PLEASURES

THE JOYS OF COLLECTING: IN A PINCH, YOU CAN ALWAYS SELL IT

Barrie Hale March 1 1975
PLEASURES

THE JOYS OF COLLECTING: IN A PINCH, YOU CAN ALWAYS SELL IT

Barrie Hale March 1 1975

THE JOYS OF COLLECTING: IN A PINCH, YOU CAN ALWAYS SELL IT

PLEASURES

Barrie Hale

In these uncertain days there is a kind of art collecting going on that must surely tempt the most frantically venal speculator on the international cultural exchange. It is typified by the sale of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles — a large, landmark painting in the history of abstract-expressionism and indeed in all of modern art; Blue Poles went to the Australian National Gallery in 1973 for two million dollars, sold by the American art collector Ben Heller. Heller bought it in 1956, the year of Pollock’s death, for $32,000; his sale to Australia represents an appreciation in value of some 6,200%. Not bad.

Of course there is more to collecting than that. An Australian journalist asked Douglas Davis, an American artist and Newsweek's art critic, if Davis thought the price Australia had paid was too high; no, Davis said, it wasn’t high enough — and he was right, because there is no ultimate price for the irreplaceable. When the sale was announced, Heller was the sombre host to streams of visitors who came to say goodbye to the painting. Once the sale was accomplished he was a troubled man — there was that huge empty space on his apartment wall and all anybody wanted to talk about was the two million dollars, not the painting itself.

As a somewhat more modest collector of art for the past decade, I can sympathize with Heller. Even though nobody has offered me two million dollars for one of the pictures I own, and nobody is likely to, for various reasons. They are all by living artists, for one thing — I think they’re all alive; sometimes, late at a party, it is hard to tell. They are all by artists who are still relatively young (35 to 45, most of them) and they are nearly all by Canadian artists. Hence, most of them lack the major qualifications for spectacular appreciation in dollar value — documented international celebrity, termination of supply due to the death of the artist, or, failing that, the distinction of having been made by an artist nearly at the end of a long career of note.

But I am as deeply involved in it as Heller, apart from the disparity in financial wherewithal. I do know what saying good-bye to a picture is like. At one time or another half a dozen of my pictures have gone out on loan to public galleries and museums. The fact that I tend to get snotty about the importance of the pictures I own is beside the point; I will be without my big John Meredith for about 10 months, and that’s a wrench, dammit. There is a great, reproachful emptiness on my wall. The first time I loaned the thing out it had hung in my bedroom and I remember the effect then was of months of disquieting nakedness, as if one of my bedroom walls had been blown away, and some of my life strategy as well.

The thing that binds me most to Heller, I think, is our apparent contemporary concern. I don’t know that much about his collection but I do know that he recently paid $240,000 for a Jasper Johns. He appears to be distinct from that ilk of collectors who acquire, say, an exquisite little Matisse collection — cultural totems, in other words, so admirable in art history’s estimation that there is no risk whatsoever in their ownership. There is a great element of risk in collecting contemporary art; you embrace for your own something that is going on right now, which usually means there will be some gulf between it and the stuff you learned about in school and heard discussed at your parents’ dinner table.

Most of the collectors I know are around my age or a little older (35 to 45, again) and most of them, by means of the art they collect, have made a clear break with their origins. Once they buy and continue to buy contemporary art they may find themselves fools in the eyes of family, friends and peers, or, as they pore over art criticism for some rationale to justify their actions, fools in the eyes of those whose business it is to evaluate the new. Against this, all we have is a growing sense that we can apprehend that brief perception of surpassing ideal beauty that all art has always been about, but, in our case, is embodied particularly in the art of our time and place. What that costs, and what it is worth, is still without measure, 6,200% appreciation or not.

You get into the game by getting your name on the mailing lists of a bunch of galleries, going to the exhibitions as they come up, and keeping your eyes open. The obsessive stage, during which one must buy something, anything, comes quickly, and resisting the urge is bad for your health. Ten years ago, I hung around too long in front of a Michael Snow drawing; I liked it very much, knew I could buy it on time, intended to buy it, yet I vacillated, looking the show over for other things I couldn’t afford. Finally, I was jostled aside by somebody else who had bought the thing behind my back. It was a gut-sinking experience I can only compare with certain hideously distressful adolescent episodes of coitus interruptus. Now, when I am thinking of buying, I check out the work before it is shown formally, if I can.

Some people collect exhibition posters and notices in much the same way that Scott Fitzgerald collected dance invitations-— as an index of place in a bright new world there for the taking, if you are good enough. And part of collecting contemporary art is like that; all collectors are to a certain extent self-regarding members of a club made all the more exclusive by the fact that most people are only dimly aware that it is there at all. There is a limit to this. It is called mortality, and all efforts to circumvent the boundary seem faintly ridiculous; people do not enter the Arthur M. Klutz Memorial Gallery because of the wisdom, courage and whatnot embodied in the life story of Arthur Klutz, they go there to look at his pictures. In a way, this is unfair — wisdom and courage, among other things, are exactly what Klutz had going for him when he first bought those pictures, long before the rest of us caught up with him and began to perceive their real value. If he hadn’t collected them — hoarded them greedily — they might have been scattered or perhaps lost, and so, in a very real sense, collectors of contemporary art hold the future in trust for the less adventurous or the less fortunate. Those of us who are good at it do, anyway, and a curl of the lip for the rest of you guys.