Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican

From mass-produced memorabilia and kitsch souvenirs, to rare curiosities and bizarre artifacts, a new show at the Barbican presents the personal collections of artists including Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Martin Parr and more

From mass-produced memorabilia and kitsch souvenirs, to rare curiosities and bizarre artifacts, a new show at the Barbican presents the personal collections of artists including Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Martin Parr and more.

Shown top: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection of 50 glass eyes (1811-88); Above: Peter Blake’s doll collection

Pae White’s collection of Vera Newman silk scarves

The show aims to explore the habits of the artist-as-collector and the significance of these possessions – how they aid research, inform artistic interests, or even how they become appropriated into the art itself. The relationship between the artists and their collections is a fascinating one, and those sections of the show that give the greatest insight into the artists’ work and lives – allowing them to be approached in a new light – proved to be the most rewarding to view.

Broken down into separate rooms and spaces for each artist, the exhibition is almost a series of miniature shows, with a selection of items curated from the personal collections of artists (post-war and contemporary practitioners are included), presented alongside examples of their work.

From Hanne Darboven’s collection, displayed as found in one room in her family home in Hamburg

Items from Martin Wong’s collection, purchased by Danh Vo, who was only able to find a permanent home for it at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis by presenting it along with some of Wong’s paintings as a work of art in itself IMUUR1 (2013)

While some artists are connoisseurs of collecting – displaying objects or making use of them in studios and homes, categorising or carefully shaping collections – others accumulate hoards of goods, which are kept in storage, bought in large quantity or without particular care for condition. Each section aims to capture a sense of this, with some rooms including a large number of objects positioned exactly as found in situ, while others simply take a cue from the aesthetic style of homes or studios, with a smaller selection of objects in frames and vitrines.

From top: Dr Lakra’s record vinyl record sleeve collection; his artwork Frente al Espejo (The Mirror), using a page from vintage pin-up mag and ‘tattooed’ ink drawing on top; his vintage scrapbook collection

From low-end American culture-inspired collections like thrift store paintings from Jim Shaw and Dr Lakra’s retro pin-up mags, record sleeves and Mexican flea market scrapbooks; to Pae White’s incredible array of Vera Newman silk scarves and Peter Blake’s Victorian dolls, puppets and other eccentricities; to Hanne Darboven’s collection of everyday objects, knick-knacks, and, well, just about everything – items on show are broad across the exhibition and often within each collection.

Martin Parr’s Soviet space dogs memorabilia collection

With such a wide range of objects on show, particular points of interest will of course vary from viewer to viewer, but details to watch out for include Martin Parr’s Soviet space dogs memorabilia, Damien Hirst’s taxidermy, which sits alongside his 2012 piece Last Kingdom, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection of 50 glass eyes.

From top left: Taxidermy lion as part of Damien Hirst’s collection sits in front of his 2012 piece Last Kingdom; Last Kingdom detail; anatomical models from Hirst’s collection

There are layers of appreciation and fascination to be felt, towards the artist’s own works, or with particular objects and their craftsmanship or peculiarity, and yet there’s a sense that something is missing. Is it that the collections have less meaning in the context and setting of a gallery?

Of course there is a certain joy to be found revelling in kitsch, a lively interest in a little bit of nosing around, a satisfaction in symbols and clues discovered, that connect objects and artworks. But a hint of the artist – the person themselves – often feels somewhat lost after the initial intrigue.

Andy Warhol’s cookie jars

Andy Warhol artwork

For instance, originally, Andy Warhol’s extreme collections were kept in his five-story townhouse, often unpacked and rarely displayed, taking over several of the 12 rooms. It was a voluminous collection that was sold off after his death in a 10,000-lot auction lasting ten days, and including hoards of mass-produced toys, books, and magazines to Art Deco furniture, jewelry and fine art. In the exhibition however, very little seems adequately translated about the obsessive act of acquiring for Warhol – an accumulation that is sometimes suggested as compensation for a lack during childhood.

We have all been collectors at one time or another – it is a universal activity – so perhaps it is the impersonal setting of the gallery that makes the show feel slightly empty at times. A cabinet of curiosities and creativity this might be, but there’s something just a little bit sad about these collections of objects, these obsessions, how personal they are, how revealing others may or may not find them, and what they say about what we leave behind.

Arman artwork

Crates shown at the exhibition

A beautiful large format book by the Barbican and curator Lydia Yee has been published by Prestel to accompany the show, and includes close-up shots of individual items, photographs documenting the collections in artists’ homes and studios, plus interviews and other insightful commentary from featured artists. (, £37.50)

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