Inside the Personal Collections of Four Art World Couples

Phoebe Hoban

All artists inevitably live with their own work: The endless hours in the studio are no doubt spent surrounded by years of previous creations, casually pinned to the walls or carefully stored. But whether it's out of a passion for art, a desire to support their fellow artists, or the fruits of collegial bartering, many artists also choose to live with the work of their peers—their time at home spent in rooms embellished with personally selected art collections, from modest to enviable.

While the New York Academy of Art may be temporarily closed, four such collecting couples recently shared their acquisitive aesthetics with the institution, lending a varied selection of work to a show aptly called Collectouples. The group includes artists John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, Eric Fischl and April Gornik, KAWS and Julia Chiang, and Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont, whose collections on display say as much about the couples as they do the creators of each piece. As Rachel Feinstein put it, "a house is a giant work of art."

La Teiera D'Agento (1906) by Giovanni Boldini.
Image courtesy of New York Academy of Art.

Feinstein and Currin’s townhouse near Gramercy Park, for instance, took seven years to complete, and is adorned with works ranging from a 17th-century Dutch drawing by Willem van de Velde the Younger to a photograph by Francesca Woodman, circa 1975–1978. The black chalk-on-paper image of a ship by Van de Velde, Three Master (English Man O’ War), appealed to Currin because he had grown up with a Van de Velde reproduction as a child. The couple saw it at a Sotheby’s Old Master sale, and Feinstein was drawn to it because “it reminded me of something my boys would like, and would like to draw," she says. Currin was taken by the Boldini shown above—a black chalk drawing of a tea kettle done on a printed book page—as he was familiar with his work and loved that it was drawn on a page from a book. And "we both fell in love with the Francesca Woodman piece at a Sadie Coles show that I also happened to have a piece in.” The Van de Velde, the Boldini, and the quirky Woodman, featuring a raccoon and a fox, couldn’t be more different, yet they share the same intimate scale. “We built our home to match our taste in art,” Feinstein says.

The couple doesn’t always initially agree about what to add to their collection. “I’m more open-minded. John has his first strong opinions and then eventually I can get him to come around to something I really love," she says, "like the wood sculptures of Gothic German artist Michel Erhart, one of which we have in our home.” As Currin put it when the couple first acquired their Gramercy townhouse, “We’re gong to spend a lot of money to make it look very old-fashioned.”

Three Master (English Man O' War) by Willem van de Velde the Younger.
Image courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

The subdued sculptures and drawings in Currin and Feinstein's collection are a far cry from the colorful and satiric work by Peter Saul that KAWS and his wife Julia Chiang lent to the show. Saul's Self-Portrait of a Woman (2006) is one of five works that the couple contributed. “I don’t buy work to put in specific places,” KAWS, whose name is Brian Donnelly, told Architectural Digest a few years ago. “I just collect what I love and hope to find a place for it to be visible.”

That shouldn’t be difficult in their Brooklyn carriage house. The couple’s collection includes works by Raymond Pettibon and Takashi Murakami, and a huge Keith Haring mural. KAWS and Chiang also loaned three pieces by Susan Te Kahurangi King: colorful, cartoony crayon-on-paper works: one of two apparently feuding fowl, one humorous piece, and one more abstract. King’s work shares something in common with KAWS’s iconic cartoony works of characters—in two and three dimensions, including inflatables—that look like a Space Age cross between Tom Otterness and The Simpsons.

Double Donalds by Joyce Pensato.
Image courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Mickalene Thomas is known both for her ornate works—intricate compositions that combine, say, rhinestones with acrylic—and her magazine photography. She and her partner, Racquel Chevremont, have been together about seven years, after first meeting 17 years ago in Thomas’s Brooklyn basement studio, when Thomas was in a residency program at the Studio Museum of Harlem and Chevremont was on the museum’s acquisitions committee. At the time they were both married. They met again half a dozen years later in France, when Thomas was doing a residency at Claude Monet’s estate in Giverny, and Chevremont was in Paris. Chevremont later worked as an art consultant for the television show Empire, and featured Thomas’s African American recasting of Manet’s Le dejeuner sur L’herbe on the show. Thomas’s striking portrait of Chevremont clad in scarlet Gucci appeared in a 2018 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. They now live in homes in both New York City and Connecticut. The couple lent two works to the show that could almost be mistaken for pieces by Thomas, particularly the Leopard Lily Forest (2013) by Ebony Patterson, its figures heavily strewn with sparkles, as in a Thomas painting.

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Artist Mickalene Thomas (right) and her partner, Racquel Chevremont.
Photo by Joe Schildhorn. Image courtesy of BFA.com.

The salon-style grouping of the 15 works lent by Eric Fishl and April Gornik emulates the cozy, familiar way that art is scattered through their stunning Sag Harbor home. A sculpture on the windowsill; paintings in the den; an African mask; a sculpted bonnet; and an African headdress on a sideboard, flanked by a huge fern, all lend their airy, open multifloored space the sense of a life well lived.

Typical of their attitude toward the art they usually see every day in their house is Gornik’s comment about a favorite work, an Alice Neel drawing of two cats snuggled in a rumpled bed, one with its face upside down. (The couple has two cats.) “I’m a cat person and I look at that Alice Neel drawing all the time, and I miss it right now,” says Gornik. “It’s such a perfect rendering, not just of two cats, which we have, but also cats generally. It’s funny and it's smart and it's zany and it's beautiful. It’s such a brilliantly successful picture. Eric and I just instantly fell in love with it.”

Two Cats by Alice Neel.
Image courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

Although they usually buy work individually, the couple saw the Neel drawing at a show of her animal-related works at the Victoria Munroe Gallery in London and had to have it. But Gornik insists, "We are not real collectors. We don’t cruise galleries. We just buy something that one of us or the other really loves.”

As Fischl puts it, “I don’t consider myself a collector. I started to collect things from my peers as a way of sort of marking the time in which I live, and these are the people I admire.” But he is also drawn to classic work, like the beautiful Rodin drawing in the show, one of several the couple own. “It blew my mind that I had the opportunity to buy it, and I bought a few more over time. I bought some other works by Maillot and Bonnard and Klimt. These are works that I am proud of, and are part of a history that I feel connected to. I’m proud to have that in my life, in my house.”

Of the hanging of their 15 pieces in the New York Academy show, ranging from a big Clemente with a warm, summery palette to a small, enigmatic Bleckner, to a magnificent Jean Pagliuso photograph of a rooster that looks like an etching, to a work by Catherine Tafur, one of Eric’s assistants, Gornik observes, “It’s a rich little representation of what we have at home, and it feels right to me, clustered and full of surprises.”

The New York Academy of Art is temporarily closed to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, for more information on the museum's planned upcoming programming, please visit nyaa.edu.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest