absolute favourites, J.S. Bach.
The exhibition is, by its nature, compelling and confounding by turns – particularly given the diversity of the artists and the very different nature of their respective collections; the links between the artists’ own practice and their accumulated curiosities range from the linear, in the case of Hirst and Warhol, to the tenuous, in the case of Arman. The subtitle to the exhibition might, it seems, been also have been equally expressed as ‘The Collector as Artist’.
Without wishing to labour the point by systematically rooting-out the origins of each collection in turn, there is something vaguely disquieting about the premise for this display; the logic of the chosen artists starts to creak under scrutiny as we are repeatedly invited to deduce the possible motives of the respective collectors and their associated resources. When we do play Sherlock Holmes and engage in the pursuit of deduction, there emerge some wider fundamental questions regarding cultural capital and relevance to artistic practice per se.
There is little doubt that some of those artists represented in the show, particularly at the Pop Art end of the spectrum, have accrued collections of negligible commercial value as a snapshot indicator of disposable consumer culture; these accumulations effectively uphold the central tenets of Pop debates about culture and value. There are some artists in this show, however, whose collections are near-museum quality, and have perhaps been accumulated not through an obsessional dedication to collecting as research, but more through calculated acquisition in search of legitimacy or maybe even a post hoc rationalization/contextualization of practice.
So we are left with the bottom line: what does this display of these collections of great and good artists actually tell us? Well, in a nutshell, it tells us quite a lot: about galleries, the curators and display and something about artists and their interests. It may also say something about collections of art. For myself, I would equally have liked to have the opportunity to view the collections of a number of leading scientists and how their ‘magnificent obsessions’ serve their practice - one could go on.
This show is entertaining and certainly worth a look; its contradictions are in part, deliberate, and in part, unintended. Certainly the premise and the material gives us something to work with as levers for discussion and speculation, as well as placing the role of resources and research for art making under the magnifying lens. Go see.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at the Barbican Centre, London, from 12 February to 25 May 2015.