Christie’s Visionary Collector – Mr. Paul G. Allen?

I guess the good news is that the Allen collection going up for sale at Christie’s this week contains seven photographs.  Allen is by Christie’s hailed as a visionary collector, a self-made connoisseur, who took no advice from experts and collected with his heart, for himself, and on his own.

Yet, the only thing that made sense in all the hype I read, was that he was drawn to the pointillists and Jasper Johns because of their use of dots and letters and random words, which Allen could relate to from his time working with, and developing code.  The rest feels a lot like one, or two of everything.

The stars are all here and of course, as a constellation, they are labeled by Christie’s as a visionary collection.  It seems over a period of relatively few years, Allen was able to use his bottomless pot of gold to assemble a collection of art works, which as a whole has neither depth, nor much vision that I can tell, but which all share the same characteristic; the works are all ‘safe’.  The artists are already in the cannon of art history.  There are no flyers, no mistakes here.

Of course there is the possibility that Christie’s only picked the smooth, leaving the rough for the local North West auction house to sell.  Yet, I wonder if this is the usual self-made person, turned insanely rich, turned art collector/patron, turned museum director darling, fundraising target….  One of those people who helps the art market, without really helping art.

Like the bored spouses of hedge fund managers with nothing to do, who are trying to make their own museum.  This, in an effort to be taken seriously on the cocktail circuit and catch the eye of the museum director, in order to secure a seat on a coveted board of trustees.  They collect to gain acceptance.  They collect to be seen and to gain access.  They bring nothing to the party, other than the frightening smell of eau des nouveaux riches.

I am of course being harsh, and probably overly critical, but doesn’t it always seem that museum directors spend their time collecting ‘patrons’ of the arts who 25 years ago wouldn’t have known a pie chart from a Damien Hirst spin painting?  Patrons who with their money bought their way into a society, which is volatile and insecure, and entirely dependent on a bank balance at one particular moment in time, and of course a squeaky clean personal history with no suspect behaviour that has not been covered up properly.  They carry the designer handbag, outrageously expensive fragrance, and single-use outfits worth as much as the annual culture budget of a mid-size town.

The problem is it doesn’t help.  It is safe.  It does not support the artists that need the help now, not when they are dead.  The true visionary artists that are living in cold studios and who rarely benefit from their work until the obituary has been written.

Paul Allen – visionary – collecting visionary artists…. hardly.  But let us for fun have a look at the seven photographs that made the cut and joined the Allen collection and are now on sale with all the hype that Christie’s can provide.  The 7 are in order of catalogue appearance….. drum-roll please:

Edward Steichen:  Flatiron 1904/5, acquired in 2001

Man Ray:  Swedish Landscape 1925 (Rayograph), acquired 2000

Andreas Gursky:  Bibliothek 1999/2014, acquired 2014

André Kertész:  Cello Study 1926, acquired 2000

Irving Penn:  12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet, New York, July 1, 1986, year of acquisition not indicated

Paul Strand, Mullein Maine 1927, acquired 2002

Thomas Struth, Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald, Germany, 2009, acquired 2015

It seems to me that there is neither head, nor tail to these seven; not in process, subject matter, period… they have only one thing in common, they are safe names and they are expensive.  They are, like the rest of the visionaire’s collection, safe work by safe artists.  This just goes to show that with deep pockets comes…. no forget it.  Nuf said.