Magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector

In a succinct piece of writing on the Guardian’s website back in November, the psychologist Christian Jarrett, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology, explained that collecting, as a thing humans do, emerged some 12,000 years ago. Thanks to a shift from a nomadic way of life to a more settled one – the Neolithic revolution – it was now possible to accumulate objects.
Today, about a third of people in the UK alone collect something, the reasons never the same. Dr Jarrett explained that it could, for example, stem out of loyalty (a football fan’s interest in memorabilia), because of existential despair (our collection is part of us that continues long after we’ve gone) and, as a demonstration of status (multiple objects of significant value suggest wealth and power).
Fascinating, to say the least, and more so perhaps if you consider the activity through the prism of the art world, where collecting is part and parcel of the landscape. Now, if you take a slight detour from the normal set-up and look into the collections of artists – whose respective works fill many, many collections – you end up in an interesting and surreal place.
And, thanks to the Barbican, that is space you can visit, as it is hosting an exhibition that reframes the Artist as a Collector, as the subheading to Magnificent Obsessions alludes to in a matter of fact way. Focusing on post-war and contemporary artists, the show is, as its curator Lydia Lee explained to the Telegraph recently, extremely “revealing”.
‘If you are borrowing an artwork, the artist is prepared to part with the artwork; the artwork is made to leave the studio,” Ms Lee said by way of example of how personal such an exhibition is. “The things artists own are not necessarily meant to be taken away.”
Artists featured in this show include Peter Blake, Damien Hirst, Martin Parr, Andy Warhol, Howard Hodgkin, Edmund de Waal, Pae White, Jim Shaw and HiroshiSugimoto. The great thing is that the collections are very diverse, ranging from memorabilia that anyone can get their hands on, to rare artefacts and curiosities that are just downright bizarre.
As an example, Warhol collected cookie jars, as nondescript as objects are, all the more fascinating because, at times, we find it hard to accept that even wealthy individuals, irrespective of their artistic disposition, would be so enamoured with mundane things.
Yet, as Dr Jarrett alluded to, your position in society does not necessarily influence what it is you collect, although certainly, works of art have come to be trophy symbols, and, in relation to collecting, assets. There is, despite the overlap, key distinctions between investors and collectors, and, as this exhibition shows, between artists themselves.
“Throughout history artists have collected objects for professional and private reasons – as studio props, sources of inspiration, references for their work, personal mementos and even as investment,” the Barbican outlined on its website.
“Unlike museums, artists do not typically take a scholarly approach to collecting, nor do they seek to assemble comprehensive and representative collections. Reflecting personal interests and obsessions, their acquisitions are usually made in tandem with their own work and on a visual basis.
“Some artists are connoisseurs, carefully shaping their collections and selling objects to make new purchases, and others accumulate hoards of things, never letting anything go.”
Magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector at the Barbican Art Gallery runs until May 25th, 2015.
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.