Conversations with Collectors: Charles Asprey

'I developed a craving for something more magical'

Part of a new series of ‘Conversations with Collectors’, Charles Asprey told about his first acquisiton, his role in the new Cabinet gallery building in Vauxhall, and his Frieze tips. Cabinet gallery has just opened its new building in Vauxhall. What’s been your involvement in the project?

Charles Asprey As a friend of Cabinet directors Martin McGeown and Andrew Wheatley, we have collectively conceived and designed a building on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens - a key cultural hotspot for Londoners between roughly 1680 and 1860. Built by Trevor Horne Architects it's housing the Cabinet gallery, other art-related spaces and a small amount of residential space. We began looking for land to build on back in 2006, so it’s the realization of a decade-long project. After many provisional locations, what was the thinking in building a space now, from scratch?

CA Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a proliferation of galleries and private foundations dedicated to exhibiting art. What surprises me, given the amount of money seemingly available, is how few of those are new spaces. Instead, they’re mostly functional conversions of existing buildings: some of them done very successfully, of course. For me as a collector - and therefore a consumer of the art that is shown in these spaces - I developed a craving for something more magical; surely not another quadrangle.


The Tyers Street building in Vauxhall which houses Cabinet's new space, mid-construction. Courtesy: Trevor Horne Architects

The Tyers Street building in Vauxhall which houses Cabinet's new space, mid-construction. Courtesy: Trevor Horne Architects What considerations guided the process from there?

CA It was really a desire to construct a space where artists would want to exhibit again and again, where people would get pleasure not just from what was on display, but from the act of going in and being in a remarkable new building, in a remarkable setting. Seeing the building now complete and operating as a gallery, I feel confident we’ve achieved that. We were so fortunate in finding land to build on in 2010 – albeit, just to make things more interesting, land which had no planning consent. Artists including Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Lucy McKenzie and John Knight have contributed to the building. How did you match the artists with the architectural features? Have you dabbled in this kind of structural commission before?

CA Martin, Andrew and I had always wanted to have artists involved in the design of the building, but no: this was a first for us. There’s a logic to how it worked out though. Lucy’s interests in the Applied Arts resulted in her contribution of three enamel-painted, trompe l’oeil ceramic balconies; Marc Camille has long worked with master-craftsmen in wood, so his large oak windows for Vauxhall (two of which appear as objects in his Serpentine show) are an extension of his existing practice, you could say. John Knight’s glazed door is a conceptual intervention based on the doors that artists would have cut into walls or floors through which to pass canvases, in centuries past – his one in Vauxhall is fully-functioning and allows a vertical glimpse of the Gardens beyond, without providing what one would call “a view”.


'Jim Nutt', 2016, installation view at Cabinet, London. Courtesy: Cabinet, London. Photograph: © Mark Blower

'Jim Nutt', 2016, installation view at Cabinet, London. Courtesy: Cabinet, London. Photograph: © Mark Blower In addition to collecting, patronage and philanthropy, you’re the publisher of PICPUS. How did you come to publishing? And in what ways - if at all - do your collecting and publishing interests overlap?

CA I’m not a “patron” in the classical sense by any means. I’ll leave that to Pope Pius. Philanthropy is perhaps more appropriate.

I’ve never really thought about how I got into publishing per se, aside from a respect for the format and materiality of paper, but since you ask - I have published a few artist’s books, like Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services (1995) when I ran Ridinghouse Editions in the mid-1990s, and a book called Teenage Pantomime (2002) with Antje & Ulrike Majewski (which was considered one of the best art publications of that year). As for PICPUS, I think it was probably collecting Ian Hamilton Finlay’s cards and folding cards - of which there are several hundred - that reminded me of the power of print on paper.

I publish and edit PICPUS with Simon Grant. We began it because we wanted a pocket-sized vessel - it’s a sheet of A2 folded to A6 - that didn’t resemble an art magazine, with which we could commission articles and stories from the widest parts of the art world, publish the stories “in-between” the main events, if you like. We felt there wasn’t such a thing.

Finlay, more than any Post-War artist, understood the joy of a folded piece of paper, and relished the message it could carry. But PICPUS has appealed to more than just the art crowd: we’ve had a lot of interest from typographers, print-makers and font enthusiasts too. When we participate in book fairs we appeal to a very wide audience who like it as much for its look and feel as for its content. And as we distribute PICPUS for free, we are keeping it in the tradition of the pamphlet or fly-poster. Do you also collect books, or printed matter? 

CA: Yes, I collect the Finlay cards. In fact, whenever I buy a work of art I try to collect as many books and ephemera by the artist and around the subject. And although many galleries have regrettably ceased production of exhibition announcement cards, the ones I do receive I keep and archive away. The well-designed ones at least. What was the first piece of art you acquired, and do you still own it?

CA A Matthew Barney photographic self-portrait edition of him with a ram, taken on the Isle of Man as part of his Cremaster 4 film. I saw the film, asked his dealer Barbara Gladstone if there was a way to acquire something relating to it and was kindly sent a series of 5x4 transparencies from which to make a choice. They cost $4,000 in 1994. And yes, I still own it.


Charles Asprey outside Frieze London 2016. Photograph: © Pavel Kaczorowski

Charles Asprey outside Frieze London 2016. Photograph: © Pavel Kaczorowski Like several others, you’ve combined collecting with a period of working as a gallerist. Did the experience affect your approach to collecting?
CA Not really. Except in that I follow artists’ careers in depth, in the way that a good gallerist would nurture an artist through the same journey. Have any particular figures – artists, gallerists, curators or collectors - been particularly influential in developing your collecting?
CA Working in New York for Andrea Rosen in the early 1990s was a special place to be. Meeting Felix Gonzalez Torres and the photographer John Coplans, for example, were huge moments for me. Then after NYC I interned for the director Richard Francis at the MCA Chicago, which gave me a fly-on-the-wall view of the operations of a major institution. My timing was good in being in the US at that time, and I got lucky again when I began to visit Berlin regularly from 1994, when friends like Alex Schroeder and Thilo Wermke (Galerie NEU) were starting out, and Klosterfelde and neugerriemschneider too. The curatorial scene around these cities at this time was of a high caliber – the likes of Beatrix Ruf are still very much paving the way today. I’d note the role of cultural historians too: people like Michael Bracewell and Stuart Morgan knit all the myriad influences on today’s art together. As for other collectors, there are many I respect hugely - but we must follow our own path, no? If you could only live with one piece from your collection, which would it be?
CA If it came to that, then a work by Isa Genzken. Anything by her frankly. If you could add any work in the world to your collection, what would it be?
CA A small, exquisite painting by Vuillard.


Ian Kiaer, Endnote, Ledoux (black), 2016, paper, Plexiglass and rubber, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin

Ian Kiaer, Endnote, Ledoux (black), 2016, paper, Plexiglass and rubber, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin What are you particularly looking forward to seeing at the fairs?

CA New work by Ian Kiaer at Barbara Wien, a Gillian Carnegie at Gisela Capitain and the new section on art in the 1990s – that will will be somewhat nostalgic, but pleasurable, I hope. At Frieze Masters, the stand of Old Master Drawings dealer Stephen Ongpin, the Carol Ramas at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi and the inimitable Corbett vs Dempsey from Chicago. What’s your advice for getting the most out of an art fair?

CA If you intend to go to acquire art then I’d recommend spending the previous 11 months visiting galleries and getting to know their owners and the artists they represent. Then, when you visit the fair your eye will be keener and your pulse more stable. Once there don’t panic, don’t run - and buy the very best you can. And what else is on your agenda for the week?

CA I’ll be spending most of my time at Cabinet in Vauxhall in the presence of Jim Nutt’s work: some of the finest painting and drawing I’ve ever seen. Oh and tending the new garden whilst editing PICPUS #18, which will have a cover by Wolfgang Tillmans.

'Jim Nutt' is at Cabinet, London until 17th December 2016

PICPUS #18 is avaiable now from bookshops

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