“More and more people are aware that something is deeply wrong. Yet the power of present day ideas is so great that many feel uncomfortable, even afraid, to say openly that they dislike what is happening, because they are afraid to seem foolish, afraid perhaps they will be laughed at.”
This quotation is from the architect, Christopher Alexander in his book, The Timeless Way of Building. The quotation is meant in context to describe the state of architecture in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but I was struck with how relevant it is in describing the uncertain times in which we live today.
This article will address the topic of incorporating art collections into the home or personal environment.
1. I will discuss why we want to incorporate original art into the home environment.
2. How to choose an original work of art.
3. Look at examples of appropriate choices of original art based on these suggestions.
With the uncertainty of the times in which we live it becomes ever so much more important to give attention to the place in which we live. The personal environment we create for ourselves and for our loved ones becomes the center of our lives from which all else we do originates. From our home we live, love, laugh, cry, work and play. This sanctuary becomes the place where we can go to recover our psychological balance.
Alexander suggests that by design, a neighborhood and each home within the neighborhood should have clearly designated public and private spaces. A sense of community is instilled by designing public spaces where individuals going through their daily routines interact several times during the week. By familiar association, friendships form and the quality of life improves as citizens become involved in each others lives. Neighbors water plants, feed pets and look out for the welfare of each other. Neighborhoods and homes which have a quality that makes you feel comfortable and welcome are immediately recognizable, but are difficult to define as to why they make you feel that way. According to Mr. Alexander, this sense of belonging within a community can be cultivated by the way the space is initially designed and I would add, in a home, the way it is furnished.
Within the individual home, a similar environment is created. Public spaces are designed so that each member of the household has interaction with the other members several times a day. This design also encourages the development and deepening of interpersonal relationships.
“People of a society have always pulled the order of their world from their own being.”Each person who lives in the household needs his or her own private space. This space may be no more than the corner of a room, but is respected by other members of the household and contains objects that help to inspire the spirit of the renewal of inner resources for that individual.
In this information age we are daily bombarded with email, voice mail, cell phones and other constant pressured demands upon our time, energy and peace of mind. In order to survive and maintain the quality of our life experience, we must make a conscious effort to restore what has been used up. As it becomes more and more important to tap into and to renew our inner reserves, our place of retreat within our home becomes ever more important. I feel that one of the personal aspects of collecting and one of the jobs of art has to do with tapping into and restoring these inner reserves. This can be achieved by spending time with a beautiful work of art.
If we ask ourselves why we have made the major decisions of our lives, the people we have chosen as friends, the person with whom we chose to spend our life, the career for which we trained, on some level it had to do with how it made us feel when we were with those people, or the sense of fulfillment we experienced while performing that job. In meeting the demands of our lives, the intrinsic value of building a credit of renewed spirit is priceless. I feel that creating an art collection should be approached in the same way.
I am often asked what I look for when considering the purchase of a work of art for our collection.
From my 30 year background as a professional artist, arts educator and art dealer, the following is essentially what I look for as a first response.
When artists are moved to create, they are responding to something they powerfully feel within themselves. The visual image becomes the vocabulary through which they give voice to this powerful meaning or strong feeling they need to communicate. By looking at many works of art over a long period of time, one’s instincts begin to perceive those works of art that resonate in this way. Your eye tells you that one painting has something that another does not. These works of art are about something, not meant to be only decorative. As collectors we then try to find our way into the thought process of the artist and attempt to understand what is being communicated. We want to know when and where the artists lived, where they studied, and where their work was exhibited. What were the political, social and economic influences during the time in which they lived? How were they responding to those influences through their work? The painted image becomes a visual vocabulary that gives voice to the message the artist is trying to communicate. It is up to us to interpret these visual metaphors or clues.
It is important to keep an open mind when looking at art from the past, particularly the ancient past. It is inappropriate to judge art from another era by today’s standards. The more we know about the time in which the work was created, the greater the depth of understanding we will achieve.
Dr. Betty Tisinger, a beloved professor of mine in graduate school, outlined a way of looking at art I have found helpful over the years. As an arts educator, I found it important to break down abstract concepts into clear, concrete terms that students could easily grasp and then build on that framework. Eventually, I realized it helped my own understanding to go through the process of simplifying these concepts into a format that could be clearly communicated in a few sentences.
Dr. Tisinger suggested we consider our study of art history using the following categories:
Realism- intended by the artist to look real. An artist who paints this way is Andrew Wyeth.
Formalism- intended by the artist to be an exploration of the formal elements of art that include line, form, shape, texture and color. The work of art is not intended to be representational. An artist who paints this way is Piet Mondrian.
Emotionalism- intended by the artist to communicate meaning or strong feeling he or she is trying to get across. An artist whose work can be considered from this point of view is Salvador Dali.
This approach gives a basic format through which we can begin to understand the complex and abstract concepts encountered when looking at art.
It is remarkable that a piece of paper or a bit of canvas has the power to evoke such a strong response within us. I feel that when we strongly like or dislike a work of art it is important to make a self assessment as to why. If our response is negative, is this a response to the subject matter, because the piece is poorly executed in regard to technique or composition, or is it due to a lack of understanding of what the artist is attempting to communicate? We often resist the unknown or what we don’t understand. Just because it is different does not necessarily mean it is bad or wrong. If we are afraid to challenge the edge of our comfort zones we may well miss out on the best part of our lives that is just there, waiting for us. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. This process of self examination can reveal the secrets of a work of art. Like an interesting person, not all is revealed at first meeting. If a piece is thought provoking it will often become a favorite component of a collection or personal environment. Your appreciation of the piece grows with your understanding. A piece that is the most controversial can become the most valued over time. Art is not created to match sofa cushions.
When beginning to select a work of art to purchase, many people are initially intimidated and overwhelmed. I suggest an exercise to explore and discover what type of art you are most interested in collecting. First, identify that to which you most seem drawn. If you have purchased works of art over the years, examine what you have chosen. There is often a common thread among those choices. The paintings may have elements in common such as subject matter, style, palette, etc. When attending antiques shows or museum exhibitions, are you drawn to a particular style of painting or drawing or to art from a certain time period? Try to narrow this focus into something you can define and communicate.
Once the range of choices has been narrowed research the major artists who are considered masters of the period whom you might collect. There will be other artists whose work is similar and of quality, but not as well known. Always buy the very the best you can afford and develop the core of your collection. If you are unable to acquire the major artists from the period, look for works of art that define the age. Many artists were considered major in their day, but for one reason or another have been off the market. Some artists may not have exhibited significantly during their lifetime but were very accomplished. When you develop your own eye, you are qualified to make your own decisions or at least you have developed the confidence to seek out professionals who can help you with those decisions.
One area of collecting which is richly rewarding is works on paper. It is still possible to find exquisite museum quality drawings by major artists. These lovely drawings are often more affordable than paintings, are interesting, sophisticated and a great joy to own.
We learn by looking at many works of art, by talking to experts, by reading and being involved in the field. Through these activities we learn to trust our instincts. This is what collecting is really about. Eventually through this process, we develop the eye of a connoisseur. As our skills develop, we might not know exactly why the painting we see is good, but we know it bears further investigation.
When we cultivate an eye for collecting original art we are no longer interested in reproductions, if we ever were. Original versus reproduction is like comparing costume jewelry to 18 carat gold. Once you have an eye for quality, there is no turning back!
There is a great deal of technical information to know in this field. When looking at art one should learn the terminology. Know the difference between a painting, drawing and a print. Within each category, is the painting an oil, acrylic, watercolor or gouache? Is the drawing graphite, charcoal, conte crayon, or pen and ink? Is the print an etching, engraving, woodcut or lithograph? These are very basic observations and there is much more to learn.
When most of us begin collecting we soon realize there is a great deal to know and it is the best choice to develop a relationship with a professional who has made the field his or her life’s work. One of the great joys for us as dealers is developing long term relationships and friendships with our clients.
When we as art dealers invest in works to add to our collection there are specifics we hope to find. Beyond the obvious response to the work itself, we want to know as much as we can about the training and exhibition record of the artist, the condition of the piece, and any restoration that may have been done. We like to know about the provenance of the piece, where it has been since it was created by the artist. In many cases this has to become an educated guess when the age of a piece spans centuries. In this regard, as I previously mentioned, it is best to consult the experts.
Conservation and restoration are considerations as well. These areas are also best left to the experts. Most art dealers will have restorers they can recommend.
When a work of art is framed, there are basic needs that should be addressed by a certified picture framer. When framing a work on paper, any matting, backing board or material touching the art work should be acid free. Non acid free material may contain tannic acid and will burn and discolor the art work over time. The glass used should be conservation or museum glass that filters ultraviolet light. The glass should not touch the paper upon which the work of art was made. Inappropriate exposure to light can cause the image to fade.
Proper framing will give the work of art the importance it deserves. Consider proportion and a framing choice that quietly supports the image, not overwhelming it. As with proper dress, we do not want the gentleman’s tie to arrive before the gentleman!
You will hear the term “listed artist” as you begin to build your collection. This means that the artist is listed in one of the primary professional reference books. The main reference for American artists is “Who Was Who in American Art” and “Benezit” for European artists and there are others as well. When artists are not listed in the major reference books, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not accomplished artists. There are a number of reasons why an artist might not be listed. Again, learn to trust your eye.
In conclusion, I would like to share some examples of art works from our collection that reflect the ideas discussed. The following pieces are from the estates of the artists who made them. The frames were custom made for the pieces in Paris.
Andre Derain- a beautiful museum quality drawing which is a prime example of a work on paper available by a major, internationally known artist. Derain worked closely with Matisse and was one of the co-founders of the Fauvist Movement.
Moses Soyer- another wonderful drawing, he is considered among the most important of the figurative artists working in America during the twentieth century. His works are in the permanent collections of many American museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Alix Aymé- we began working with this estate a few years ago. Aymé is an extraordinary artist who led an extraordinary life. Her work reflects her extensive travels throughout Europe and Indochina. She worked with many of the important artists of her day including Maurice Denis and Foujita. Her work is found in a number of private and public collections, including that of the Musée Des Années Trente in Paris. There are drawings as well as works on canvas in the collection. A book is soon to be published about her and we hope to curate a museum exhibition of her work in the near future.
Henry Hillyer- an American artist who lived in the nineteenth century. This collection consists mostly of beautifully rendered oil paintings. The majority of the pieces we have are small and portable reflecting the artist’s interest in the “plein-air” tradition in which the artist painted on location. The smaller artist’s board or canvas was easier to carry. Hillyer traveled and painted up and down the east coast of America. In Washington, DC he opened an art studio in the Colonization Building at 725 14th Street and was a founder of the Washington Art Club. He often painted in Rock Creek Valley and was among the early advocates of its preservation as a park.
These works and others may be viewed on our website at http://www.fc-fineart.com .