Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
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The Barbican’s spring blockbuster showcases 14 artists' personal collections. A veritable cornucopia of all things eccentric, rare and curious.
There are moments in this exhibition when you forget you’re in an exhibition at all – when looking through the personal collections of 14 artists feels more like being in some fantastic bazaar. In Peter Blake’s part of the show alone you’ll find creepy Edwardian dolls and puppets, faked taxidermies of mythological animals and gorgeous old tin signs. Elsewhere, the cornucopia includes glass eyeballs owned by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, Soviet space dog memorabilia from Martin Parr, and psychedelic, cod-surrealist paintings sourced by American artist Jim Shaw from thrift stores around the world.
However, while the objects are often fascinating, the show does raise a few niggling questions, and although there’s plenty of background given about each collection, there’s little about collecting per se – about the human drive to hunt and gather, to organise and categorise. Does late German conceptualist Hanne Darboven’s Hamburg home, filled with all kinds of diverse bric-à-brac and partly recreated here, really qualify as a collection? Or is it just an incoherent hoard? Conversely, Howard Hodgkin’s antique Indian paintings or Arman’s African masks are wonderful, but simply because the individual pieces are extremely beautiful in their own right. Other displays, meanwhile, appear decidedly commonplace, like Mexican artist Dr Larka’s wall of LP covers. Shouldn’t artists be collecting less typical objects, things whose aesthetic appeal might normally be overlooked?
Ultimately, the point of any collection is to establish a kind of typology, an organisational principle. That’s what makes the section devoted to Andy Warhol’s ceramic cookie jars so interesting. Individually, the cute cats or chubby chefs are mundanely kitsch, but when they’re arrayed as a series on shelves, you detect certain designs repeating, colour schemes differing, themes and traditions gradually emerging. This sort of deep, edifying look doesn’t happen quite enough in this show, but when it does the results are enthralling.