Sunday, October 27th, 2013

“Curating for the Kids”: Artist Jill Nathanson makes the case for real collectors

On Collectors Who Look (and Think) for Themselves

Jill Nathanson, Byway, 2002. Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 74 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of the Artist
Jill Nathanson, Byway, 2002. Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 74 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of the Artist

Fellow artists often speak of collectors in hushed tones as if referring to some exotic species, one that is difficult to understand let alone  attract. The press might in part be responsible for spreading myths about collectors delighting in stories describing herd behavior at art fairs and, as described in an article in The New York Observer, “The Rise of the Insta-collector.”

But some collectors I know are of another breed.  Or more to the point, they are actually individuals: thoughtful people, confident in their ability to learn and make up their own minds about anything, including art.   These are people who want to live with art they love, and are committed to learning by looking as widely and deeply as necessary to allow them to live with serious art made in their moment.  They’re curating — often for their kids — a space of honest cultural values, rather than investing in commodities.

I want to argue that one way this can happen is when collectors develop their “eye” often with the help of someone in the art world who will take time to show them lots of art intelligently, respectfully and without undue self-interest.   More people would buy art in this way, I would like to suggest, if they could learn about art in non-manipulative settings: the opposite of the “art as investment” teaching model.

Collectors who buy work that is critically esteemed but not necessarily a good investment are essential to the real life of art, yet they are generally “under the radar.”  These are not people who want something for “over the couch.”  They often use an advisor or consultant to start out, but their goal is to learn to trust their own responses.

This may seem so natural that it doesn’t bear saying, but while the art fairs are multiplying, this “normal” collecting, though less prevalent, might be on the rise.  There are many intelligent adults of middle age who loved and even bought art when they were young.  They left off in the 1980s when it all got complicated: trend followed trend while gallerists learned “attitude’ and price manipulation at auction.  When these art lovers return to the gallery scene now, usually with a friend or some kinds of guide, they’re amazed by how much work speaks to them.  And they are equally amazed that there is good work that is affordable, having read in the newspapers the astronomical prices art goes for at auction.  I’d like to describe two of the collectors I know who buy for love.

John Dubrow, Family Portrait, Upper West Side, 2010-11. Oil on linen, 50 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art
John Dubrow, Family Portrait, Upper West Side, 2010-11. Oil on linen, 50 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Joel and Ulrika bought a painting of mine in 2002 when I was showing at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.  At that time, they had a respectable collection that included abstract painters from Sweden where they were born and three great modernist drawings.  Early on, Joel was shown around by David Neuman, who went on to found Magasin 3 Konsthall in Stokholm.   Once together, Ulrika and Joel bought a number of abstract expressionist works: a Robert de Niro, Sr., an Esteban Vicente, some beautiful Hans Hofmann drawings, a small Louise Nevelson, a Louise Fishman, a Robert Therrien sculpture, set next to work by total unknowns.  The question of current prices came up, to which Joel said, ”I don’t know and I don’t care”.  The collection, which is a sort of family, goes off in various directions, and they now have a Michal Rovner video piece that lives very well with the rest.   Joel speaks disparagingly of collectors who match their art with the period of their décor or who ”buy the brand names, the Warhol or whatever”.

A few years ago, Mayann Butler, a long-time dealer and friend, introduced them to Lori Bookstein and the paintings of John Dubrow, specifically his portraits.  They had never been interested in the idea of portraits before (Ulrika said she found them “weird” when she sees them in homes) but they loved Dubrow’s work and began to think: first one, then a second teenager would soon fly the coop for college.  So they commissioned Dubrow to paint their family of five.  Dubrow doesn’t use photographs so the family sat for three months, once a week.  The teenagers had to be out of their rooms with their family, the apples had to be the same in the bowl and clothing and light had to be consistent.  The result is a masterwork. The painting’s structure, so formal yet utterly relaxed, realizes the uniqueness of the moment for the family and for each sitter.

I can’t think of another family who would have commissioned such a painting or gone through the demanding process of being painted. Process and product both reflect the couple’s total confidence in their judgment and in the painter’s work, as well as their experience of living with works of art  that have held up over decades.

Marcy and Bennett  were busy with life and three kids too.  They didn’t buy any art until the kid were teens. They first bought a painting from me because we knew one another and they liked it.  They asked me to show them around and I did.  We went to many shows; ones I would have wanted to see anyway and ones I might have skipped. I just exposed them to work.  It wasn’t long before they were able to compare the works they saw to one another and make distinctions.  Looking at reviews, they saw that their own responses were often corroborated. They found they were learning about themselves through the process; there was a lot they liked but what they chose to live with reflected what they each cared about.  They began to trust themselves, but they thought hard about each painting and continued looking broadly.  They responded to a Leon Berkowitz at Gary Snyder, an Atta Kwami at Howard Scott, a Melissa Meyer in a show at the New York Studio School.  They bought works on paper by Ellsworth Kelly, Serra and Marden  through a consultant; but also a David Poppy from Pavel Zoubek, another small Nathanson from Messineo/Wyman and an Elizabeth Huey from Thorpe.  Over about eight years, they have put together a unique contemporary collection of works that touched them personally; this has a value quite distinct from buying “brand names” for investment.  The collection has a distinct personality; a group of works full of surprising decisions that seem to be built of both paradox and light.

Some collectors, while not buying as an investment, would nonetheless like their art to retain its value at auction, should they ever need to recoup the expense.  But others  realize that since many contemporary artists don’t have a record of sales at auction, this concern will radically narrow the field.

When people begin to collect they have a lot to learn and there are seemingly endless options.  There’s risk involved:  you might buy something you later dislike. It’s easy to confuse this concern with fear of financial risk.  The art world moves fast, making judgment a challenge.  Artists, curators, writers and patient gallerists can communicate what we know to collectors who are excited about looking at and discussing art, balancing the influence of the art-as-speculation environment