Four Artist Couples Share the Art They Collect
Eric Fischl and April Gornik attend the Guild Hall 2017 Summer Gala Celebrating “Avedon's America” at Guild Hall on August 11, 2017 in East Hampton, New York. Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.
If you’re a literary fanatic like me, the first thing you do when you visit someone’s house is make a discreet beeline for the bookshelves. What can you glean about a person from the sort of books they deem worthy of public display? Why is that Patricia Highsmith thriller sandwiched between brainy art critic Hal Foster’s Bad New Days (2015) and a battered exhibition catalogue from the 2008 Whitney Biennial? In much the same way, art lovers can’t help but use the paintings, sculptures, and other artworks that adorn a stranger’s home as a sort of litmus test; what we collect and hang on our walls is an easy shorthand for style, personality, and taste.
“Coullectouples,” a curiously named exhibition at the New York Academy of Art, offers the unique chance to pry into the collecting habits of four prominent artist couples: KAWS and Julia Chiang; Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont; Eric Fischl and April Gornik; and John Currin and Rachel Feinstein. While there’s perhaps a voyeuristic thrill involved in learning which buzzworthy artworks are being snapped up by mega-collectors, it’s arguably more fascinating to learn how artists themselves are living with art.
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78, 1975–78. Courtesy of John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, and the New York Academy of Art.
Willem van de Velde the Younger, Three Master (English Man o' War). Courtesy of John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, and the New York Academy of Art.
Granted, the NYAA show affords a mere peek into the holdings of its participants; it’s not as immersive as, say, strolling into the living room KAWS shares with Chiang, or sneaking into Currin and Feinstein’s bathroom, to see what’s hanging on the walls. But it still provides insights into the private tastes of artists whose own work is highly coveted by collectors.
Currin and Feinstein have contributed three pieces that suggest their obsessions veer toward the historical. There’s a chalk-on-paper work by 17th-century Dutch painter Willem van de Velde the Younger, along with a 1906 still life of a teapot by Giovanni Boldini, rendered on a found book page. But this mannered, classical vibe is complicated by a classic Francesca Woodman self-portrait, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78,in which we see the late artist sprawled out across a floral carpet, a snake slithering over her outstretched arm.
Peter Saul, Self-Portrait as a Woman, 2006. Courtesy of KAWS, Julia Chiang, and the New York Academy of Art.
Thomas and Chevremont have loaned a pair of works by Derrick Adams and Ebony G. Patterson, exemplying the couple’s eager support of fellow African American artists. And KAWS and Chiang offer a tiny sliver of their impressive collection, including pieces that reflect the former artist’s affection for zany cartoon energy. They include a work on paper by the late Joyce Pensato; three drawings by New Zealander Susan Te Kahurangi King, an outsider artist KAWS has vocally supported; and a 2006 Peter Saul painting, Self-Portrait as a Woman. (The NYAA selection is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to that couple’s collection; a recent profile on their acquisitions highlights a fondness for works by Martin Wong, H.C. Westermann, Philip Guston, Roy Lichtenstein, Dana Schutz, Mathew Cerletty, Erik Parker, Carolee Schneemann, David Wojnarowicz, and many others.)
An expansive array of works on loan for “Collectouples” comes courtesy of Gornik and Fischl, the latter of whom is a senior critic at the NYAA. Their selection includes work by painters who, like Fischl, came up in the 1980s (Ross Bleckner, Francesco Clemente), as well a trio of small drawings by Sim Tomer (a flamboyantly dressed staple of New York art openings); a sketch by Auguste Rodin; an elegant 2005 photograph of a rooster by Jean Pagliuso; and a large oil-on-paper painting by Neue Wilde icon Jörg Immendorff, among other selections.
Ross Bleckner, Untitled, 1988. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
Francesco Clemente, Rapture, 2003. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
“I started to think about collecting my friends in the ’80s just as an example of their work: This is who my peers are, this is the time I lived in,” Fischl said. That meant acquiring pieces by artists who are now household names: Clemente, Bleckner, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Susan Rothenberg, Anselm Kiefer.
“From there,” he added, “I got interested in also trying to support younger artists who were just coming out of school, just starting to get going—to give them a little sense of encouragement.” While not all of those emerging talents ended up landing art-world success, of course, several have—including John O’Reilly, Alyssa Monks, and Amy Bennett.
Fischl and Gornik—who live in a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, that they finished building in 1999—are quick to point out that they don’t think of themselves as collectors in a traditional sense. They have no interest in acquiring art as an investment, and they’ve never sold a single piece from their collection (despite the obvious fact that a Salle canvas or a Sherman photograph would certainly be worth many times what Fischl paid for it decades ago).
Sim Tomer, Untitled, 2018. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
Auguste Rodin, Reclining Woman. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
While in-kind trades among artists are one of the more obvious ways for them to acquire art, Fischl has always been resistant to the practice, preferring to simply pay for friends’ works. It’s less fraught. “Trading is more complicated,” he admitted. “Either you think your work is worth more than theirs, or they think theirs is worth more than yours.” That said, Fischl and Gornik have bartered with a few peers, including Alexis Rockman (whose small watercolor is included in the NYAA show) and the black-and-white photographer Ralph Gibson.
“I think we have very sympathetic taste,” Gornik affirmed. “Eric’s come home with a lot more—it sounds like a stray pet!—art than I have bought. Almost everything that he’s gotten I’ve really loved.”
One work that they both found themselves “flipping out over” when they spotted it at London gallery Victoria Miro was a 1942 drawing by Alice Neel that depicts two felines hanging out on a rumpled bed. “It has cats in the best way,” Gornik said, “with their goofy and really true expressions staring out at you.” They’re also both very fond of a large-scale Connie Fox abstraction that hangs in their living room. “That takes a lot of the air out of the room,” Fischl said, approvingly. “It’s a spectacular painting.”
Alice Neel, Two Cats, 1942. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
Showcasing work in their Sag Harbor home can be tricky; the couple said that after constructing what they term their “dream house,” they realized, too late, that there were a lot of windows, but not many good spaces to display bigger paintings. Still, they found room for two larger examples of their own work, which cohabitate with the sketches and photographs of others: Gornik’s epic landscape Dune Sky (2007) and Fischl’s April in Paris (1998), a starkly lit female nude. Overall, they don’t abide by any clearly defined philosophies when it comes to collecting or display. “The way that we put up art is so not curated,” Gornik said. “We make our rooms look nice with it, just like everybody else.”
“If you walk through our house, it’s everywhere,” Fischl said. “I’m not really an installer, in a sophisticated sense. I just hang stuff where there’s a spot to hang things.”
Some of that stuff, of course, is more valuable than others—so it’s nice to think of Fischl and Gornik’s home as a place where everything mingles together, the iconic sharing walls with the unsung. There might be a Klimt drawing, given to Fischl by Gornik as a birthday gift; a Sherman photograph that was loaned out to her touring retrospective; a Sally Mann print, or one by Diane Arbus, whom Fischl cherishes for her “storytelling, capturing some sort of psychological reality.”
Jörg Immendorff, Anbetung des inhalts, c. 1985. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
Alexis Rockman, Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and the New York Academy of Art.
“I have no idea whether a museum would be interested in it on any level,” Fischl said, when I asked if they’d ever thought about donating their collection to an institution in the future. “It’s such an eclectic combination—with some historical, some well-known, some not-known-at-all, some outsider art. [It might be of interest] from a scholar’s point of view, research[ing] April’s and my life. That’s the way it started, the intention of locating us in time and place through our peers.”
Does the couple set an annual art-acquisition budget for themselves, I wondered? “You’re mistaking us for real, serious art collectors!” Gornik laughed. “It’s really about sudden love. You probably fall a little in love with something, and then you get it—and you’re happy.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the artist John O’Reilly as John Reilly.