Mostly most people see ambitious art just in galleries, where it is for sale, or in public art museums, where it moves when its status has been validated. There is a vast literature on the museum’s history and politics and one important book on the gallery, Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (2000). And I’ve devoted two books to these different visual situations: Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006) and, with Darren Jones, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege (2016). But there is less writing about art in domestic settings. Architectural journals often offer illustrated accounts of the homes of upscale collectors, with their museum-quality art. But commentary on more ordinary settings is rarer. And that’s unfortunate, both because there is real pleasure in living with art and because such everyday settings reveal something important about our art world practices.
Seeing art in a public setting is a somewhat formal experience, even if the art is familiar, and even if it is work by a friend. In museums there are guards present; in galleries, you are watched: and usually you have only a limited amount of time to look. But at home, you can glance at pictures in the morning, before you’ve had your coffee, or at night after your last drink. And in the middle of everyday conversation or when you’re alone. If you’re trying to write, having some attractive works nearby sometimes helps. And surrounding yourself with art need not be expensive, for there are plenty of good inexpensive prints available on Ebay. Once I tried, and failed, to get my editors to sponsor a column about the kind of bottom-fishing that I sometimes enjoy. Which was too bad, for you can educate yourself by purchasing modest works. In Tokyo when I was paid in cash for a lecture, I got a grad student to take me to a print dealer where I spend the proceeds. Having to choose to purchase what you can afford is instructive. If you aren’t prepared to make a fool out of yourself, as I sometimes have, then how can you learn? But lots of otherwise inquisitive people, so I’ve discovered, are seemingly oblivious to art in domestic settings. That’s sad, for they are missing an important pleasure. When I visited Leo Steinberg’s apartment, and looked around at his collection, he said, ‘I can see that you’re not a philosopher’. I was flattered.
In most museums the art is displayed in historical settings, and gathered with reference to the various visual cultures. (The exceptions which proves this rule are the grand homes turned into museums like the Frick in Manhattan or the Wallace Collection in London.) And at a gallery, of course the dealer is trying to put his or her best foot forward, to make a sale. But in your own home, no one presents you from putting an abstract painting next to a Chinese scroll, or displaying an etching of a Poussin alongside an Indian miniature. A museum curator needs to respond to the public’s judgments, and a dealer must find sellable work. But at home your own visual pleasure can be your only guide. And so it’s important to learn to trust completely in your own judgments. In my experience, finding art works that are satisfying to live with is like finding one’s ideal other. It’s not easy! That is why although I’m always interested in what other people collect, it would never occur to me to critique their choices. More people would own art, more artists could support themselves with their art, and the art world would be a better place, were there more awareness of these domestic pleasures.
In 1936, Henri Matisse described Paul Cézanne’s Three Bathers (1879-82), a painting which he had owned for thirty seven years.
I have come to know it quite well, I hope, though not entirely . . . It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships. . . . ,my admiration for this work . . . has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.
Infuriated by the French state’s refusal to recognize him, he gave this important painting to a Paris museum. When artworks like that become very valuable, almost inevitably they are moved to public settings. Judging by the public reports, the larger public most often responds to visual art in purely economic terms. A ritzy work is auctioned, or a pricey forgery is discovered: and that makes the news. That’s understandable, but it’s a very limiting way of thinking about art. Too much concern with money is very limiting. Once for insurance purposes, I had an appraiser go my house. I discovered that the few relatively valuable works were not, always, what I cared about the most. Too much concern about money can distort your aesthetic judgments.
Four years ago, when The Brooklyn Rail asked writers for a memorial comment about a great painter, Thomas Nozkowski, I wrote out some of these ideas which, while they apply specially well to his modest-sized paintings, are of general interest. Nozkowski (1944-2019) was a much celebrated New York artist. I met him in 1982 and so had the chance to write repeatedly about his art. I have lived with a Nozkowski work for more than 35 years. And ‘my’ Nozkowski has never failed to lift my spirits. It’s a simple-looking abstraction, three elements in a field of color, that is just note-perfect. Nozkowski initially made small works as a political gesture, working against the worship of vast visual machines. Like many leftists, he found the art market a little uncomfortable. But of course once it was clear how good his art was, his works too were sold in posh galleries. Me, I didn’t need to see the validation of the art market to know how great his art was. And on the wall alongside one of great ceramic sculptures by Joyce Robins, who was his wife, it often attracts and always pleases my eye. As yet I have not as yet even begun to exhaust the visual pleasures of these two simple-looking works.
I expect that the obvious political implications of the very subject of art collecting make some people uncomfortable. But if Walter Benjamin could write about his collecting of books why cannot I describe the enjoyment of my artworks? After all, during World War Two Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem “Pleasures” about the importance of ordinary experiences.