Features The 200 Top Collectors

It Takes One to Know One: Why Artists Make Ideal Collectors

The following article is part of ARTnews’ annual coverage of collecting practices in the art market, anchored by the 200 Top Collectors list.

Sol Lewitt’s collection in his warehouse in Cheshire, Connecticut.JODY DOLE

Sol Lewitt’s collection in his warehouse in Cheshire, Connecticut.

JODY DOLE

Those who follow the art world and the art market tend to have a set picture of a collector: he or she is someone established in his or her career, with enough interest in the plastic arts (or their performance as an alternative asset class) that he or she is willing to shell out ungodly sums of money for art by whoever is of the moment.

But there is another category of collector: artists themselves. This group is largely immune to trends, acquires objects for less money than you’d expect, and, most importantly, has unrivaled enthusiasm for the work.

The most common way for artists to collect is through trades. Almost all artists, even those who don’t engage more seriously in collecting, take part in trades, which involve two artists who mutually respect each other swapping works of (usually) similar value.

“The nice thing about a trade is it’s not a monetary conversion, it’s literally this exchange of the work,” said photographer Jeremy Kost, who both buys and trades art. “Actually, let’s face it: all the people I’ve traded with, monetarily it’s been completely inequitable. I’m a decently successful artist. All the people I’ve traded with are phenomenally successful”—among them Dan Rees, Shinique Smith, and Hank Willis Thomas.

His first trade was with Francesco Clemente in 2007. Clemente desired two edition prints of a certain photograph that he didn’t want anyone else to have. “We said we would trade,” Kost said, “but I kept it loose and I thought I’d just get something from him eventually. It’s always done on good faith.”

Clemente cooked dinner for Kost shortly afterward and at the end of the meal presented him with a catalogue from his 1999 Guggenheim retrospective. Inside was a signed drawing, a study for a major painting in the show. It was a more important work than Kost expected to receive, he said, and it really emphasized the trust involved in such transactions.

“You can’t sell something given to you in a trade; that’s completely off limits,” he added. “If there was ever a dire financial-destitution situation, I could probably get away with asking someone’s permission to sell something, but ultimately I think those trades are completely out of bounds for selling.”

“It can be a little intimidating,” painter Hernan Bas said of trades. “I think most artists are equally as shaky as I am.”

Bas said he usually doesn’t approach another artist about a trade directly, preferring to go through a friend of a friend, or the artist’s gallery, unless he’s heard that the other artist is a fan of his work. “If they don’t care for your work, a really crappy way to find out would be when you ask for a trade and they’re like, ‘No, thank you!’ ” Among the artists Bas has traded with are Rashid Johnson and Cecily Brown.

Historically, this was the way things worked, with artists maintaining small collections of work by friends and contemporaries. In 1964 Richard Feigen Gallery staged a show called “The Artist Collects,” which featured pieces by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Marisol, and Roy Lichtenstein, from the holdings of those same artists, since they all collected each other.

Installation view of the 1999 exhibition “Drawn from Artists’ Collections” at the Drawing Center, curated by Ann Philbin and Jack Shear.COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER

Installation view of the 1999 exhibition “Drawn from Artists’ Collections” at the Drawing Center, curated by Ann Philbin and Jack Shear.

COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER

Some artists, however, have assembled more extensive collections. A 1999 show at the Drawing Center, curated by Ann Philbin and Ellsworth Kelly’s partner Jack Shear, included works that Jasper Johns owned, among them great drawings by Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Käthe Kollwitz. “How natural a selection this was,” Robert Storr wrote of the Kollwitz, in the catalogue essay for the show, “for a man for whom the bundling of hatched tones plays so large a part and whose own work contains so many examples—In the Studio (1982) being a prime one—of truncated but tenderly observed arms and hands.”

Sol LeWitt, who died in 2007, had an exemplary contemporary-art collection—including some 7,000 objects stored in a warehouse in Cheshire, Connecticut—which will be the subject of a show at the Drawing Center in 2016. Part of what makes LeWitt’s collection so strong is that he, like other conceptual artists such as Alighiero Boetti and On Kawara, did much work through the mail, sending drawings and postcards to his peers (Kawara’s own stunning postcards were recently on view in his Guggenheim retrospective).

“He was a collector probably before he became an artist,” Béatrice Gross, who will co-curate the Drawing Center show with Claire Gilman, said of LeWitt. “When he was a child he collected stamps. He acquired his first artworks in the early 1950s, in the Korean War, in Korea but also in Japan. With his modest soldier’s pay he acquired a 16th-century Japanese print. He hadn’t even made a print himself yet.”

LeWitt owned work by Mel Bochner, Jonathan Borofsky, Lucinda Childs, Chuck Close, Hanne Darboven, Will Insley, Jeffrey Isaac…the list goes on. He was a great supporter of young and emerging artists, especially artists who worked for him, both giving them his work—and telling them that he didn’t mind if they sold it—and collecting theirs.

In many ways, artists are the ideal collectors. They see more art than anyone else, and they have well-trained eyes. Their lack of money (compared to other, super-wealthy collectors) doesn’t really matter, since, given the first two factors, they have a strong sense for when something is undervalued, and can often nab a deal.

At the same time, a growing number of contemporary artists have the financial means to buy art outright. And though all artists interviewed for this piece said they’d never sell anything they’d bought, one can theoretically do so in a way that one couldn’t with a trade.

The artists Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami have both amassed large collections of contemporary art. Works from Murakami’s holdings will go on view at the Yokohama Museum of Art in January 2016. Hirst has plans to open his own exhibition hall in London in October. According to the artist’s website, his Newport Street Gallery will display “Hirst’s extensive and diverse art collection, which he has been acquiring since the late 1980s.” The collection reportedly comprises some 3,000 pieces.

Jeff Koons, on the other hand, concentrates on Old Master and 19th-century painting. His collection, wrote Randy Kennedy for the New York Times in 2010, “seems far more classicist than Koonsian, like an eccentric little gallery transplanted from the Met: Manet, Courbet, Poussin and scholars’ delights like Nikolaus Knüpfer and Cornelis van Haarlem.”

Jeff Koons photographed in his bedroom.STEFAN RUIZ

Jeff Koons photographed in his bedroom.

STEFAN RUIZ

The Scottish artist Callum Innes has bought works by Massimo Bartolini, Isabel Nolan, Robyn Benson—“some younger artists you come across in Scotland,” he said. “The whole thing has just grown over the years and become a wee bit of an addiction.”

He says he’s come to a pay-it-forward philosophy: if he sells one of his own pieces, he uses part of the money to buy something for his family, usually an artwork by someone else. “It’s a privilege to do what I do, and a privilege to look after other people’s work.”

Jonas Wood with a Math Bass painting.

Jonas Wood with a Math Bass painting.

ELLA GOLD

This is very much the way Jonas Wood collects. You can follow his acquisitions (as well as his other enthusiasms) on Instagram. His more recent purchases include work by the likes of Ann Craven, Peter Saul, Pentti Monkkonen, Katherine Bernhardt, Gina Beavers, Ry Rocklen, and Calvin Marcus, to name just a few.

“I like to buy great art, not a name,” Wood said. “I want to live with something that has energy that I can feel, that I can get stoked on. I love to support young artists, I love living with their work.”

Like any good collector, he tends to buy two works by each artist he’s interested in. “I know I would like to donate stuff to some museums in the future,” Wood said. This way, he’ll be able to do that and still be able to keep one piece by each artist. “I don’t have any weird economic strategy with them; it’s just totally for personal excitement and research. And I like to support the business that I’m in, support the economy that I’m in.”

The experience of buying art has even given him insight into the mind of the collector. He’s made collector friends, and has come to know their thrill at being able to own a piece by a certain artist. “Math Bass, for example,” Wood said. “That was gratifying. It’s hard as fuck to get those paintings.”

Bas manages to cut deals with the galleries who represent him, which makes sense, he said, since he obviously joins a gallery to be in the company of artists he respects. He’s taken a Chris Ofili drawing as payment for his own work. He just wiped out his art-buying budget for the year with a major piece by Carol Bove.

“Catherine Opie just started working with Lehmann Maupin, my gallery in New York,” Bas said, “and my first thought was: ‘maybe I can get a discount now.’ ”
Did the experience of becoming an artist-collector help him understand collectors better?

“No, it actually makes things weirder for me,” Bas said. “I understand how I go from liking someone’s work to wanting to acquire it, but I still don’t know how someone does that with mine.

“It’s a strange little world,” he said.

Dan Duray is senior staff writer at ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 76 under the title “It Takes One to Know One.”

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