Interview by Julia Friedman
Where did the idea for the collection come from?
There was no concrete plan at the beginning.
How did you start collecting?
When still in Cologne in the late seventies, open studio projects were quite popular, and I loved being able to talk to artists, about the motivation, interests, concerns, about particular works etc. As I cannot talk to Michelangelo, nor afford his works, contemporary art offers an excellent alternative outlet for the desire to engage with art beyond scholarship.
Funny you mention Michelangelo, that was the artist that E.H. Gombrich reportedly said he would like to talk with, too. If it were possible to communicate with Michelangelo, what questions would you have for him?
Being a fly on the wall of his studio for a day would be amazing. Perhaps whilst he is at work on the drawings for the Medici Chapel.
When did you start collecting and why?
My first works were bought in Cologne studios after long discussions with the artists, from Rune Mields and Dorothee von Windheim, for example, and very few others from Cologne Kunstverein or galleries (Hanne Darboven, Theo Lambertin et al.). Being able to live with art works imbued them for me with a new kind of immediacy.
Where were you at that point in your life?
A student in Cologne.
Do you recall some of the first works you purchased?
Mostly drawings, a small canvas, photographs, photo transfers on gauze, and such like. All quite conceptual work. From the beginning, in part in response to what was popular in Germany at the time, I collected conceptually inclined work, in any colour as long as they were black and white.
What came next?
I moved to London, where a vast amount of superb conceptual art was being produced, but almost nobody was interested. I introduced myself to some artists, most of whom became very good friends, and on my student grant of which I put aside a third per month I started collecting systematically. For a while, with my grant and some money I earned as guide on art historical tours, I was the only collector of seven or eight artists.
That is a wonderful story. Can you describe a few of the early purchases?
Marc C. Chaimowicz arranges photos in which he both stages and withholds his identity and living environment between sheets of glass in a frame that, like the surface of the photos, is subtly ornamented. Amikam Toren portrays a china figurine with ground up dust of the figurine itself – the image is made from the object, has ingested it. In an early series of Tim Head photos splendidly staged objects appear to carry the world. Simon Read’s early photos create a dynamic alternative kind of perspective.
Can you tell me stories about artworks that got away?
Loads got and get away, due to financial limitations, and I annoyingly had to sell some works, which continues to be painful. But my first story of this kind goes far back. I had just concluded high school and saw at an auction an anonymous maquette, which I recognized, as the study for a lovely 18th-century canvas in the Kassel gallery. I tried bidding for it, but as I needed to buy a car at the time to get to my place of work for civil service, I was easily outbid. I have found auctions insufferable ever since, and have never since entertained the notion of collecting historical art. Later, in London, several canvases had been thrown in the bin by the artist by the time I had developed the courage to attempt to buy them.
This reminds me of the relationship between artists and art historians in academia today. Both disciplines usually share the same tight quarters, building and facilities. As a result, I often think of the many modest purchases that went awry and, as a result, now haunt those art historians – purchases that would have proved prophetic in hindsight. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on this?
If at all possible, one should follow one’s impulses when it comes to buying art. If one loves the piece, then no acquisition can be a mistake. If you buy for investment, perhaps you should look at stamps or gold rather than art which amounts to so much more than mere investment. I feel that some of the feeding frenzy surrounding some art is rather demeaning to it.
Auctions play such an important part of the art business – both now in the globalized art market and in the past. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on this?
Auctions, more than commercial galleries due to their high profile visibility, cast into sharp focus both the strengths and limitations, the potential and madness of the commercialization of art works.
Are you an impulsive buyer, or do you research before acquiring art?
Entirely impulsive, but on the basis of a good deal of prior information, I believe in my gut judgments and experience.
You specialize in conceptual art, how were you introduced to this genre of collecting?
During my years as a student in Germany the interest arose, and it has steadily increased since my move to London.
Can you describe an early reaction you had with a conceptual artwork?
The manner in which Hanne Darboven ordered the world was totally engaging, for example.
And, could you give me your definition of conceptual art – as it would appear with all your experience?
You do not use a capital C. So I can include anything after the 1970s, after the heyday of Conceptual art. To varying degrees, and with ever new emphases: Idea driven. Self-critical, self-analytical. Language or text centred. Titels often important in the economy of pieces. Huge versatility of techniques and media which are not, however, drawing attention to themselves in the way marble or bronze sculptures would. Frequently an emphasis on political and gender agenda. A wide range within the spectrum ranging from apparently throw-away to extremely labour intensive. Calling on the observer to contribute to the existence of the work, practically or mentally.
How do you go about researching artworks you may be interested in acquiring?
Usually n/a. But latterly I did some research on how to get works by an artist who I met, but who has since regrettably died: Paul Neagu, recently very relevant to my interests because a highly respected practitioner in London in the period I am interested in, and at the same time one of the foremost exponents of Rumanian 20th-century art. I managed to get two superb drawings.
Yes, his drawings are wonderful. And, it appears, that he had a thing “Four Michelangelo…”, as it is titled in one of his drawings from 1970. Can you speak a little about the past and its effect upon contemporary artists that are, for the most part, decidedly ahistorical?
What is ‘ahistorical’? How can anyone be? Even though you may know it from advertisements, you still do recognize the Mona Lisa? There is no indication that art of the past has ceased to be among the things that have the power to inspire new artistic exploration. And the degree of learning often found among practitioners of conceptual forms of practice ensures that the engagement with art of the past is often extensive and well-informed.
Some say a collection is in itself a work of art. Do you agree?
Without making too much of the notion, the answer has to be yes.
Do you see your collection as a portrait of yourself?
To an extent of course, but also independent of me.
In your collection, do you have some favorite pieces?
Absolutely. For example Amikam Toren’s Hand in Glove, Angela de la Cruz’s Ashamed, John Hilliard’s Collapse, Ana Genovez’s Beast, Elizabeth Price’s Shower, David Musgrave’s Giant and Reza Aramesh’s Action 39. Fatah fighters surrendering after the Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City fell to Hamas on Thursday. (Reuters). Gaza City/Ramallah, 15 June 2007.
Would I be right to ascribe to your collecting a classical or non-classical emphasis?
The classical, like religion, politics, the body, psychology, the other, are subjects that may come up, without, however, forming an Ariadne’s threat.
Do you select only British artists?
Mostly yes, but in Germany I started with Germans, and in Italy I bought a Florentine artist. But that feels slightly outside the collection now.
How have your tastes changed since you started collecting?
Not really, but I am getting more open for kinds of practice that do not have ‘conceptual’ tattooed on their foreheads. For example, I have recently bought a number of photographic works that are more interested in the respective subject than they are in self-analysis of the medium. It would therefore be hard to classify them as conceptual works, even though what good work is not to an extent conceptual? It also recently occurred to me that I am no longer afraid that I betray something when I engage with works that on some level I also find erotically stimulating.
That would be engaging in one of the grand themes and powers in art, correct?
Yes, it proved counter-productive to edit this dimension out for reasons that might have to do with a certain timidity.
How did the works you have collected over the years influence your current choices, if at all?
Not massively, but sometimes it does occur to me that a new acquisition finds itself in an engaging dialogue with other works already in the collection.
So, the conversation in the collection appears to be dynamic, and turns in unexpected directions?
Of course. Each new work brings along its own language, horizon, challenges and delights. I recently got a new desk top, a sculpture made from plastic rubbish – a cutlery tray, a cooling box, bottle tops, and the mike was a shower head in its former life – made by Brian Griffith. It makes me smile as I write this line.