Abstract Critical

Collecting for Power and Pleasure

Written by Luke Elwes

When asked about the primary impulse to collect art by Matthew Collings, Doris Lockhart Saatchi spoke of neurotic obsession driven by a desire ‘to please myself’. The pleasure of ownership allied to a distinct intellectual pursuit or personal philosophy is perhaps what distinguishes ‘collectors’ from what John Pluthero described as’ traders’, those who buy and sell a commodity, who exercise ‘economic firepower’ in an art world driven more by financial than artistic value. While collectors need not be excessively wealthy or status driven, nevertheless it is the latter who swamp today’s contemporary art world (with what Matthew Collings described as their ‘lurid glow’), displaying their hunger – in London at least – in the annual feeding frenzy of Frieze week. But what happens to all this stuff once their appetite is sated?

Those collectors who still enjoy living with and displaying their art rather than simply amassing it, are ultimately limited by their own wall and floor space and by the finite time they have to enjoy it. For some the solution is to create public spaces with curatorial programs: the Zabludowicz Collection and David Roberts Art Foundation are recent examples of this trend. For others it is the hope and belief that one day their private collections (as with Anthony D’Offay’s gift to the nation of 725 works in 2008) will end up on the walls and floors of public galleries for others to enjoy.  Beyond this, it is state-subsidised galleries we now entrust to collect on our behalf, to archive for the future those objects its guardians regard as culturally significant. But what about the State itself, its own collection which is neither publicly displayed nor (as far as we know) driven by personal preference or acquisitive desire?

The Government Art collection has at its disposal wall space that stretches across the globe, yet most of what it has collected over the last century is only visible to us when chosen either by politicians at home (who wish to live with it for a while and, perhaps simultaneously, seek through its display some visible token of their status or reflection of their values) or by civil servants charged with promoting British culture abroad. This is less about the desire to own art as the desire to promote a certain idea of ourselves through art. The work chosen to hang on the walls of foreign embassies are tools of diplomacy, carefully positioned to project a national story, one of multicultural dynamism and creative energy.

Kenneth Martin, Blue Tangle 1964. Courtesy of the UK Government Art Collection

This year the Whitechapel Gallery, as part of a programme ‘to open up important public and private collections for everyone’ has invited 3 individuals – a politician (Peter Mandelson), an artist (Cornelia Parker) and a historian (Simon Schama) – to make a personal selection from some of the 13,500 works owned by the Government. The current display, chosen by Cornelia Parker, is superficially arranged to please the eye, as the work arrayed on the walls travels through the colour spectrum. She plays with the idea that a collector’s decisions, while internally coherent, can often seem arbitrary or whimsical to outsiders. There are shades of political colouring here, in Kenneth Martin’s ‘Blue Tangle’ and Richard Wentworth’s ‘Red Eight’, as well as suggestive juxtapositions that point to other meanings and motives.  As she moves between early portraits and Pop artists (Warhol, Blake, Caulfield), abstract painters (from Turnbull and Martin to Innes and Hume) and installation artists (Simon Starling, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Parker herself), she plays with shifts in political as well as aesthetic priorities.

Richard Wentworth, Red Eight 1987. Courtesy of the UK Government Art Collection

Portraits of Queens are preferred to Kings, while Cromwell hovers menacingly over the ‘blue’ blooded section. Andy Warhol’s glamorous print, ‘Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom’, sits on top of R.B.Kitaj’s more cryptic print, ‘People of the Abyss’, and underlining the perennial linking of art and power is a photograph nearby of Lucien Freud painting the Queen, an artist scrutinising a face designed to personify a nation. Elsewhere, as if to suggest these objects are merely things to be fashioned to political ends, she includes Martin Creed’s neon sign ‘Things’. This installation usually brightens a room in the Ambassador’s Residence in Paris, just as work by other prominent Britart ambassadors are placed strategically close to the heart of power. Rachel Whiteread, Grayson Perry and Gary Hume decorate the Treasury, while Patrick Caulfield is sent off to Tel Aviv and William Turnbull to Panama. Kitaj’s print is banished to the offices of SOCA.

Martin Creed. Work No. 253: THINGS © Martin Creed. Courtesy of the UK Government Art Collection

The nations self-image is also subverted, with Darren Almond’s bleak and chilly ‘Flatford Mill’ and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Double Deathshead’, a reminder perhaps of a darker and more piratical history. Yet despite her sly and amusing take on the collection, Parker cannot safely distance herself from her own dependence on state patronage. Whatever motivates collectors – private passion, financial power, global promotion – artists need them, and the more celebrated and established they are the more celebrated and established she becomes.

Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Abstract Collecting: Doris Lockhart and John Pluthero in conversation with Matthew Collings. 18 October 2011 Bernard Jacobson Gallery


Government Art Collection: Selected by Cornelia Parker, Whitechapel Gallery 16 September-4 December 2011



  1. Julia Cooper said…

    I am glad there is an insatiable desire to collect and to paint!