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Art for Artists’ Sake

Photos by Kevin Scanlon

Sitting on John Baldessari’s porch on a brilliant, sunny morning talking about art seemed as close to an artist’s wet dream as one could get — at least this artist’s wet dream. The ubiquitous conceptual-art guru, whose slightly bedraggled looks (stark white hair and beard atop a tall frame) are as famous as his art, was taking evident joy in his cigar and coffee and wasn’t about to get up when I arrived. Since smoking was allowed, I promptly lit up, and Baldessari got down to the business at hand — all the work he’s donated to MOCA over the years. Not his own work, but that of the young artists he’s collected. He seemed mostly concerned that I get the names correct.

Artists are fortunate: They trade with one another and, in the process, often become collectors by default. Baldessari, on top of his artist chops, has actually established a name as a collector and a benefactor. His studio is one of several I visited to see the other work; varying degrees of obsession were on display. Some collect whatever they can get their hands on, while others focus on particular genres or periods, or (perhaps unconsciously) on work that reflects their own art. The one thing they have in common is that none collects art as an investment.

Baldessari, in fact, pursues collecting as something akin to altruism, a way to support and encourage young artists. “I focus on young artists, because that’s the only price range I can afford. But I don’t know if I would buy expensive art if I could, because [those artists] are fine, they’re going to be in museums. They don’t need my help.”

After our smokes, we ventured into Baldessari’s house to see some of this art he’s been talking about. The artist straightened a few frames as he took me around the modernized Craftsman that, with its immaculate, barely lived-in atmosphere, handsomely showcases his collection. I spied a half-bottle of wine on the kitchen counter and took it as a positive sign of life. His collection is impressive for quality and taste. I wasn’t shocked to see art from his contemporaries (Claes Oldenburg, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman) and former students who have solid careers of their own now, such as Meg Cranston, or from Cindy Sherman. A Matisse drawing, acquired from a dealer on trade, was the only Master there.

Back on the porch, Baldessari relit his cigar and we talked about art and how it’s changed during his five-decade career. For young artists today, he said, “It’s really difficult. Like when I started, I could keep all the artists in my head. Now, no way. And there’s just so much money. It’s obscene. I could go to the Basel Art Fair and hear about some record price for an artist, and I think, ‘Yeah, she or he is good, but not that good.’”

That can be a problem for most artist/collectors, even the hugely successful Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, who “went out on a limb” to buy an Alfred Jensen painting, stringing out payments to a chagrined dealer. “We’re not going to lose out on something that we really want because we can’t afford it,” said Dowell. “If it’s something we really want, feel strongly about, we’ll figure out a way to buy it.” These co-dependent connoisseurs are avid collectors, meaning double trouble since they are domestic partners as well. Only a sampling of their collection is housed in their Los Feliz studio, where, on the day I visited, Pittman was busy working on huge new paintings for his upcoming New York show at Barbara Gladstone.

Dowell, who for years paid the rent by working at the store Sonrisa (he’s now chair of the fine-arts graduate program at Otis), showed me their retablo collection. Rows of Mexican tin paintings fill a wall of the comfortable kitchenette in the two-story studio. Each rug has a history; tapestries are tastefully draped everywhere, Latin American pottery fills a built-in shelf, artifacts top rustic antique tables. Their collecting keeps them constantly traveling and Latin American culture provides a release from the contemporary-art world that supports them. Don’t they have to budget themselves? “I used to know a couple of dealers who said that true collectors are willing to eat peanut butter for most of their life,” said Dowell. I guess that answered my question.


 More of Knechtel's Indian
art collection
Rene Petropoulos figured out how to purchase her humongous Kurt Kaupers Diva painting, which hangs in her rarely dined-in (although very lived-in) dining room. Dressed in black with wire hoop earrings, the petite brunette artist was a stark contrast to the many colors of her airy, modernistic house. The veritable survey of contemporary art on the walls mixed with multicolored rugs, designer chairs, plastic pillows and little twin girls running around made for a circuslike introduction, yet warm and inviting. Petropoulos has obsessively collected things for years and even co-curated a show on artists who collect. While we waited for coffee to brew, she wistfully reflected on her acquisitions as life cycles not unrelated to Hinduism. She explained the religion’s theory of existence to me.

“Ya know, like when you’re born, the striving for knowledge and acquisition, the acquisition of learning, and then at some point, like teenage years, you start manifesting, and the learning, right, starts taking form in the world, and then there’s this giving, the ambition, I guess you call it, of these certain years, and then there’s the next phase, a kind of divesting, giving-back phase, and then the aesthetic phase.” Petropoulos was trying to articulate her reason for scaling back on her main vice — collecting.

Coffee in hand now, we started back in the dining room, where the diva is in good company. A nice-size Jeffrey Vallance painting holds a prime spot; a Kevin Appel hangs beside it. Both were obtained through trade, but that’s not to diminish their value. “Trades can be tricky, especially with artists, because you know you’re taking out of circulation something they might sell.” Petropoulos has in the past traded for pieces, which in monetary value could now provide for a down payment on a house. But like most artists who collect, she would never sell her pieces, which she considers treasures.

We walked through the rest of the house: A Catherine Opie photograph dominates the bedroom, a Karen Carson drawing hangs above the fireplace, and a prized Emerson Wolfer painting is featured in the kids’ room. Her walls have made way for her own collection of kitsch portraits of world leaders, and the floors and shelves are packed with her “collection of plastic objects that shouldn’t be” — a recent passion. My plastic liquor bottles were no match for her French plastic-straw bottle covers, Philippe Starck tables, IKEA plastic lounging pillows, plastic rugs and water jugs. Petropoulos admitted to being obsessive: She thinks obsessively how to pacify her obsessiveness. She muses over her course of life. Her impulsive nature to collect has waned, and she’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Dowell and Pittman aren’t so tortured. Admittedly possessed and unapologetic, Dowell said he “can’t imagine someone who can pick up something and say, ‘That’s really fabulous’ and then put it down. I say, ‘This is absolutely fabulous and I have to have it!’”

Steve Roden can relate. Even his South Pasadena home is a collector’s item. The painter and sound artist lives in a house shaped like a soap bubble, in which no walls are straight and everything is cement. The dome home, designed by architect Wallace Neff, presents a certain challenge for two-dimensional-art lovers. But that hasn’t slowed Roden. A lot of his framed art sits on furniture that doubles as platforms for the mid-20th-century pottery of Eugene Deutch. Naturally, one piece is not enough.

“This is the problem with being a collector,” Roden said. “If you like stuff, you buy one. If you’re a collector, you have to have every single variation of something.” This kind of philosophy goes one step further than Dowell, who’s content with just having what he wants. Roden has to have multiples of what he wants. He and his collecting partner, Dan Goodsell, once got so out of hand with their compilation of vintage cereal boxes and kids’ food products that Taschen publishers took notice and signed them up for Krazy Kids’ Food, a wacky, nostalgic graphics book comprising their entire collection — and symptomatic of someone completely out of his mind. Roden also reveres Harry Bertoia, the designer and artist prominent in the ’60s, and has acquired at least 25 Bertoia monoprints.

Quantity does play a role in Roden’s world of collecting, and the hunt, which takes him to flea markets and garage sales and cyberspace, occupies a good part of his life when he’s not making art. But to insist another wall be installed in the house you’re about to buy in order to hang more art, that could qualify as a whole new level of crazed collecting. Which brings us to Tom Knechtel.

As you enter Knechtel’s West L.A. home, the tastefully decorated living area has one wall (the new one) dedicated to his prized collection of Indian art, which he started after his first trip to India in 1995. All 20 or so pieces, framed and hung salon-style, range from 100 to 300 years old. And then there are the miniatures; he bought his first in 1981 and now has around 40, all circumspectly sought out through Indian dealers here and in New York. The notion that artists collect art that resembles their own artistic sensibilities comes into play here: Knechtel’s exquisite paintings and drawings echo the meticulous draftsmanship and intimate illustrative nature of Indian drawings and folk art. We walked through his tidy house (do all artists have housekeepers?) to view his contemporary collection. About half the pieces are trade, the other half purchased, but almost all are by friends and colleagues, including some of the above-mentioned, plus Judy Bamber, Benjamin Weisman, Mira Schor, John Sonsini, Dan McCleary and Bob Overby. But he swore his William Blake engraving was not a trade!

Just how far will these collectors go? Knechtel recalled the time he spent the cash settlement from a wrecked car to pay off the debt for a 19th-century Japanese print by Chikanobu, and to hell with the car. He admitted to slowing a bit since recently becoming a homeowner (still paying for that extra wall), but he’s always on the prowl. He has another trip to India in the back of his mind. Sounds to me like he’s just in denial.


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