The Personal Art Collections of Jeff Koons, KAWS, Ugo Rondinone and Chuck Close (presented in order)
When Jeff Koons speaks about the “biological” subtext of his art, he’s alluding to the sexual references embedded within. (Think of the hoses and tanks of his vacuum cleaners, the crevices and shanks of his stainless steel balloon figures.) When Koons looks at the art he collects — old and modern masters including Picasso, Dalí and Courbet — he sees much the same thing.
The composition of a William-Adolphe Bouguereau nude that welcomes visitors to the Upper East Side townhouse he shares with his wife, Justine, and their six children is “vaginal,” he says, while a Manet painting of a boat displays “aspects of boat gender.” (To Koons, ships are metaphors for sexuality.) The Picasso portrait in his living room combines the faces of two women. “The whole thing is phallic.” In his bedroom, where nearly every painting — by Poussin, Magritte, Fragonard and more — is a celebration of desire, another Picasso depicting the artist making love is “about conquest, both artistic and sexual.”
If it seems as if he has a one-track mind, let it be said that the art in his possession affects his whole being. “I think art is about transcendence and consciousness, making connections to things in the world,” he says. “Your excitement comes from the senses.” But he doesn’t collect just because it turns him on. It also provides him with material for his own work. There’s another reason, too. “It’s collecting human history. That’s the way I look at it.”
“I’m like a cat lady, but with drawings and paintings,” says Brian Donnelly, the 39-year-old artist known as KAWS. Earnings from the sales of the wildly popular, limited-edition toys based on “Companion,” a melancholic Mickey Mouse-like sculpture, enabled him to acquire art that might naturally appeal to a formally trained painter who came out of graffiti and skate culture. (KAWS was his graffiti tag, chosen because he liked “the interaction of the lettering.”)
The collection reflects his refined, comic-book aesthetic in works by Raymond Pettibon, H. C. Westermann, R. Crumb, Ed Ruscha, the Chicago Imagists Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt, and Peter Saul, whose cartoonish paintings make searing social commentary. “I have Sauls everywhere,” Donnelly says. “It’s crazy how much stuff today looks like his work.” He also owns 28 small canvases by the Japanese graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo (comic updates on paintings by Henri Rousseau), a charcoal by Joyce Pensato (a painter of cartoon figures) and a 1965 collage of comic-book cutouts by Ray Yoshida, a teacher of Nutt’s. “I grew up with a Keith Haring poster,” Donnelly says, but “I always wanted a drawing.” He has it now.
All of these works are modestly scaled, so more of them will fit in the offices above Donnelly’s sleek, two-story painting studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while other pieces are displayed in the nearby apartment he shares with his wife, the painter Julia Chiang. “It’s really different when you go to a gallery or museum and then walk into your kitchen and look at something again,” he says.
Ugo Rondinone collects the work of other artists for the same reason he makes his own. “Art energizes me,” he says. That’s an understatement, considering his own prodigious output — paintings of soft-edged targets, neon rainbow signs, cast-aluminum olive trees, huge masks, scholar’s rocks amped up to monumental scale.
“I believe in the spirituality and the magic of an artwork,” says Rondinone, a Swiss-born New Yorker, 49, who can hardly remember a time when he didn’t own art by other people.
At first, they were other Swiss artists, Meret Oppenheim and Fischli and Weiss, and friends like Urs Fischer and Valentin Carron. Later, some pieces were by game changers like the British Pop artist Clive Barker or the button-pushing Sarah Lucas. The nearly 200 works in his collection today will soon have a new home in the 15,500-square-foot deconsecrated church in Harlem where he is building a studio and exhibition space. Most are by artists who are underappreciated by the market — Bruno Gironcoli (his teacher), Alan Shields, Nancy Grossman, Joe Brainard, Ann Craven and Sam Gilliam, among them. “They’re the ones I can afford,” says Rondinone, who also curates impressive group exhibitions of rare or unknown works by the artists he prizes, often dedicating the shows to the poet John Giorno, his romantic partner since 1997. But Rondinone also loves the early-20th-century Romantic landscapes of the American painter Louis Michel Eilshemius. (He owns 20.)
Painting and photographing the human face — recently Barack Obama’s — is Chuck Close’s primary occupation, but portraiture also consumes his domestic life. The living room of his NoHo apartment doubles as a gallery for Dutch, Flemish and Italian old masters like van Dyck, Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto, as well as for African art.
A white marble bust of Hadrian, carved from life in the second century A.D., sits near a window, while a gilded Italian altarpiece, dated 1310, hangs over a Gerrit Rietveld cabinet. “When I studied Greek and Roman art,” Close says, “I didn’t know or care who the subjects were. Now I’m thinking, Hey, who’s Hadrian? Turns out he was a gay emperor. And a pacifist.”
Close, who is 73, has been bound to a motorized wheelchair since 1988, when a spinal artery collapse caused near-total paralysis. That didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for either making art or collecting it, and other things as well, like flea-market washboards and antique welders’ masks that he places “somewhere between the African art and Darth Vader.” Strangely, he says, “I’m not acquisitive.” Yet on either side of an interior hallway are dozens of portraits, small drawings, photographs and paintings, many by artists Close has painted. They include Willem de Kooning, Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, Irving Penn and Alex Katz, as well as Jacob Lawrence, Diane Arbus and Man Ray. Most were trades, though a cut-paper collage by Ray Johnson was a purchase. One section of the work is blank, removed by the artist after Close requested a 20 percent discount. “Contemporary art is the most overpriced, overvalued stuff — thank God,” he says. “But old masters are the most powerful.”