Collecting Critically: A Q&A with Henry L. Thaggert

Andy Warhol’s relationship to abstraction is charged. Despite a late-career painterlyimpulse -- which included the Shadows series currently exhibiting at the Hirshhorn -- his pictorial language based on representation fundamentally questioned the narrative of post-war painting as defined by Clement Greenberg. And the implications of Pop Art’s emergence over Abstract Expressionism were significant, not least for black artists as changes in collecting preferences opened new doors for art about the African American experience. This was the premise of a talk by art collector Henry Thaggert at the Philips Collection in Washington D.C. a few years back. It’s a perspective that Kara Walker seems to echo, at least indirectly, in a talk on Andy Warhol scheduled for next week at the Hirshhorn. I recently caught up with Thaggert to talk further about Warhol, get his thoughts on collecting art, and about his involvement in the local art scene. - Matthew Smith, D.C. Contributor

Andy Warhol | Shadows, 1978-79. Dia Art Foundation. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Matthew Smith: We’ve talked briefly about this  -- tell me about your ideas on Andy Warhol and how you think he was significant in the emergence of black figurative artists in the 1960s.

Henry Thaggert: I believe that the abiding theme in the story of black American art is one of exclusion from elite institutions. A good example is the marginalized importance given to artists that worked with representation, or race, or gender during the Abstract Expressionist movement. Ab Ex arguably was the most important art movement of the 20th century, yet it was grounded in a celebration of psyche and prominence of the artist individual, not the social group; and Ab Ex was even used by American institutions, such as the U.S. government, as a metaphor for American values and ideals about individualism. The problem is that artists who were working on other concerns were essentially excluded from the critical dialogue and elite institutions of that era. Their work wasn’t as valued or collected with any real significance. So by definition, black artists were not studied, collected, or patronized by the elite institutions except on the margins. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, elite institutions are genuinely starting to pay attention to individual works of art by African American artists as part of the Contemporary Art canon, on their merits, as important and transformative works of art in their own right.

I like to talk about Andy Warhol because during a good portion of his art-making career he was on the margins, not just in terms of the art he made but in terms of how he perceived himself. He was gay, effeminate and Catholic while the macho action painters garnered most of the attention of the art world. From a Critical Race Theory perspective, I see him operating as a sort of “trickster” figure, an interloper like Brer Rabbit who upsets the apple cart, engages in visual and verbal tricks, and disrupts the societal rules of the art world with his flat representational works, his multiples, and his Piss Paintings.

I’m working on a book proposal called Was Andy Warhol Black, where I discuss these ideas. But I don’t consider Warhol a champion for African American art. I just see his career as an interesting way to talk about art world subjectivity and exclusion.

MS: Have these ideas influenced your taste in art, or was it your taste in art that led you to these ideas?

HT: My taste in art is pretty broad, so these ideas haven’t really influenced my taste. But one of my interests is the idea of historical inevitability, that somehow art is on an evolutionary progression where art forms compete and rise to prominence based on some sort of objective or Darwinian basis. That sort of false logic has served as a convenient way to dismiss and exclude African Americans, women, and others from critical acceptance in the canon.

Nadine Robinson | Keisha, 2005, mixed media, from the group show She’s So Articulate co-curated by Henry Thaggert, courtesy of Arlington Arts Center

MS: Tell me about Shes So Articulate, the show you co-curated at the Arlington Arts Center. What was the impetus behind it?

HT: That was a 2008 exhibition, and the full title was She’s So Articulate: Black Female Artists Reclaim the Narrative. First, it was an introduction for a broad lay audience to some of the narrative strategies used by artists to tell stories. Second, it was my response to the Kara Walker-mid career retrospective that I had recently seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Kara Walker show was a powerful, wonderful, troubling, gut-wrenching experience. After that show, for me, it was like Kara Walker “owned” the narrative form. The gravitational force of that show sucked up the light and mass around it, and not even gravity or memory could escape that show’s force field.

So in my show, I argued that Walker had become a sort of poster child, the official emissary for black female artists. Walker’s work was not a part of the exhibition. My exhibition was an attempt to reclaim the narrative by introducing (or reintroducing) some other voices and narratives. Artists included Renee Cox, Nekisha Durrett, Faith Ringgold, Renee Stout, Lauren Woods, and Maya Freelon Asante. I also wanted the show to move beyond what Walker called the “Color Purple” type of survivor’s narrative, where black women face a hardship or struggle and come out the other side somehow ennobled and empowered. I tried to find artists for the show who had more to say than that.

Erika Ranee | installation view of So Articulate, 2005, co-curated by Henry Thaggert, courtesy of Arlington Arts Center

Of course, the title was tongue-in-cheek. On the one hand, it referred to the well-articulated stories being told through narrative art. On the other hand, it referred to the phenomenon where a black person is complemented not for the substance of what she says but for the quality of her diction and vocabulary in saying it. Usually the observation comes from a non-black person and is meant as a complement, and usually it reveals a whiff of surprise at the black person’s command of the English language. So for me the title signaled a double-consciousness for these black artists, that they understood how their art is often viewed by audiences as separate and apart from a larger art world when that is not at all their intention.

Faith Ringgold | installation view of So Articulate, co-curated by Henry Thaggert, courtesy of Arlington Arts Center

MS: You’re active in DC arts -- curating shows, sitting on boards, etc. Do you also consider yourself a collector of DC-based artists?

HT: I own a major piece by Jefferson Pinder, a replica of sorts of the Mercury space capsule made from stamped tin and wood from President Obama’s inaugural platform.  It’s so large that when I loaned it to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, they had to disassemble it and reassemble it in the exhibition gallery. I also own a few pieces from younger D.C. artists and recent Corcoran grads. I would not regard myself as having a strong track record in collecting D.C. based artists. There isn’t a deliberate act of avoidance or anything. I tend to buy from the art fairs (at least in the beginning) and so many of the artists that are now in my collection were artists that were represented by galleries at Armory or Miami Basel. There are so many DC artists whose work I like, who are amazing thinkers, who display a high level of professionalism and commitment to art making, but I haven’t purchased from them because I haven’t seen the object that is right for me, that speaks to some of the ideas that I’m thinking about. Cash flow and timing are also important.

Jefferson Pinder | Mothership (Capsule), 2009, collection of Henry Thaggert

But I should also add that I don’t think I need to defend my collecting practices, or the fact that I don’t own a trove of D.C. artists. You shouldn’t get a pat on the back because you collect D.C. artists, nor should a collector be subject to criticism for not buying local artists. But, certainly, we should try to foster a sense of community and symbiosis among the artist and collector and art institution; and it is critical that we support our artists whenever possible by attending their shows and buying quality work that moves us; and by supporting groups such as Washington Project for the Arts.  In terms of supporting the local art scene, over the years  I have sat on innumerable panels and juries, two museum boards, including a Smithsonian Museum, and I currently serve on the acquisitions committees at the Corcoran Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art.  So I am involved and entrenched in the local art scene, and I donate a lot of my time to the local arts community.

MS: Not everyone has responded well to 30 Americans, a showcase of art by African American artists pulled from the Rubell Family Collection, organized and curated by the Rubells themselves (on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art). Considering how some people may be uncomfortable with collectors organizing museum shows, what do you think is the role of the collector in the art world? And how do you think you fit that role?

HT: I can only dream of having the time and resources to collect on the level and with the same excellence and discipline that the Rubells collect. I don’t have a lot of patience for art world folks who criticize 30 Americans because it’s a collector’s show.  First of all, I don’t see a lot of museums organizing exhibitions that spot light African American art in this way. Second, the Rubells represent what a collector is today — they spend their own time, money, and resources studying, traveling the country and the world looking for art and artists.They attend a large number of gallery openings and museum openings all over the country. They do a lot of reconnaissance. Most curators don’t have that kind of budget and time to travel, for example, to the Venice Biennale and to Miami Basel, and to openings in Los Angeles all in the same year. So collectors on that level play an important role. They truly have a global perspective on what is going on in the art world; and they are not reactive but are setting standards and tastes and are advocating for artists they believe in.

Maya Freelon Asante | installation view of So Articulate, co-curated by Henry Thaggert, courtesy of Arlington Arts Center