A year ago, I bought a copy of Jestina’s Reds, a lithograph by the American painter Nell Blaine, and hung it over my mantelpiece. It was the first work of art I had ever purchased. Since then, I have bought fourteen others, nearly all of them prints—lithographs, etchings, screenprints, monotypes—by such noted modern American artists as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, John Marin, and Fairfield Porter. The living room of my New York apartment, on whose white walls these pieces hang, now looks like a gallery.
As recently as a decade ago, it would never have occurred to me to buy an art print, for the very good reason that I had spent next to no time visiting galleries or museums. Today, though, my involvement with the visual arts is a passion. In addition to the pieces on my walls, I own dozens of books about art, ranging from slender collections of criticism to fat catalogues raisonnés. Whenever I travel to other cities, large or small, I go out of my way to visit their museums. I even contribute occasional art reviews to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Still, it is a long step from looking at art or even knowing about art to buying art, a step taken by few unmonied people nowadays—though, as I have learned, it is surprisingly easy to do. So far as I am aware, only one of my close friends has ever bought a painting or print for aesthetic reasons alone, and unlike me, this friend is wealthy. My own “collection” (a pretentious word, but I cannot think of a better one) is of no great monetary value, nor are any of the pieces in it especially rare. I bought four of them on eBay, the web-based auction site.
I sometimes wonder why middle-class people of my generation (I was born in 1956) feel so diffident about owning art. Are we under the mistaken impression that it is necessary to spend large amounts of money in order to own something beautiful? Or are we simply less interested in the visual arts than our elders? A little bit of both, I suspect. It is undeniably true that the price of big-ticket art has skyrocketed in our lifetimes, fueled by the stock-market boom of the 80’s. More important, though, is the extent to which taste in art has come to be driven by the highly publicized trends that now dominate the postmodern art establishment.
Traditional painting, we are told, is dead. To judge by what one reads in the popular press, this is not hard to believe. The first museum exhibition I ever covered, the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s now-notorious Sensation (1999), featured items like a bisected pig floating in a formaldehyde-filled case. Anyone who began paying close attention to art at that time could surely be forgiven for having second thoughts about collecting, and for sticking to framed museum posters of the kind that once hung on my walls.
So what made me—what would make anyone—do otherwise?
In retrospect, what I now find puzzling is that it took me so long to start looking at art in the first place. Although I grew up in a small Missouri town far from museums, I spent my college years only a few miles from Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where I could easily have devoted all the time in the world to Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, and any number of other masterpieces. Yet I visited the Nelson-Atkins only once while I lived in Kansas City, and I took no college courses in art. Outside of isolated visits to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, I never set foot in a museum, in Missouri or elsewhere, for years afterward.
The only explanation I can offer for this blind spot in my aesthetic life is that the art forms with which I was most deeply involved as a young man were music and writing. For musicians and writers, visual stimuli are simply not primary experiences, nor can books and printed music properly be spoken of as art objects (though a well-made book may certainly be beautiful). My eyes were accustomed to decoding printed symbols, not to looking at the world and its contents for the pure sensuous pleasure of reveling in their outward appearance.
As it happens, it was my discovery of dance that taught me to look for the sake of looking. I saw my first ballet by George Balanchine, that most profoundly musical of choreographers, in 1989, and in time I came to appreciate dancing in its own right, rather than as a means of visualizing music. Once that happened, it was inevitable that I would begin to view paintings in the same way.
In 1995, on a return trip to Kansas City, I was given a private tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, which was then hosting a traveling exhibition of American art. As I viewed the paintings in the show, I felt the first stirrings of an unfamiliar sensation. Later that same day, I went to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where I saw a 1960 painting by Fairfield Porter called Wheat. It is deceptively simple—a bluish-gray rectangle of open sky and a smaller rectangle of tan-colored wheat, separated by a farmhouse, three trees, and a barn.1
Though Wheat is one of Porter’s best paintings, there is nothing obviously prepossessing about its uncomplicated composition. But something about Wheat struck me with the force of revelation. Was it the way in which the artist freely yet evocatively portrayed a landscape as familiar to me as the house in which I had grown up? Whatever the reason, it spoke to me as had no other painting, and I went straight to the museum shop to find out more about the man who made it.
The shop had no books about Porter in stock. Instead, I found Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975, a paperback volume of Porter’s art reviews.2 By a stroke of luck, I had been awakened to the pleasures of painting by one of the finest artist-critics of the 20th century, a major American painter who wrote about art with the same distinction that the composer Virgil Thomson brought to his writing about music. Like Thomson, Porter had a plain-spoken, no-nonsense style that emphasized description over theorizing—“criticism,” he wrote, “should tell you what is there”—and his thoughtful words helped me make sense of the transforming experience I had undergone. As I read what he had to say about painting and painters, I became excited about art—really excited—for the first time in my life.
A few months later, I went to a Cézanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I had a similarly revelatory encounter with The Garden at Les Lauves.3 This time I was ready, for Porter had already showed me how to think about Cézanne. After that, there was no turning back. I haunted the museums of New York and read everything about art I could get my hands on. I soon contrived to turn myself into a passable imitation of a connoisseur, and somewhere along the way, probably without knowing it, I had prepared myself to buy.
Though I have always been an aesthete, I have no special attachment to objects, and I am not a natural-born collector. When I first moved to Manhattan, though, I did notice the etchings and small lithographs by famous artists hanging on the walls of the apartments of older middle-class New Yorkers, and from time to time it even occurred to me that I might like to own such things myself. In fact, I innocently supposed that owning art was a normal part of the New York style, like eating sushi or dressing all in black.
I soon learned, however, that people of my age were no more likely to own inexpensive art of high quality than they were to go to the ballet. Rich people bought rich people’s art, while the rest of us bought posters or nothing. The prospect of walking into a gallery and talking to the owner intimidated me, and I also took it for granted that the era was long past when someone like me could afford to buy anything worth having.
What changed my mind was the Internet. In the late 90’s, print dealers across the country began launching websites on which they advertised their wares, and some even posted the prices. I was already teaching myself about prints: works published in multiple copies that cost only a fraction of the price of a painting by the same artist, thus putting them within reach of art lovers of comparatively modest means.4 Now I began to consider the possibility of buying them.
What separates a limited-edition print from a museum poster or a “framed reproduction” is that the former, unlike the latter, is largely or entirely handmade, is produced in small quantities, and is (usually) signed and numbered by the artist, who creates it with the technical assistance of printers familiar with the particular medium in which he is working. No honest collector will deny that this last feature, the signature, is part of the appeal; but to buy a mediocre lithograph simply because it is signed by Joan Miró or Marc Chagall is only a baby step up from collecting autographs. The best printmakers, from Rembrandt and Dürer to Avery and Frankenthaler, have always been drawn to the medium for its own sake, and their prints are worth having not merely in lieu of a more expensive painting but because they are fully realized creations in themselves.
Anyone who doubts this need only look at a copy of Piazza Rotunda, a limited-edition aquatint by William Bailey that I bought directly from Crown Point Press in San Francisco, never having seen anything other than a thumbnail reproduction. It is a still life of a miscellaneous assortment of eggs and kitchenware arranged on a circular tabletop in a shallow, strangely empty room. When I opened the package and saw the piece “in the flesh” for the first time, I actually gasped, stunned by its subdued intensity and fineness of line. Unlike a poster, Piazza Rotunda has a subtly textured, three-dimensional surface, created by the impressing of the etched plate into the thick paper on which the image is printed. Even if it were unsigned, I would have wanted to own it simply because of the way it looks. In fact, that is the only good reason to buy a work of art: so that you can look at it every day, as often as you want.
But what could I afford that I would want to look at every day? Two of my well-to-do acquaintances are serious collectors, and knowing them nearly caused me to quit before I got started. To the aspiring collector of modest means, few things are more demoralizing than the spectacle of a Park Avenue living room whose contents include some twenty-odd canvases by a half-dozen important painters.
I knew I would have to cut my aesthetic coat to fit my financial cloth. Once again, though, luck was with me. I had always loved American modernism in all its myriad manifestations. From F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aaron Copland to Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire, our best artists have spoken in the crisply empirical, immediately accessible tone of voice now acknowledged by the whole world as all-American. In every sense of the phrase, they spoke my language. No sooner did I begin to look at paintings than I found myself similarly drawn to the work of American modernists. I discovered that many of them had also been prolific printmakers, and a few months’ intensive study gave me a fairly clear idea of which of their works were available and how much they might cost. Next came hours of surfing the web for dealers, initially for fun, then in earnest.
I bought Nell Blaine’s Jestina’s Reds because it was both handsome and inexpensive (having been published in a large edition). Beyond that, I knew I wanted to own an etching by John Twachtman, the greatest of the American impressionists; a print of some kind by Helen Frankenthaler, the abstract expressionist who is my favorite living artist; and a lithograph by Fairfield Porter, who had opened my eyes to the world of visual art.
The Twachtman and Frankenthaler were easy enough to find, the Porter somewhat trickier until Justin Spring, Porter’s biographer, directed me to a helpful dealer. Within a matter of weeks I had bought Dock at Newport, an elegant but affordable 1893 etching by Twachtman of which only 30 lifetime impressions have been located; Grey Fireworks, a large Frankenthaler screenprint commissioned by Lincoln Center four years ago; and Isle au Haut, the last lithograph Porter completed before his death in 1975. The Porter and Frankenthaler prints are based on pre-existing paintings, but they are wholly satisfying on their own; no sooner had I hung them than I knew I was on the right track.
While not a collector by temperament, I do have an orderly mind, and I immediately grasped the difference between a roomful of unrelated artworks and a shapely, coherent collection. I realized that what I wanted to do was assemble a group of prints that told the story of American modernism—but from my point of view, not that of the Museum of Modern Art or anyone else. For all my boundless admiration of Frankenthaler and her contemporaries, I had come to feel that MoMA and its single-minded curators have given cruelly short shrift to the American modernists who preceded them, as well as to those later figurative painters who, like Porter, were influenced by abstract expressionism but never felt obliged to break with representation.
Once I got the idea for what a witty friend of mine dubbed la Musée Teachout, my buying became more focused. The four prints I already owned fit neatly into my scheme, and by the end of 2003 I had essentially accomplished my goal. Dock at Newport epitomizes the break with literal representation that opened the door to modernism, while the pre-World War II American modernists are well represented in etchings by John Marin and Milton Avery and a later serigraph by Stuart Davis. Grey Fireworks and a Joan Mitchell lithograph take care of abstract expressionism, and Isle au Haut has become the centerpiece of a suite of prints by Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Wolf Kahn, Alex Katz, and Neil Welliver, all figurative artists whom Porter knew, admired, and reviewed. Finally, Piazza Rotunda stands for post-Porter developments in figuration.5 As a historical footnote, I also acquired Paysage du Midi, a 1925 lithograph by Pierre Bonnard, the French post-impressionist painter whose vivid palette and daringly free approach to representation inspired Porter and his peers.
At this point I stopped making new purchases. I had spent all the money I could spare—perhaps a bit too much, as collectors are wont to do—and had run out of walls. Alas, I still have a couple of holes to plug: the Teachout Museum will not be complete without a Marsden Hartley lithograph, and I know a Kenneth Noland monotype that would go quite nicely with Grey Fireworks. Nor will I rest easy until I own an Avery woodcut and two more Porter lithographs: Broadway (which I have chosen to adorn the jacket of my next book) and Ocean II.
Of course, I have no idea whether I will be able to afford any of these pieces if and when I track them down. I am also uncomfortably aware that only five of the artists represented in my collection (Bailey, Frankenthaler, Freilicher, Katz, and Welliver) are still alive, and that I have yet to buy a work of art by an unknown artist—the test of a true collector. I want very much to explore the work of contemporary painters and printmakers who have chosen to ignore postmodern trends and go their own way, just as Porter and Avery went theirs. To do that, I need to take a pause and learn more than I know now.
But whatever my reservations—and no collector is ever entirely satisfied—I am happy with the Teachout Museum just as it is. Not only is it a joy to behold, but its beauties have had the beneficial effect of making me want to spend less time rattling around Manhattan, fulfilling the hectic duties of a freelance critic, and more time sitting in my living room, communing with the works of art I have so carefully assembled. Whether it will help me to live longer is an open question, but collecting art, even on a modest scale, has definitely made my interior life richer than ever before.
Not long before I called a halt to my buying, I happened to read The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, the much-discussed book about postmodern design by the libertarian columnist Virginia Postrel.6 In it, she makes the following observation:
Artists and art collectors have long mocked the idea that someone might purchase a work to go with a couch—an insult to serious art. Perhaps as a result, the wall-décor industry has been the home of generic, clichéd prints. But not all visually sophisticated consumers want art to impress their friends, hobnob with the gallery crowd, or make money as an investment. Some just want a more attractive living room. In response, an unsnobbish middle market is offering prints and photographs to go with stylish furniture. . . . Crate & Barrel sells framed reproductions of Mark Rothko paintings for $499. Sales are growing at double-digit rates.
This passage could only have been written by someone who does not know the first thing about the meaning and function of art. Not that I blame Postrel—I am, after all, a newcomer myself—but I was nonetheless forcibly struck by how little her words correspond with my own experience.
To begin with, Postrel seems to think that the only people who buy “serious” art instead of mass-market “framed reproductions” are snobs out to make money and impress other snobs. Had those been my motives, I would have failed dismally. To be sure, visitors to my apartment almost always claim to admire my art (some more believably than others), but no one has ever glanced at my walls and said, “I see you have a Katz” or “Gee, that’s a really nice Bailey.” Indeed, the names of the artists whose work I own have proved unfamiliar to all but a handful of my guests, though anyone who has read an introductory survey of 20th-century American art would recognize most of them.7
In any case, the point of a Katz or Bailey—or a Rothko—is how it looks, not who made it, much less what it cost. To be sure, the “visually sophisticated consumer” who likes Rothko’s palette and wants to have it in his home can do so by purchasing a reproduction of a Rothko painting. If the reproduction is well made, the colors will be roughly similar. But no one who has lived with a handmade art print like Piazza Rotunda can doubt for a moment that this similarity is but a small part of what gives “serious” art its irreproducible force and significance.
Putting together the Teachout Museum taught me this essential fact. It also taught me that the difference between looking at paintings in museums and buying art for your home is like the difference between playing solitaire and poker. Once you start spending money, even if it is only a few hundred dollars, you find out what you really like and what you can live without.
At the same time, buying art can broaden your tastes in unexpected ways. I value color over line—the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., assembled by a color-drunk private collector, is the American museum I love best—yet I have discovered that I am also powerfully attracted to the monochrome etchings of Twachtman, Marin, and Avery, three superlative colorists whom Duncan Phillips collected in depth. As someone to whom abstract painting had always appealed in theory because of its seeming resemblance to music, I was also surprised to learn how strongly I prefer loosely representative figurative painting to rigorous abstraction. (Even the two abstract pieces in my collection, Grey Fireworks and Joan Mitchell’s Tree II, make reference to the visible world.)
Not only does a collector learn what he likes, he develops a practical, even earthy view of the works he owns. Whenever I go to a gallery now, I want to know how much the paintings cost—and if the owner has neglected to post a price list, I ask. I know that every work of art in the world has a price tag, and this knowledge has caused me to think much harder than ever before about the complex relationship between cost and quality. When neither scarcity or fashion is at issue, what accounts for the difference in price between roughly similar objects? While certain rules of thumb are generally valid (the bigger and more brightly colored a painting, the more it will cost), the art market is a strange and unpredictable entity, and I still find myself puzzled at times by its inscrutable workings.
Still, if cost and quality are not necessarily the same thing, they are nonetheless related, because the art market fluctuates according to the preferences of its participants—preferences symbolized by their willingness to spend their own money sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice. Such preferences are by definition serious, and thus deserve to be taken seriously. Individual collectors may have bad taste, and the taste of a whole generation can be distorted by fashion, but over the long haul, those who are most serious about art render the collective judgment of posterity. As the critic Clement Greenberg rightly observed:
One of the wonderful things about art is that everybody has to discover the criteria of quality for himself. They can’t be communicated by word or demonstration. Yet they are objective. . . . You have to find out for yourself by looking and experiencing. And the people who try hardest and look hardest end up, over the ages, by agreeing with one another in the main.
Living with art teaches you things about the criteria of quality that cannot be learned in any other way, things I am still in the process of learning. If I had to guess, I would say the finest piece I own is Milton Avery’s March at a Table, closely followed by Isle au Haut and Piazza Rotunda. But there are many times when I would rather look at Grey Fireworks, Stuart Davis’s jazzy Any as Given, or the gossamer untitled Wolf Kahn monotype that now hangs over my mantelpiece. This never-ending cycle of looking and experiencing is one of the most instructive aspects of living with art.
To see a painting or print on a daily basis is to learn what makes some works durable and others ephemeral. Experienced collectors speak of how certain paintings “go dead on the wall,” meaning that their appeal fades over time and with familiarity. So far, all fifteen of my pieces are still alive and well, but I never cease to be fascinated by how my preferences shift from day to day.
In addition to all these things, the Teachout Museum has taught me about the social function of art, for the collection gives pleasure to my visitors as well as to me. They may not know much about art, but they usually know what they like, and I always ask which piece they like best, a question that never fails to tell me something interesting about the person answering it. Most opt for the Kahn, though I was delighted when a jazz singer from Brazil picked Alex Katz’s Late July II, a lithograph whose poised stillness reminded me of her own quiet, gentle voice.
With prices constantly on the rise, it may well be that my collecting days are over. The same Internet that made it easy to find bargains has now made it harder, by creating a worldwide “single market” in prints. Then, too, figurative modernists like Porter and Avery are finally becoming more popular, and thus more costly.
So, unless I write a best-seller or inherit a large sum from a rich aunt of whose existence I am as yet unaware, I may spend the rest of my life with the works of art I bought last year and no others. Or I could be forced to sell several pieces in order to pay an unexpected bill. Or my apartment might catch on fire, leaving me with only enough time to grab a single print before beating a hasty retreat. Which raises the inevitable question: which piece would I keep if I could keep just one?
If I had to choose this very minute, it would be a 1921 etching by John Marin called Downtown. The El, a nervous cubist spiderweb that miraculously suggests the quivering energy of life in lower Manhattan. I never thought I would be able to afford a Marin, but this particular one is an anomaly, a re-strike published in 1924 in a special pencil-signed edition of 500 offered to subscribers to the New Republic. I’ve been trying to imagine a modern-day counterpart of such an offer, albeit without much success. (Possibly O: The Oprah Magazine could offer tubes of Vaseline signed by Matthew Barney?)
I look lovingly at my copy of Downtown. The El each time I pass by, marveling at the chain of coincidence by which this exquisite specimen of prewar American modernism passed from Marin’s hands to mine. How many people have owned it? Did the last owner care for it as much as I do? Or was it hung in a dark hallway, there to be ignored and gather dust? Whatever its provenance, it has taught me a priceless lesson, which is that living with a work of art is the ultimate test of its quality—and the ultimate way of appreciating its beauty. I am lucky to own Downtown. The El, and luckier still to have wanted to own it. I hope someone else will want it as much, someday.
1 Wheat can be viewed online at the Kemper Museum's website, www.kemperart.org.
2 Art in Its Own Terms has just been reprinted by Moyer Bell, 288 pp., $14.95.
3 The Garden at Les Lauves is owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. It has been reproduced in numerous books about Cézanne and can also be viewed on the web by visiting www.artchive.com
4 The least expensive piece I own cost $200, the most expensive $4,800.
5 I also own a lovely painted ceramic tile called View From My Studio, signed “Nell Blaine” and dated “Dec. 1966.” While the seller could not verify its provenance, I have every reason to think it authentic.
6 HarperCollins, 256 pp., $24.95.
7 Nine of them, for instance, are mentioned by name in Robert Hughes's American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997), a book written for an educated popular audience.