Finding beauty in the cast-off or the offbeat, eclectic collectors are redefining aesthetic value — on their own terms.
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When cavemen first brought home animal skins as boast-worthy emblems of their hunting quests — which no doubt became symbols of their strength, prowess and social standing — conventional, trophy-object collecting was born. But it was with the first cave kids who lovingly preserved the most colorful beetle shells, the shiniest stones and the oddest-looking bones that something more unusual and daring was born. Call it eclectic collecting, a label that describes a special, hard-to-pin-down sensibility, a fascination with the most unlikely objects a person might ever find and cherish.
Fast-forward to the 16th century. As a recent exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club (an association of bibliophiles and graphic arts aficionados) pointed out, it was at that time, in Europe, that a certain kind of inquisitive collector began to create the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities — a vitrine, chest or entire room filled with such treasures as paintings and drawings, maps, plant specimens, shells and coral, coins and medals, ancient sculpture and tools, gems and minerals, gold and silver objects, and fossils. Nobles of the Medici and Hapsburg dynasties had them; so did Russia’s Peter the Great, portions of whose wide-ranging collections can still be found at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Today’s eclectic collectors have something in common with such curiosity gatherers of yore.
Fast-forward again. A few weeks ago, in North Carolina, I chatted with a pick-up truck driver who had kindly loaned me some tools for a quick, roadside repair. When our conversation turned to old tools and license plates, he said, “Got a minute? Come over to my place. I got something to show you.” Climbing a staircase that led up to a series of connecting lofts above his company’s offices, I was stunned to find room after room— a most unexpected, contemporary Wunderkammer— filled with Civil War cannon balls, bayonets, soldiers’ caps and rifles; antique Coca-Cola bottles; hundreds of electric-power cable insulators made of glass; original Elvis concert posters; display cases full of clown figurines; racks of Harley-Davidson logo t-shirts; G.I. Joe and Star Wars character dolls in their original packages; chests filled with blue glass, milk glass, cast iron utensils and old political-campaign buttons; and a set of printed cards bearing portraits and pronouncements of John Wayne (“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”).
Eclectic collectors are everywhere, but what distinguishes a so-called serious collector from a mere gatherer with unusual tastes? Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina and an eclectic collector himself, says there are the “curators,” meaning those who carefully select what they will keep, as well as more general collectors “for whom, if owning one example of something is good, owning 10,000 examples of the same thing is better.” Sloan also identifies what he calls “hoarders,” who “acquire all sorts of things indiscriminately,” and “accumulators,” who “tend to be builders of multiple collections at the same time, amassing large quantities of stuff.” Real collectors, of the conventional or the eclectic kind, Sloan says, are always discerning about their acquisitions. In Sloan’s own collection are such unique treasures as “red pointy things — an Afro comb, a starfish, spiky salt and pepper shakers; things related to hoaxes, like a Fiji mermaid sculpture that’s half-monkey, half-fish, with a mermaid’s tail, from a P.T. Barnum sideshow; and things that have been smashed by other things.” As a boy, Sloan collected snowballs until his mother, needing the freezer space, threw them out.
For many years, John Foster, a St. Louis-based graphic designer, has been acquiring fine examples of folk art, outsider art and vernacular photography (snapshots whose creators are unknown); he has also collected everyday or seemingly ordinary objects whose shapes and textures he savors the way some modern-art lovers appreciate pure form. Foster says, “For me to want to own something, it has to have a strong sense of design and an air of mystery regarding its purpose. I can make up my own stories about how it was intended to be used and who might have owned it before.” Among his treasures, Foster cites a group of eight knives that were hand-made by prison inmates from such materials as a hairbrush and a filed-down spoon; a pair of wooden drumsticks from 1932, with someone’s initials carved into them; a well-worn, circa 1930s catcher’s mitt; and a mid-1940s, white-plastic children’s toothbrush shaped like a pistol.
A selection of objects from the broader collection Foster and his wife, Teenuh, have assembled over the years was featured late last year in “Art Without Artists,” an exhibition at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. John Foster co-curated the show with the museum’s director, Roger Manley, a well-known specialist in folk art and outsider art in the South. “Objects that cross boundaries and collide with culture, objects that are not easily defined, objects with Surrealist overtones— these become my power objects,” Foster wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue. In organizing the show, Manley and Foster were inspired by early 20th-century modernism’s grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, who took industrially made objects, like a metal bottle-drying rack or a porcelain urinal, and displayed them in gallery settings as works of art. Through such acts of what postmodernist artists and critics reverently call “appropriation,” Duchamp in effect declared, “These objects are artworks because I, the artist, say they are.” In the spirit of such context-altering gestures, anything can have artistic qualities if one simply opens one’s eyes— and mind and heart— and recognizes them.
Manley, whose family moved several times when he was growing up, collected rocks or pieces of wood from each of the places where he had lived. “It was a way of taking a part of each place with me and charging those objects with very personal meaning,” he says. Today, among Manley’s own more unusual collections is a group of spent artillery shells decorated with pictures of women or circus scenes. As “Art Without Artists” demonstrated, he is interested in how viewers may impart aesthetic value to ordinary or unlikely objects, especially those that were not intentionally created as works of art.
Manley notes, “We’re constantly bombarded visually by so much stuff that when you pay attention to something you might otherwise overlook, suddenly there may be something about it that really stands out.” Manley’s observation echoes that of the influential avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–92), who famously urged listeners to pay attention to ordinary environmental sounds— honking cars, footsteps, buzzing bees— and allow them to be heard as music. In that same spirit, “Art Without Artists” presented firefighters’ respirator masks, a sawfish bill, red bricks with animal paw prints embedded in them, an ink-smudged letter-blotter sheet and a paint-chipped fireplace bellows as once-used useful objects whose auras, in an exhibition setting, could be felt as eloquent, elegant and full of soul.
“You can imbue an object with value depending on what you believe about it,” Manley notes. His concern is aesthetic, of course. Then there is the monetary value of, well, just about anything anyone might be willing to pay for and collect. Both Sloan and Foster note that, today, websites like eBay have made it possible for anyone to find out the value of just about anything, from old comic books to fine-art paintings. Collectors of the most unusual material, Sloan says, “usually don’t care about monetary value.” However, he adds, “When it comes to the aesthetic value I feel for what I collect, it’s off the charts.”
In her 2006 book In Flagrante Collecto (Abrams), the sculptor and retired New York University art professor Marilynn Gelfman Karp notes that “material culture’s most devalued objects” — like those that eclectic collectors most prize— have no “intrinsic value” and no “competitive collectorship to give them extrinsic value.” However, in her book Karp adds that, for collectors like herself (she has some 200 collections, she writes, of objects that “could be classified among the ‘unlovable’ or the ‘unloved’”), “rolling in riches of your own decree has its own special satisfaction.”
It certainly does for Harley Spiller, New York-based nonprofits arts administrator who collects Chinese-restaurant memorabilia (menus, chopsticks wrappers, paper lanterns, business cards), scissors, chocolate-bar wrappers, blue bottle caps, white plastic spoons and all kinds of information about chickens. He also collects furculae (wishbones) and is a corbatellist— a collector of drinking straws. “The purpose of a collection is to inspire learning,” says Spiller, whose father’s company, in Buffalo, New York, manufactured promotional items, including the lead weights embossed with various publications’ title logos that newsstand operators used to place atop stacks of newspapers and magazines to prevent them from blowing away. Spiller adds: “By amassing artifacts within a set of parameters, collectors build scaffolds from which new knowledge can be derived. I like to collect things that are overlooked or taken for granted and thus stand up tall for the low.”
In their own ways, eclectic collectors are cultural historians and anthropologists who find meaning and value in objects that, for them, are no less significant than shards of ancient pottery or the crown jewels of famous kings. Sometimes, like Bruce and Julie Webb, the proprietors of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, near Dallas, they are dealers, too. As teens, the Webbs met and found shared interests on the local punk music and skateboard scene. “I loved vintage clothes and didn’t think I was collecting them, but, in fact, I was,” Julie remembers, noting that Bruce, “who had grown up around collections, was already acquiring secret-society books and developing an interest in fraternal-lodge material.”
Bruce recalls, “My maternal grandparents were Assembly of God missionaries who had lived many years in India and, in the 1950s, moved to Texas, where I grew up. I remember all the Hindu-deity figurines, occult books and other unusual things they had brought back with them.” In 1991, the Webbs, whose interests had expanded to include a diverse range of works created by self-taught artists, opened a gallery; three years later they moved into their current, 10,000-square-foot space. In the course of their frequent travels, they were deeply moved by their encounter with the legendary American folk art collector Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., a co-founder of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, who died in 1998. (With Julia Weissman, Hemphill co-authored the influential book Twentieth-century American Folk Art and Artists, which came out in 1974.) In the 1970s, Hemphill had dared to argue that folk art forms were still being produced by living artists, and that the term “folk art” in the U.S. should not refer only to certain kinds of objects that had been made in the New England region before 1900.
In their gallery, the Webbs show many of the same kinds of items they enthusiastically collect themselves, including resin clocks, tramp art, circus banners, memory jugs and what they call “killer oddball, kick-ass stuff.” They routinely set off on road trips around Texas, the South and the Midwest in search of unusual material. Julie says, “From Bert [Hemphill] we learned how exciting it could be to discover something that has just been lying there, forgotten or unknown, with a sense of mystery about it; sometimes we don’t know who made or owned something interesting that we’ve found, but that’s okay. Some things have their secret histories.”
The Brooklyn-based artist Scott Ogden, a good friend of the Webbs, collects outsider art and fraternal-lodge items; as a boy growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, he assembled a prized collection of rocks. Ogden says: “I enjoy every aspect of collecting. I love not knowing what I might come across at a flea market or art fair, or on eBay. When something amazing rears its head when you least expect it, it’s almost euphoric.” For Ogden, a collector’s “belief system, whatever it is,” can find itself “shattered when confronted with the unexpected.”
“Nothing makes for good decoration like good stuff,” writes interior designer Carey Maloney in his new book Stuff (Pointed Leaf Press). Maloney and his Cuban-born partner, the architect Hermes Mallea, run M(Group), a New York-based architecture and decoration company whose wealthy clients count on the imaginative duo to create stylish, comfortable living spaces and, often, to figure out attractive ways to display their collections of both conventional and unusual objects. What to do with all those aboriginal bark paintings, trophies and awards (including the occasional Oscar statuette), pagoda-shaped, blue-and-white porcelain tulip holders, and elaborately adorned English Regency cabinets? There are lessons in Stuff for eclectic collectors, and as Maloney told me, conversely, sometimes “stunning amounts of information” flow to him from client-collectors whose knowledge about what they own runs deep.
For collectors in an Internet-connected world, is anything still rare and different? “Our globalized culture means there are not many unknowns anymore,” Maloney observes. Still, when he encounters something familiar in an unexpected setting that sets aesthetic sparks flying, he knows it. He recalls that in New York last October, “Chinese Revolutionary art was hung at the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show in a rug dealer’s booth. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that.” Alas, somewhere far from Beijing, some eclectic collector probably already has amassed a definitive selection of Mao posters and banners proclaiming the triumphs of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Foster says: “I’ve collected things that were so far off the beaten path, but the crowd that’s doing this now is growing.” The Webbs, too, note that it’s becoming harder and harder to find the most unusual material. Bruce Webb says, “Television shows like American Pickers have taught people to appreciate— and put price tags on— all sorts of ordinary stuff that’s really kind of special.” Still, all of the collectors mentioned here agree that what they do with so much passion and determination is nothing if not an “addiction” or an “obsession,” and that they cannot not press on. Mark Sloan, who owns hundreds of 19th-century cabinet cards with sitters’ photos showing “a wide variety of extraordinary hairdos,” says “the hunt for a great item” is the most exciting aspect of collecting. Whatever a collector’s favorite category, he observes, “You’re only as good as the next great item that’s out of reach.”
In a memoir published in 1974, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that collectors “who long to possess things that have bewitched them…learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions.” As they survey and savor their acquisitions, Clark noted, “they are surrounded by old friends.” In In Flagrante Collecto, Karp points out, “Collecting is an act of very personal commitment. It’s about erecting a bond between yourself and an object; it’s all about what you choose to be responsible for.” Some people like colonial American furniture. Or postage stamps. Or coins. Others, Karp observes, go for toy robots, butchers’ display tags (“Choice Mutton,” “Sheep’s Liver,” “Jellied Veal”) or airline motion-sickness bags.
Putting it plainly, Foster offers what might be dubbed the Eclectic Collector’s Creed. “I can look at any item in my collection,” he notes, “and say, ‘I appreciated it. I gave it love.’”