The Barbican’s new exhibition, Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, is now open and offers a unique inside the minds of extraordinary talents like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Peter Blake

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is the first major exhibition in the UK to present the fascinating personal collections of post-war and contemporary artists, including Peter Blake, Edmund de Waal, Damien Hirst, Martin Parr and Andy Warhol. Running until 25 May, the exhibition presents a selection of objects from the collections of the artists alongside at least one key example of their work to provide insight into their inspirations, influences, motives and obsessions. Here Sophie Persson, Associate Curator of the exhibition, tells us about pulling it all together.

Was there a particular thing or collection that inspired the exhibition?

The exhibition was inspired by the frequent studio visits that Lydia Yee, the curator of the exhibition, has made over the years in the course of her work. She would often find herself looking around and noticing objects and ephemera that piqued her curiosity. These might be randomly placed over the studio as objects of inspiration and interest, or be meticulously ordered. She realised that artists often have personal collections that reflect passions and interests that sit beyond their artistic practice – and either serve as direct influences or material, or may have no apparent link to their work. Sometimes these collections were a serious pursuit, and sometimes they appeared to grow randomly and organically.

Does this exhibition show something about how the mind of an artist works?

Yes, I think it does, both in the collections themselves, but also in understanding how they came into being, and in their physical presentation. The collections can reveal a different side of the artist’s minds – a more rounded, intimate look into their thought processes. It is no great surprise to know that Damien Hirst has a large collection of medical models and taxidermy, but to see them together with his entomological cabinet, LastKingdom, is to see the natural connection between the two, and a very beautiful installation. Peter Blake’s collecting goes hand in hand with his artistic practice, to the point that one of the signs we were due to borrow suddenly wasn’t available as he had put it in an artwork! His studio is a wonderful riot of colour and texture and clearly integral to his working practice as an endless repository of ideas and inspiration.

Arman’s collection of African masks and Japanese helmets was very much a serious sideline for him – he was a respected expert in the field. The way he lived with his collections, tightly ordered together in his home on shelves and in vitrines, his interest in the accumulation of physical objects, has a very real link with his artistic practice. Andy Warhol was a famous hoarder and at his death had accumulated an awesome collection of everything that caught his eye, from the expensive and rarefied in furniture, art and jewellery, to cheap and cheerful everyday items of the day. In common with Peter Blake (b. 1932), Warhol (b. 1928) had a relatively deprived upbringing, and their collecting interests really started in reaction to this.

In the case of each of the artists, we’ve worked with Dyvik Kahlen Architects to affect a design that gives a nod to how the collections are shown in the artists’ homes or studios. Organised, wonderful chaos, as in the case of Hanne Darboven; or spare simplicity as with Edmund de Waal. The one artistic intervention in the show is in the case of Pae White, who installed her Vera Neumann scarves in a beautiful wave formation, hanging down from the ceiling so the visitors can enter some way and see them close up and all around.

What was the biggest collection involved?

The Martin Wong/Danh Vo installation, IMUUR2, 2013, is the largest collection on show, with an estimated 3,000 objects on view. This wonderful collection was mostly amassed by Martin Wong (who died in 1999), together with his mother, Florence Wong, and kept by her in her home. After buying a work by Wong, Danh Vo visited Florence and was struck by the vast collection in her care. He understood its potential as a visual art piece and document in and of itself, and pursued several institutions in a bid to have it made a permanent artwork in a collection. IMUUR2 is now owned by the Walker Arts Centre in Minnesota. It includes several artworks by Martin Wong, and one by Danh Vo, entitled ‘Vodka Tonic’ (2012), a cardboard box with gold lettering, perhaps reflecting the parcels that Martin Wong would send Florence in San Francisco after he moved to New York, with items that he had picked up in thrift stores to add to their ever-expanding collection of curiosities. This installation is an exuberant a testament to the act of collecting.

With Magnificent Obsessions open, what do you hope visitors will get from the exhibition?

I think there are a lot of surprises in the exhibition! It’s a visual feast with something to interest everybody of all ages, but once you delve a little beneath the surface, it also gives a unique perspective on collections, creative practice, and the link between the two. Collecting is such a universal impulse – everybody has collected something at some point in their lives, and it is really interesting to see how this can take flight and blossom into something really creative in and of itself, feeding artistic practice directly, or just serving as endless sources of inspiration and material.

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