In this collector spotlight, Open Studios interviews UGallery collector J. Williams to discuss refining personal taste, art's heart-to-heart communication, and his recent visit to Frieze Art Fair in New York. J. Williams is an attorney from the East Coast, a Trustee of The Butler Institute of American Art, and a life-long art appreciator.
How would you describe your collection of art?
An art collection should reflect the collector. So, there are many different motives for collecting. Primarily it should be the cliché response: collect what you like. However, just as in fine dining, one's "likes" can be refined with experience and education.
How did you begin collecting art?
Well, it started with my own interest in drawing at a very young age. I was fortunate enough to live near an important museum, so I took classes there to learn how to paint. I no longer do that, but it was an exposure to great art, and to the experience one can have by being in the presence of great art. I can't even remember the first piece of art I actually purchased; there's always been art in my life.
Where do you display your collection?
The works that I am privileged to be a steward of are displayed primarily in my home, although I get great joy out of loaning works out to a museum or other worthy institutions. It's like sending your kids off to summer camp – happy to see them go! but happy to see them return!
Does your collection have a specific theme or focus?
Yes, I am always looking for sheer beauty and soulfulness. While I am an avid proponent of the Avant Garde, I do not need to be shocked in my home, nor do I want my guests to be shocked. Too many contemporary artists are obsessed with shock value, which we already know all about. But it is beauty that feed our lives with substance. This does not mean that the art needs to be representational, but color, form, indeed spirituality are what I prefer for home installation.
What do you look for in a piece?
For me to be interested in a piece of art, it has to have multiple layers.
What do you mean by “multiple layers?”
Well, for me, it means that it can withstand being looked at for hours on end and still have something new for me to see in it. This includes some technical points, such as texture, and how the work interacts with sunlight and with the space. I have a piece that I've had for over 30 years, and every day I see something new in it.
And, it must have a certain spirituality to it, something that says the artist managed to put themselves wholly into the piece. That is rare for young artists particularly. Usually for a young artist, I find that their work can be a facade for their true inner feelings and struggles. With time and wisdom, that facade breaks down and you get the true personality of the artist - that is the heart-to-heart communication that "speaks" to the viewer, and can touch them and at its best, uplift them. It can make life more rich if you have a room full of pieces that represent the hearts and souls of the artists.
What advice would you give young collectors?
Learn, learn, learn. Read as much as you can about the artists' lives. Read about the history of art and the history of the great museums before you acquire a single piece of art. And view a lot of art - at museums, with other friends or collectors. It is fun, not time consuming, and it is uplifting. Don't be in a hurry.
Really pay attention to what others have on their walls and how it affects you, positively or negatively. Refine your tastes this way before you make a purchase! And when it comes time that you find a work you want, take your time before the acquisition – it's like dating! You find a work that is attractive, but go on a date first – think about it, view it, and see if your first impression is the same as after you get to know the work, just like dating. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not!
My most recent acquisition is a gem of a small work by a young artist, Wes Sumrall. His work is non-representational, and mature beyond his years, and for me, it “ticks all the boxes,” as they say. You never know where or how you will run into a work that can enrich your life, as well as your collection.
You recently attended Frieze Art Fair in New York. What was the highlight of your weekend?
The highlight of Frieze was the amazing overload of talent and art. The ability to interact with the artists, the gallery owners, and indeed the thousands of like-minded visitors was inspiring. The atmosphere of creativity and inspiration was amazing.
What was your favorite artwork that you saw at the fair?
I'm not a fan of choosing favorites in the art world, knowing as I do what every artist goes through to produce their work. That said, there were two very different pieces that caught my attention. The first was Laurent Grasso’s wood, gold leaf piece, Anechoic Wall (2016). This piece interacts with its surroundings in a stunning way, sculptural, and the interplay with the gold leaf and light is spellbinding.
The other is a sculpture by Carol Bove, "Untitled” (2016). It is clearly a statement piece, contemporary, and makes you think.
Special thanks to J. Williams!