WARNING: Don’t use this blog as a drinking game and take a drink every time you read the root word “collect”. You won’t make it through the whole thing.
While contemplating the subject of this blog, Collecting, I started playing with words. What does it mean to collect? When we collect something is it because it makes sense in a wider scheme? Before we collect it, do we covet it? I’ve never really coveted a picture. Certainly there are pictures I’ve really wanted for different reasons. As a dealer, that is usually for financial reasons. But for the really great pictures, it’s the thrill of being in the chain of provenance of an important work of art. To be part of that story. To hang it in your gallery. To be alone with it. I remember handling a painting I had once seen in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I was a child. Owning and then selling the painting was wonderful, but being a part of the provenance of that particular painting, which would still have been great had I never experienced its greatness as a child…well, that made it special.
But “covet” seems a bit strong for most collectors. “Want” seems a bit weak. “Yearn?” Too passive. So, how is it that we decide what we want to have, to live with? Does it remind you of something you saw long ago? Does it just make sense in the scheme of things as you’ve arranged them? I think that often the urge to collect is as appealing as whatever we are collecting. I have been known to get into a collecting mood, and it’s just about as exciting as whatever I eventually collect.
I don’t have all the answers, but I have a story about something I just collected.
I recently acquired a painting for my own collection. I haven’t purchased anything for myself in a long time. Normally, I am buying artworks for the gallery…always keeping in mind certain artists and movements, clients’ wish lists, always looking for the best works I can find.
There are many ways I acquire artworks. I get excited first by finding the work. Then I come to realize I might actually be able to purchase it. This happens all sorts of ways: I come across it in an auction catalogue; another dealer may offer it; or my favorite…the random phone call or email from someone you have never met. Some of the best works I have ever collected for the gallery have been pieces that started their journey to Aaron Payne Fine Art from a random phone call. Once I came into the gallery earlier than usual to pick something up before dropping my kids at school and there was a message on the phone from someone calling from Paris. They had a group of paintings that had ended up in their collection over a journey of almost 100 years. They had come to France by steamer in the possession of American socialites in the 1920s, later belonged to Anaïs Nin and then passed down to the current owner via a succession of writers. The story was almost as fascinating as the paintings were beautiful. I quickly dropped the kids at school, and returned to call the owner in Paris, using my broken high school French. I bought all four paintings.
But I didn’t keep any of them.
When I buy a painting for my own collection, it’s a long dance. It’s never something I bought for the gallery and then decided to take home. It’s something I see and it is almost like dating. I’m interested, but know there is going to be some work involved in getting comfortable.
Where I’m going to put the things I buy for myself are important, too. They are always bought with a place in mind. It’s like I’m bringing home a new puppy or a stray cat I’ve found. The new art will have to be introduced. Everything will change, but soon it will be as if it has always been here. The painting I just bought will go over my bed, a place where very few people will see it. And not in a place where one will ever sit and admire it. It will have a conversation with the other paintings in my bedroom. Most of the time I’m in that room, I’ll be underneath it and unable to see it at all. It’s a large painting and will take up most of the wall above the headboard.
I like big spaces with few things in them. It helps to emphasize my love of minimal, clean spaces. For a long time I told myself I’d be happy in small, intimate spaces as I don’t like to have a lot of things. I imagined myself with a tiny two room apartment in Paris which you’d access by 5 flights of twisting stairs. Excellent light on the top floor, but the apartment itself would be tiny, and I would dance with it as I moved about, brushing its door frames, the walls and I listening to each other breathe and creak.
But I’ve never lived in a space like that. I like big spaces and high ceilings. So, this painting will have its own grand space to breathe and carry the day.
Paintings always need something when we buy them. I can’t remember the last painting I bought and just hung on my wall. Cleaning, a new frame…that’s part of the appeal for me. Something to make it my own. I know what I like about it now…but what will I like about it when it’s been transformed? This piece is very atmospheric. Lots of glazes and washes. It’s an abstraction, but painted with the sun and sea in the artist’s face.
I promise in a future blog I will show you the picture (maybe even in situ if I am brave enough to invite you in). One hint I can give is that another work by this artist hung in the residence at the White House when President Obama and his family were there. But I own mine…while he borrowed his. Perhaps he owns a work by this artist now, too?
Inspiring. Well written. I have a poor education when trying to understand what makes one piece more meaningful in comparison. I truly enjoy your commentary because it helps me develop a feel for art. Keep it up!
Thank you for your musings about art and collecting. In the midst of all the chaos, it is a pleasure to read well-written prose about the long term important things in life.
I am a collector in a totally different way. Most of my art was acquired in exchange for catalogue essays or other writing for artist friends. Therefore the artworks are, like the friends, very special. Interestingly because many of the artists at least know of one another, so the art has hung well together in different locations and the works have interesting conversations among themselves.
Moving to New Mexico and living in a few very old adobes, it was interesting how contemporary art still worked in those spaces, before building a contemporary house.
Wow…!!! I hope I’m one of the lucky ones who get to see it….or at least a picture of the piece…While I tend to be a “collector” of all things not important, there are times when I walk around our home and just touch (I know, DON’T TOUCH) one of the Hendersons and try to imagine the artist’s life when he painted it. Now that I’ve seen the inside of his home last year, I have a new respect for his work.
You have taught me a lot, Aaron, and there are not words to express how grateful I am….
I’ve changed me my email address and notified you last month….but here it is just in case..
You found an Alma Thomas and didn’t offer it to me!?..
Just kidding..whatever it is, enjoy it.
Can’t I have a peek.
If it is an Alma Thomas, why not give me a shot at the small round work on paper.
Really enjoy your writing. Personal and well written.
What a breath of fresh air you are!
I open up my email and it’s full of depressing news without end and then you pop up. I am falling in love! (Don’t worry, I’m harmless) but you caught me when I was sinking. By shifting the narrative to my favorite topic. I could feel the lift immediately.
You are saving lives!
The late Harold Gregor who was represented by Gerald Peters Gallery had a painting in the White House when Obama was president. Harold’s first wife lives in Austin and is one of my close friends. She has a portrait Harold did of her that is wonderful and inspired by Picasso as well as some other work of his.
I don’t think necessarily of his work as abstract though later in his career he did some aerial paintings of rural landscapes that were very interesting.
Aaron, your interest in being part of the provenance of a piece of art reminds me of a book I recently read. The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, is a family memoir that follows a collection of Japanese netsuke through different generations against the backdrop of history. He weaves together his search to know more about his family with an appreciation for the importance of art in our lives. It’s a remarkable journey.
Thank you for your meditations on art.
What a wonderful piece of writing, old friend. I particularly appreciate your meditation on “what I thought I would be, or like” vs. “what it turns out I actually really am and like.” As we get on in years, it becomes important to sit more comfortably in our own selves and skin. Not that there’s no room for aspiration, of course, and it’s (almost) always good to push ourselves out of our circumscribed comfort zones — but it’s also nice to accept who we are.
I also love the notion of these works of art being in silent dialogue with each other, over your head (literally) — as if the other pieces in your room will be looking at, and conversing with, the new piece over your bed, even if you look at it only just before you doze off.
ANYWAY: mostly just great to hear you’re keeping well, staying healthy, and vibrant during these challenging times. Best to you, ol’ pal.
A lovely, provocative piece of writing. I can only hope it’s an Alma Thomas work over your head—literally but not metaphorically. Slowly but surely Thomas’s work continues to emerge on the art historical continuum and for good reason. Her work is riveting and prophetic, gaining in influence as our current millennia unfolds. I had the privilege of seeing an absolutely stunning work by Thomas at the Metropolitan Museum in 2019 in their exhibition “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera”. Her painting “Red Roses Sonata,” from 1972, was so fresh, so vibrant, so evocative! So gorgeous! At almost half a century old, it might as well have been painted the day before the exhibition opened. Well, I guess you’ll keep us in suspense for a while, but I can only hope that it’s Alma Thomas who has come to rest over your head and at some point you will let us have a peek.
Aaron, collectors collect because them must. Like artists create art because they must. They respond to some innermost urge.
I also purchased a new work this last weekend. I bought a Beatrice Mandelman abstract paper collage.
Lots of reasons. Mandelman was an important New Mexico artist and a Taos Modern and a woman. Suzette, my partner, is collecting female New Mexico artists, so it fit into her collection, also. And because I realized what a great job Eric at 203 Fine Art in Taos is doing to make the Taos Moderns tradition accessible to collectors. Eric took the time to show us every Mandelman he had and he had a lot of them, since I think he represents her estate, so I became familiar with a large body of her work which informed my decision.
Rather than dating for a while, I am rather impulsive. When I get an insight of convergence as I described above, I often act on it immediately in my collecting.