Among the more sweet-natured of online crowd-sourced exhibitions is Bob Morris’s project, Museum of Your Parents. Project participants send in a photo of an object of their parent’s along with a brief description of how said object makes them feel about their parents. I for one hold onto my dad’s too-big cowboy boots, his bound undergraduate thesis, the watch he picked out for my mom: little pieces of the stuff he surrounded himself with. We look to understand, feel close to, or hang on to people — many of the parents of the “Museum” appear to have recently passed away — through the silly, quotidian, and beautiful things they amassed over time.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, on view at London’s Barbican Centre, draws on this common desire to make sense of people through their objects. The exhibition features the personal collections of 14 post-war and contemporary artists. The items on view range from stock garage sale kitsch — a nod to the postwar practice of collecting mass-produced objects, popularized by the Kovels — to hand-carved objects in luxe materials to human skulls and taxidermy animals. Each artist’s collection has its own dedicated, delineated space within the exhibit: the shift from one collection to another feels like a jump between singular inner worlds, between tiny, hermetically sealed galaxies of things.
Repeatedly, the viewer searches for an organizational logic to, or a personal economy of, the collections on view. We wonder about the meaning of the specific souvenirs selected. We furrow our brows at the examples of the artist’s own work presented alongside the pertinent collections, striving to dig up a relationship between the hoarded objects and the artist’s oeuvre. We play the role of armchair Freudians, searching for a psychology driving or underlying the collections. Here, consumption produces peculiar percepts of intimacy. As Andy Warhol’s close friend and biographer David Bourdon said on the event of a massive 1988 Sotheby’s auction of the notorious hoarder’s personal effects, “Everyone had his or her own special Andy.”
While the artists under consideration in Magnificent Obsessions are big names across the board — Arman, Damien Hirst, Sol LeWitt, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, to name a few — Warhol’s zealous collecting habits are the best known among the lot. Warhol is said to have shopped at antique shops and thrift stores for several hours each day. He was eventually confined to living in a couple of rooms in his five-story townhouse, as the rest of the space was too crammed with stuff to be habitable. Warhol collected Fiestaware, watch pieces, wigs, Polaroids, antique chairs, and so on: the list feels as infinite as it is indiscriminate. Boxing up his hoard in Time Capsules — cardboard boxes of his things, declared art — the artist included half-eaten sandwiches and a Basquiat.
The Barbican’s representation of Warhol’s collection is neatly confined to a small open-faced closet arranged with magazines, a couple of boxes, children’s toys, and bubble-wrapped canvases as well as a charming glass display case of cookie jars, which come in the shapes of smiling pink-cheeked kittens, plump pineapples and pandas, and jovial chefs. Narrowing in on the artist’s fascination with childhood and the domestic, the display doesn’t capture the way that we know Warhol collected — obsessively, fathomlessly, anxiously — but it doesn’t pathologize him either.
The drollest collection in the exhibition is certainly that of Martin Parr, the British photographer known for his deadpan photos of tourists and tourism’s bizarre codes. In a Parr work on view, a tourist struggles to photograph St. Mark’s Square in Venice through a smothering layer of pigeons. In addition to accumulating postcards (from the “Wish You Were Here” and John Hinde variety to Warner Gothard’s early 20th century mailables of railway disasters and mine explosions), Parr has amassed an impressive collection of space dog memorabilia. During the space wars in the ‘50s, Russia used stray dogs as astronauts; in response to substantial outcry by PETA-types, the dogs became canonized in popular culture. The faces of famous Russian space dogs like Laika and Belka were featured on tons of memorabilia including plates, watches, and ashtrays. Depicting the noble canines gazing off into the distance like national heroes, Parr’s collection of little vintage cigarette cases is a peculiarly silly picture of a strange time.
As an exhibition, Magnificent Obsessions is lovely in that it doesn’t make judgment calls with regards to what is deviant and what is normal, what is junk and what isn’t. Placed squarely within the framework of each artist’s collection, the viewer is immersed in various non-normative approaches to value — a refreshing contrast to the incessant monetization that predictably plagues art collecting. The magical worlds that these artists knit around themselves don’t need monetization; their richness exists, luxuriously, on other terms.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector continues at the Barbican Art Gallery (Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS) through May 25.