Words by Jessica Witkin // Photography by Conor McGlauflin
Like a lot of New Yorkers I know, I move apartments because I feel like it. As a result, I don’t have a lot of furniture, but I have many objects—some useful, and others just to look at—that I’ve collected and cherished through the years.
I moved into my current apartment in December of 2013 and, before my boxes were unpacked, the first thing I unwrapped and displayed was my black and white checkerboard painting by Sam Martineau. Coincidentally, this was the first painting I ever bought—from a small Williamsburg storefront gallery. Titled “Dream Police” after the 70s Cheap Trick song, and modeled somewhat in reference to the outfits and instruments of the band members, black and white squares reveal under-layers of pink, purple, blue—washy and quiet celebrations of other notes. It’s over my fireplace now, and beneath it sits an awkward white wooden sculpture, modular and toy-like, made from the model scraps found in the trash cans of Frank Gehry’s offices. Both works are minimal in structure, with playful and idiosyncratic natures that reveal themselves with time and consideration.
I feel strongly that an art collection and a domestic life with meaningful objects can happen on any budget. To speak about money, the practical and the candid, the Gehry sculpture I bought from an architecture student friend for $100 + $50ish in shipping from his LA studio. The Martineau painting cost me exactly ten times that, and I had to beg for a friend discount and pay for it over time nearly five years ago; I’m still in absolute love with it. (The emerging artist’s stock has since risen, but there’s no way I’m parting with my piece. Value is both a number in a bank account and a feeling you have in living with it.)
There are many well-known tales of great collections built on pocket change. The documentary Herb & Dorothy featuring Herb and Dorothy Vogel is perhaps the most inspiring. Wikipedia says they are “proletarian art collectors” – Herb was a postman and Dorothy a librarian, and together they amassed a major historical body of conceptual and minimalist pieces in the 60s and 70s in a literal stockpile (they kept art in closet top shelves and stacked under their bed as they acquired more than their New York apartment could hold.) They only bought what they could carry back to their apartment on the subway or in a taxi and always paid in installments or with clever trades—they received a Christo collage in exchange for cat-sitting. On two occasions, I have received wonderful gifts from artists who are friends as thank you’s for gallery work. One is a print by London-based Donald Urquhart that reads “Say it with flowers... What A Bitch!” (the latter phrase composed of drawn flowers.)
As I have collected objects over time, I have learned things about myself. It is surprising how much black and white and pink I have—almost exclusively—though the colors are never pure or graphic—always muddied and raw. I notice this “dirty pink” color reappearing throughout my apartment, and that all my objects contain a certain amount of grit paired with humor. Take two ceramics, one black, one white. The white one by young artist Elizabeth Jaeger, an expert in imbuing organic, corporeal shape to a fragile, brittle medium. From both ends of her small slug-like ceramic emerge long platinum blonde locks of synthetic hair extensions—making the piece more alive and feminine, yet grotesque. I think the work suggests a general feminine malaise regarding cosmetic routine and synthetic self-fashioning. I keep the sculpture on my dresser, next to my perfume and make-up. The black piece is a “knee-bowl” by Matthias Merkel Hess. The shape of the bowl comes from the shape of the artist’s knee, literally and crudely molded around it. A small joke on the gravity given to “the artist’s hand,” this is the perfect jewelry box—I scoop my rings, necklaces, or earrings out of it each morning.
Art does not need to be owned, though it does need to be felt. For me, I like having the sentiment and the memories (of a time in my life, of a place, of a person, of an idea) elicited through the objects I live among. With some quiet observation, I’m pretty sure my cat likes it too.