By Stephanie Cristello
In his 1958 text The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes the argument that one can “read a house” or “read a room.” For him, a house was an amalgamation of a thousand images — though his proposition was not entirely visual. This “reading” was not limited to visual language (ie. the proposal was not that image could supplant text), but an integration of these two ways of reading both image and text. Through the similarity of the interaction of “reading” these different mediums, he proposed that affect could be read in the same way as words. It was the reading of feelings. In the late 1800s, this “reading” would have resonated with Arts and Crafts — to live with beauty, and to have beauty impact living. The same tenet, not entirely departed from Romanticism, I think applies to contemporary private collections — particularly those that belong to a domestic environment, where living space and viewing space are inextricably merged.
The idea of living with art has shifted in the twenty-first century. Whereas Arts and Crafts was prided on self-creation and a rejection of industry, it is no longer required to make your own wallpaper or manufacture your own furniture to claim an aesthetic agency in contemporary art. The act of collecting allows for that, especially when the word “curator” has been expanded in such a way that implies the personal, not just the institutional. While aesthetics within a domestic sphere can still be seen as a primary concern of the collector, certain collections are built upon contemporary art that challenges the viewer (an intimate viewer) to reimagine the idea of living with art. The private collection of Nancy and David Frej combines the best of these worlds — between the aesthetic object and critical conceptual art — toward a new definition of living with contemporary art. The couple’s home in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago provides a challenging portrait of collecting for the twenty-first century.
In August, I visited the Frej’s collection — our conversation took place in their living room. A Kour Pour painting hung on the left wall of space, one of his large pastel-hued abstracted tapestry works, across from a work by Wyatt Kahn, a series of cut supports stretched with a light grey canvas, and fit back together as a large abstract shape on the wall, so that the seams resembled a pane of broken glass or a shattered mirror. Another work by Kahn, not hung on the wall but instead leaning on the large glass pane that separates the living room from the dinning room, was more contained within a rectangular format. I had commented on the cleverness of the installation — the immaculate glass pane and its shattered doppelganger, the painting, striking happenstance equivalence. “At first we were just setting the piece there until we found another place to hang the work, but I think we may keep it there for some time,” commented Nancy. Indeed, the installation belongs to a larger thematic in the collection — a kind of conceptual attitude to painting, where the form of the work mimics another.
“It is about pattern — there is a thread there,” commented David on the observation. “But it also goes back to our joint interest in generally abstract work. That is really more of a deep instinctual pattern, rather than an intentionality of collecting work where pattern transforms into something else.” The faux tapestry and mirrors in the living room are joined by one of Carol Bove’s peacock paintings. As a whole, the installation closely comments on the transformative relationship between the decorative arts toward conceptual practices.
While painting is a product of many the artists they collect, painting is not the only thing the artists practice. Mark Grotjahn’s work is emblematic of this, the recent sculpture in the couple’s living room being the most lucid example. The Frej’s collection capitalizes on the potentials of multiple meanings — Amalia Pica, Amanda Ross-Ho, and Goshka Macuga being three other artists in their collection. “Often times the ideas are consistent, but the materials are reimagined and reapplied as she sees them through a different set of circumstances,” said Nancy on Macuga’s work, some of which was lent from their collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art during her 2013 solo exhibition. Signature style can be an idea, not a form. This notion of conceptual consistency is another thread that runs parallel to abstraction in the couple’s collection. On the second floor, near the library space, a gorgeously delicate Carol Bove sculpture suspended with seashells occupies the center of the landing, a vibrant blue Guillermo Kuitca viewable through the thin gold structure of the piece. The sculpture is paired with another painting by Bove, a tall thin grey panel depicting a netted pattern of chains.
In addition to the idea of an all-over pattern and conceptual background put forward by many of the works on view, there is also a trend in the sense of space put forward by many of the images. When asked about the beginnings of this collection (the couple used to collect Chicago modernist abstraction) David sites Catherine Opie’s Ice Houses series at Regen Projects as being a major turning point into collecting contemporary art.
The mention of the series comes as no surprise. There is a sort of similar totality to the images and objects in the Frej’s collection, in that they are self-contained, and deliver their message up front. This is not to say that the works are didactic — in fact, quite the opposite is true — but instead, it traces a type of engagement that is suitable for living. The works operate on many registers and unfold at an intervallic pace, which is impactful both to a first time viewer and guest, as well as to the daily viewer.
Both Nancy and David are avid visitors of artists’ studios. “It’s a platform for engagement where what I would call the ‘power paradigm’ is neutralized,” noted Nancy when I had asked about the idea of ‘conceptual patronage,’ where the support is not merely financial but collegial, more as peers, in the same way artists frequently visit one another’s studios. In response to a question I posed that had paralleled the transformative affect of the work with the more durational transformation between the work they have of certain artists over the span of their careers, Nancy noted “is very much a consideration — that ‘brink’ you mention is code for feeling a sense that the artist is in it for the long haul. If success is a combination of forms of acknowledgement by curators, by other collectors, by museums, or by the public, for us it is really about the artist and what they are making. Our understanding of a work of an artist is meeting them, visiting their studio, and understanding how they are wired — and what they care about, what the work means to them.”
I circle back to Bachelard “For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.”
If the house is an amalgamation of a thousand intimate images, then the studio gives them form. Private collections such as the Frej’s have the capacity to combine these practices more fluidly.