Getting To Know You: An Intimate Peek Into Artists’ Lives at ‘Magnificent Obsessions’

I am currently in the midst of devouring Andy Warhol‘s brilliant autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. As my eyes eagerly dart across the pages, taking in the wit, colour, genius and hilarity, I often find myself wishing I could spend a moment in the pop artist’s past, a darting hour in his studio to see what it was like, to take in his essence, get to know him.

Funnily enough, this wish became somewhat of a reality at the Barbican Centre‘s latest exhibition, ‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist As Collector,’ where not only was I given a glimpse into Warhol’s world through the random and yet somehow just-right items he hoarded in his Upper East Side apartment, but into the lives of 13 other artists too, including Damien Hirst, Sol LeWitt and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

View from the second floor looking down. No photos allowed so I had to be ultra sneaky!
View from the second floor looking down. No photos allowed so I had to be ultra sneaky!

You see, each artist represented in the exhibition, is or was also a collector. So for once, instead of their art being the focus of the show, the whole point is actually to showcase the various items they chose to amass on their own time. From taxidermy and kimono toggles, to kitsch souvenir postcards, neolithic fossils and Disney figurines, the collections are diverse and quite frankly, fascinating, especially as amidst each collection, one work by the artist is also displayed. This allows the viewer to really see how the items the artist collected influenced his or her work. Or perhaps it’s the other way around — I found myself asking, what came first, the chicken or the egg?

Whatever the answer, each collection seemed to take me for an intimate ride inside the artist’s mind. Hiroshi Sugimoto for example, has a collection of 50 prosthetic eyes all kept neatly in a small box. Martin Parr collects Soviet space dog memorabilia and Martin Wong along with Danh Vo, Animal Cracker tins. Though I can’t tell you what any of this means, it does make one feel a personal connection to the artists, as if we’ve gotten to know a secret part of them.

I became sentimental and nostalgic as I explored the two floors of the show. For the artists who have died, it felt almost as though these souvenirs of their lives were more poignant than their artwork. There is something about being surrounded by someone’s things that feels so much more personal and exposing than looking up at a painting.

The show itself is separated into 14 distinct areas, one for each of the artists. My favorite area, without a doubt, is that which houses artist, Pae White‘s scarf collection. The scarves, each designed by Vera Neuman, are hung on wires and gracefully blow with the slightest draft or movement of a passerby. Reminiscent of kites flying on a summer’s day, this little corner of the Barbican really feels like an oasis of utter peace in the bustling city.

A haunting moment for me occurred when I came across artist, Arman‘s collection, which is predominately made up of African tribal masks and Japanese armour. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks, for before me was a framed glass case full of gas masks. This piece by Arman, entitled ‘Home Sweet Home II’ (1960), is quite terrifying, the glass seeming to encase the terror of chemical warfare, merely a shatter away from becoming reality. I thought to myself how much less raw the artwork would be had Arman chosen to feature his own collection of tribal masks, as opposed to the masks of war. Seeing the artist’s passion for masks come to life in this work, is a vivid example of the collector/artist crossover.

When I finally came across Warhol’s enclave I felt like I was revisiting an old friend. A collection of porcelain cookie jars adorned 3 rows of shelves, along with plastic train sets, folk art, tiny decorative figurines and even empty boxes. As random as it all was, it somehow felt perfect. Surrounded by the mess, I recalled a line from his book “I really believe in empty spaces.” I felt so lucky that Warhol hadn’t practiced this “empty space” philosophy he preached, for without all this “stuff,” we would know him so much less.

And this is exactly the magic of ‘Magnificent Obsessions,’ it let’s the viewer in. I almost feel as though I left the exhibition with 14 more friends than I had when I arrived.

– India Irving

‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist As Collector’ is on view at the Barbican Centre until 25th May, 2015; The Barbican, Silk Street, EC2Y London; Open Daily 10AM-6PM (9PM Thursdays and Fridays); Admission: £12 (£8 students, 13-17’s & Art Fund members, Under 12’s FREE)

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