The Thrill of Conscious Collecting

In a recent Interview Magazine article, one prominent artist has this to say concerning collectors: “There are awful ones and great ones. There are a few I absolutely love, like Andy Stillpass in Cincinnati. He’s one of the greatest collectors in the world because his relationship to the art is alive. He lives with it. He commissions all of his pieces. He doesn’t have tons of money, but he’s really smart.”

So, what made Andy Stillpass a collector? As a child he had collected everything from recordings to rocks to postcards, but he never would have described himself thus until the 1980’s, when his daughter Zoe’s stuffed dog took over a niche in his front hall designed by Cincinnati architect, Carl Strauss, to house art for its original owner.

“In the eighties, Carl helped us renovate this house, and one day he said to me ‘you will be collecting art.’ I thought, ‘well that’s news to me.'” He pauses, “I guess I’ve always been pretty obsessive about collecting; even as a kid I felt I HAD to have this record, HAD to have that book, and HAD to have them right away.”

As to the niche in the hallway, Stillpass finally observed the stuffed dog, which had by then taken up nearly a year’s residence, and thought it was time to fill the space with art. He invited Carl Solway, a Cincinnati art dealer, out to the house to look at the niche. “A few days after the visit, Carl showed me slides of some young artists with whom he was starting to work.” Stillpass selected a piece, entitled B.C., by Jon Kessler, a mixed-media sculptor. “I hadn’t heard of the artist, but I could see that the piece was dealing in a very interesting way with issues I had been thinking about, and it’s odd composition strongly appealed to me. The whole process was a lot of fun. I was hooked, and I’ve been collecting ever since.”

Next, upon reading a piece in October Magazine about Surrogate Painting, part of the Pictures Artists‘ movement, and finding it irritating at first and then fascinating, Stillpass bought the art photo and the piece itself as illustrated in the article. “I didn’t like it at first, thought it was merely a gesture, but when I saw the actual physical object, I found it powerful.” The piece resembles framed pictures, but where the pictures should be are black spaces.

By now he was thinking a lot about Pictures Artists, a movement started in the Seventies during a financial wasteland. Appropriation had become a central theme—art being made from already existing images, mostly photographic in nature. To quote Jerry Saltz, in his review of the 1990 Metropolitan Museum show entitled The Pictures Generation: “Pictures artists staged their own images or copied or cut out others already in existence. The viewer took them in separately, in sometimes paradoxical waves: an original image, then the manipulations of it, then the places where image and idea intersected. This created a crucial perceptual glitch that irony and understanding filled.”

“There was an exhibit called Pictures at Artist’s Space in New York in 1977, curated by Douglas Crimp”, a very perceptive critic,” continues Stillpass. “I was not aware of the exhibit when in occurred, but a couple of years later, I came across an October Magazine piece it which he expanded on his catalogue essay (expanded from the original written for the exhibition and published two years later – ed.) Here he brought in ideas grounded in the writings of the French post-structuralists as well as those of Walter Benjamin and other Germans from the Frankfurt School. Although I had already read much of the Continental Theory, I didn’t have a clear understanding of its implications for the visual arts. Crimp’s writings made me look at images in a new way. I still didn’t realize I was an art collector at that point. I had studied art history and had just been reading and collecting books on the period.”

One assumes that collectors have a sizeable acquisition budget, but when Stillpass started collecting, he and his wife, Karen, were still in the throes of paying for the renovation of their house. What was there was a background in art history, enthusiasm, a dedication to learning everything about what they added, and a frugal and selective process.

Previous articles on Andy Stillpass, as well as his own occasional speaking engagements, have described his close working relationship with the artists from whom he has commissioned works and with whom he has helped facilitate various projects. The Stillpasses live with the art in the form of paintings, sculptures, and surprising murals and humorous mementoes of collaborative creativity, obvious or tucked away on their property. He is on the boards of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Artist’s Space in New York, the alternative space where the Pictures Show took place. Stillpass is also one of the organizers of the High Desert Test Site, the brainchild of artist Andrea Zittel, who once designed two suits that Stillpass was required to wear to work every day.

The Stillpasses’ “family of art” includes, among others, pieces by Andrea Zittel; Maurizio Cattelan, Karen Kilmnik, Liam Gillick, Joel Otterson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Sean Landers, Jeremy Deller, Martin Creed, Rob Pruitt, Dominique Goanzalez,

Rikrit Tiravanija (pronounced Tir-a-vanit), some of which is in plain view, some of which is less visible, such as Rob Pruitt’s desk drawer Zen Garden, while other representations are painted on doors and walls. The space is neat with clean lines and a lot of light despite the sometimes perceptual chaos of the pieces themselves, such as Rikrit Tiravanija’s Wok cooking pieces, literally the remnants from a Pad Thai meal he cooked in 1991.

Stillpass shies away from having his voice recorded or his picture taken, but there is one often reproduced photograph of him in a swimming pool with Jeremy Deller, captioned “Jeremy Deller teaches Andy Stillpass how to be an artist”. “I asked Jeremy to do a piece, and he decided he was going to teach me to become a conceptual artist. My first assignment was to write two short essays. Although I got started, I never got around to finishing them. The photo shows both of us in floating chairs, with me taking notes while Jeremy shakes a paper as he scolds me for not finishing my lessons. Jeremy’s piece is very funny and extremely smart. Although I commissioned him, I’m the one who had to do all the work.”

“I was originally going to teach, but at the time I was ready, there was a recession; universities weren’t hiring and seldom giving tenure. I needed to make money. I foresaw a career of teaching part time in someplace like Oklahoma and then a move to, say, Nebraska and then after ten years maybe I’d make it to St. Louis. My father meanwhile was putting on the pressure to come work for him in the car business at a decent salary. I thought, ‘well maybe I’ll do this for a year.’ I was still working on my dissertation and would get up at six every morning to do that and then go to work.”

Then the Stillpasses’ daughter, Zoe, was born three months prematurely, and six every morning turned into to going to the hospital while the baby remained there from January until April. “It was one of those winters,” he remembers, “when I don’t think it got above five below zero.” So, the dissertation got put aside, and life went on.

With all but the conclusion left on his dissertation to complete his doctorate in History of Art from the University of Chicago, Stillpass brings to his collecting not only a thorough grounding in art history but also a need to philosophically connect with the art. “At Chicago,” he says. “I had a really great advisor, who was one of the first art historians to introduce theory into his courses. He came through town last year and we had dinner. He told me I should finish the dissertation. I thought about it for a second, but then I thought, ‘what’s the point?'” The Stillpasses’ daughter Zoe is now working on her doctorate in Philosophy there.

Over twenty-six years of collecting, Stillpass feels his focus has changed. “1990 was a pivotal year for me for two reasons. One, I’d had about three years to save up some money, as we’d paid for the remodeling we’d done in this house, and two, the economy had crashed. Artists were moving in a different direction. Many new and exciting tendencies were being introduced. With works not selling and no pressure to produce marketable works, came greater experimentation. When I started collecting in the mid eighties, shows were sold out before they opened. There were waiting lists for works, even those that exposed the excesses created by the over-heated market. Suddenly, in the early nineties, the environment changed, leaving buyers plenty of time to make a decision. That’s when I accelerated my collecting activities and began to commission works for the house.

“In the eighties, my collection was very much involved with media critique, especially those pieces developed in picture theory. I was especially interested in works that revealed how the dominant socio-economic power structure maintained control through imagery. Much of this work showed how the mass media such as television, magazines, and film shaped and objectified individual identities. I was also taken with works that confronted the related issue of desiring consumer goods. Many artists at that time expressed both their disgust and fascination with the objects that their success made available to them. But, by the beginning of the nineties, with the economic downturn, the corrupting power of the market no longer seemed relevant to a group of young artists who were just starting their careers.” He adds, “Besides, many of these issues had been sufficiently investigated. I for one was feeling a little tired with the pervasive cynicism. I still believed that art should have a critical edge and that the situation challenged by media critique was not any less urgent. However, I became interested in artists who sought to uncover a reality more fundamental than that determined by social conventions and language. In many cases, their work proposed the possibility of social relations not determined by consumerist culture. This work became less ironic and often presented moments of empathy. It was also involved with new theories being developed in science and the humanities on such issues as time, space, and evolution. Toward the middle of the nineties, Nicolas Bourriaud, a French critic, wrote an essay entitled “Relational Aesthetics” to describe these tendencies that were appearing in this group of young artists.”

Andy Stillpass collects and commissions art; but the artists also collect at his house, making his a robust mixture of personal relationships and the resulting artistic production. There is a palpable sense of the minds behind the art and installations that are integrated into the Stillpasses’ everyday life. He says, “I started commissioning works around 1987, and it was great to have such a close involvement with the work from the time it was conceived through the time it was made. These people are smart and creative, and it’s a pleasure and privilege to hang out with them. I have wonderful memories of staying up late at night drinking and talking about art. It was funny, but probably not surprising, that as I started to collect and become interested in a variety of artists, I later found that they were all friends.”

One of the most written about and publicized projects Stillpass has been involved in is The High Desert Test Sites. Andrea Zittel, the primary force behind it, is one of the artists, in the early 1990’s, whose work he started collecting. He says, “Andrea loved the desert and bought a house in Joshua Tree, California. She told me how gorgeous the land was and that I had to come out and see it. So I went out to visit her. While I was there, we talked a lot about her idea of putting on some kind of public art project in the vicinity, a non-institutional exhibit. At that time, her property was not large enough to stage a large-scale event, although since then, she has vastly expanded her holdings. We drove around and found around 100 acres available in a place called Pipes Canyon, near Joshua Tree. It’s amazingly beautiful, with mesas and rock formations all around it and Joshua Trees everywhere. So I bought it. For the first HDTS, which took place in 2002, a number of artists installed work on the property. We also built a sort of drive-in movie theater that consisted of a large screen and bales of hay for seating. Three artists projected their videos. It was a beautiful night with a perfectly full moon. A large international crowd came and seemed really to enjoy getting together and wandering around the desert looking at the art.”

Suddenly Andy Stillpass interjects, “I’ve just started a new collection. It’s of streamlined functional objects designed in America during the thirties. I recently became interested in this period and have bought every book I could find on the subject in and out of print. It is often written that streamlining is the first style truly indigenous to the US. Besides the elegance of the lines, I’m totally attracted to the way that during the Depression it expressed a belief in the potential of science and technology to make a better world. This whole summer has been pretty much spent tracking down things for the collection.”

He found a sled, pictured in a number of his books, which he particularly admired. But then he began to think about where he might put this or other objects. The Stillpasses are not ones for hanging decorative objects on the wall. Those spaces are reserved for art. “I realized that I want only things that I can use. Like the art collection, it’s not merely about ownership. I’m not buying things just to store them away. I’m looking for things that I want to become a part of our daily lives.”

Andy Stillpass’s wife, Karen, is as much involved with the new collection as he is, and she just found a thirties tea kettle which naturally delights them both. On the dining room table are assembled various treasures from the summer hunt: a Walter Von Nessen Coffee set; a Norman Bel Geddes (Barbara Bel Geddes’ father) soda king seltzer siphon and a Johnson ashtray. There is also a Lurelle Guild bowl and pair of candlesticks. So, it appears there is a lot more collecting to be done in the lives of Andy and Karen Stillpass, and one wonders whether their daughter, Zoe, will follow with her own versions of collecting.

– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin



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