March 6, 2020 – September 20, 2020
Interview between Catherine Petitgas and Anna Kerekes
Anna Kerekes: When did the desire arise to start this collection? Please explain the context and tell us when you made your first acquisition. Which was the first work?
Catherine Petitgas: The acquisition that started this collection is a work by Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist living in Mexico, entitled Sunpath, Mexico City, from 1999. It is a series of photographs of the Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, following the movement of the shadow of the huge flag pole that dominates the square, as if it were a sun dial. The shadow of the flag pole is also used as protection against the sun by members of the public who wait endlessly for appointments in the administrative buildings around the square. A simple observation thus becomes a humorous and grating comment on daily life in Mexico.
Franck Petitgas, my husband at the time, and myself had lived in Mexico a few years earlier and Francis Alÿs’ vision of Mexico struck a chord with us. We had also seen an excellent exhibition of his work in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, Walks/Paseos, the previous year, and had met him briefly through mutual friends. We were ready to make a more serious commitment to his work when he held his first exhibition in London, at the Lisson Gallery. We also chose a more complex installation, 61 out of 60, from 1999, which addressed the soldiers from the Zapatista resistance movement in Chiapas.
AK: Did you have the ambition to form a collection when you made this first acquisition, or did this idea develop progressively?
CP: The director of the Lisson Gallery, Nicholas Logsdail, was probably intrigued by our audacious choices and suggested coming with Francis to have breakfast with us in our London home, to see our “collection.” We accepted without really thinking things through – but we had nothing really of any interest to show them. I think that they were quite disappointed – and we were mortified by this experience! That was undoubtedly one of the factors at the beginning that sparked our interest in ambitious works to form a coherent whole and create a collection.
This period, in the early 2000s, coincided with the breakthrough of a new generation of conceptual Latin American artists onto the international contemporary scene, and we decided to concentrate our collection on Latin America.
Gabriel Orozco is another Mexican artist who shaped the development of the collection, especially after his involvement in the Venice Biennale in 2003, The Everyday Altered, with Rirkrit Tiravanija: their selection had a strong impact on our approach. We have collected the works of several artists from this group, especially Gabriel. We then turned to Brazilian and Argentinian artists from this generation, who also represent a large part of the collection. Latin America still represents 80% of the collection.
Francis Alÿs played another important role in our journey as collectors: to support him we carried out our first philanthropic gesture in the art world, by contributing to his project for Artangel entitled Seven Walks for London, in 2004. In my opinion, it is largely 38 patronage that makes the difference between a simple art buyer and an art collector. I continue to dedicate a fairly large proportion of my acquisition budget, my time and my energy to contribute to public institutions that focus on contemporary art, and it gives me immense satisfaction!
AK: Are you part of a network of collectors, through your family, friends or colleagues?
CP: The decision to concentrate our collection on Latin America allowed us fairly quickly to join groups of collectors who shared the same interests as we did. I have been a member of the Tate Gallery Latin America Acquisitions Committee, Tate LAAC, since 2004, of that of the Pompidou Centre in its various forms for over ten years and more recently of the Latin American Circle of the Guggenheim in New York. The Tate LAAC was created in 2002 and is pretty much the model that was adopted by the Tate in other regions of the world and by other institutions to develop their commitment to Latin America. I also wish to support institutions in Latin America and I am a member of the International Board of the Tamayo Museum in Mexico and of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil. I have learnt much about Latin American art as a member of these committees, through exchanges with the curators and the other collectors who are also members, and by the regular study trips that are organised.
More recently, I have joined broader circles of collectors. I have chaired the Tate International Board since 2016 and I am a founding member and chair of Fluxus Art Projects, a Franco-British initiative to support the exhibitions of emerging French artists in Great Britain and British artists in France. I enjoy spending time and resources on these two projects, as they allow me to use my experience from Latin America in a wider context.
AK: Do you seek advice when making acquisitions? Where do you find your works?
CP: I believe that contemporary art fairs have become essential occasions for collectors to meet and discuss. The institutions that I am part of organise meetings and programmes of visits around these fairs and I always find them to be very rewarding experiences.
I regularly attend Art Basel in Miami and Basel, ARCO in Madrid, which has a strong South-American representation, the FIAC, Frieze in London and New York, as well as local fairs, especially ARTBO in Bogotá, MACO in Mexico, SPARTE in São Paulo or ARTEBA in Buenos Aires.
I am close to certain galleries whose programmes I have followed for many years and the collection also reflects these special relationships. In principle, I try to form measured and reasoned acquisition decisions, through my research, reading, the people I meet. I believe that I am more or less qualified to make these decisions on my own. After my initial training in a Parisian business school and a ten-year career in finance, I took up some late schooling in the history of art: I received a diploma in Modern Art Studies from Christie’s and a Master’s degree in the History of Modern Art from the Courtauld Institute in London.
In practice, I often act on impulses. but impulsive decisions can sometimes be good ones. In my role as chair of the Tate International Council, for example, I attended Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019, safe in the thought that I probably wouldn’t be tempted by anything. By chance I met two fascinating South American artists there, Clarissa Tossin, whose works are presented here, and Catalina Swinburn, two of my most stimulating discoveries in the last few months.
AK: Do you meet with the artists? If so, how important is each meeting?
CP: Meeting the artists and being able to have interesting exchanges with them is the very essence of my collection, of course! For me, the main aim of collecting contemporary art is to be able to participate in the life of the art scene: enabling the artists to continue to create, the galleries to continue representing them and the institutions to continue to present high quality exhibitions. To live surrounded by the creations of the artists I collect and to share their philosophy of life fills me with joy!
AK: Is your collection based around a common thread, a central idea or a theme?
CP: I often think of the small and marvellous painting by Paul Klee, Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Highway and Byways), from 1929, inspired by his trip to Egypt: a central sunny strip surrounded by a myriad of multi-coloured possibilities. This is how I imagine the collection: a coherent whole, at least I hope it is, around a common guideline that opens out onto secondary channels. In my view, the common guideline is everything related to the poetry of everyday life as it were: the appropriation of everyday objects inspired by Marcel Duchamp and the sublimation of the banal that can be found in abstraction; the heritage of Surrealism on the one hand and Constructivism on the other, two of the movements that fascinate me the most in the history of modern art and that have had a great influence in Latin America. I tend to give priority to female artists, not because of quotas, but because I am more touched by their work. I think that the selection of works chosen for this exhibition reflects these two aspects very well, these two contradictions perhaps, as well as my interest in feminism.
AK: How do you feel that you contribute to the reception (and also the production and diffusion) of Latin American art?
CP: This is a very important subject for me! I have had the good chance to accompany the rise of Latin America onto the international scene over the last twenty years: by supporting artists through acquisitions and charitable donations, by being part of the acquisition committees I have already mentioned, by supporting the exhibitions of artists from Latin America in the institutions I am part of and others that I support occasionally. For several years I was on the Pinta art fair committee in London, which specialised in Latin America and greatly contributed to promoting art from the region, but which unfortunately was not commercially viable. More recently, through the Gasworks Triangle Network in London, which I chair, I have concentrated my efforts on artist residencies and exchanges between experimental art spaces both in Latin America and the rest of the world. Not forgetting the three books I edited on the main contemporary scenes in the region: Contemporary Art Brazil, in 2012, Contemporary Art Mexico, in 2014 and Contemporary Art Colombia, in 2016, published by Thames and Hudson and TransGlobe in London. These books have many illustrations they present the profiles of leading artists and personalities from each of these scenes, and act both as an introduction for novices and as a reference for experts—they demanded a great deal of work!
Contemporary artists from Latin America now appear in the collections and exhibition programmes of all the great museums of the world, and the Latin American masters of modern art are present on the same level as the European masters. This reflects a global movement that reinterprets modernity to include peripheral scenes that were excluded arbitrarily, as well as the efforts and generosity of a group of remarkable (and mainly female) collectors, at the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and at the Tate in London especially, of which I am just a tiny part.
AK: Do you think that your collection represents you? If not, what does your collection reveal about you?
CP: I hope that my collection expresses the joie de vivre that I feel. I grew up in North Africa. I like the sun, colours, music, noise, dust, chaos and a certain sense of derision. I am drawn to works that may seem attractive at first sight, but which contain a deeper critical and political message. I hope that the public will search and find this underlying tension. For me, joie de vivre is a form of gratitude that helps you get through life’s challenges. It is a quality that I inherited from my parents, as well as my taste for art and music, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them. By a remarkable coincidence, my parents lived for over thirty years in Montpellier and I am delighted to come back to your beautiful city thanks to this exhibition.
AK: Do you live surrounded by your works? If so, where and how are they presented?
CP: Yes of course I live surrounded by works, and I take immense enjoyment from presenting them as a series of small exhibitions each telling a story—on a theme, on the relationship between the artists I have brought together or on the journey of the works in my collection.
Thanks to a dear friend, I had the opportunity to meet the great surrealist artist Leonora Carrington whose works I collect, and I was able to reconstitute her circle of friendships with works of European artists who went to Mexico as refugees as did she during the Second World War, of surrealists who inspired her such as Max Ernst or André Breton, and even Marcel Duchamp, or those who followed her, such as Dorothea Tanning or the Chilean artist whom she inspired, Cecilia Vicuña—it is an ongoing project. I am very interested in Concrete Poetry, an international movement that enjoyed considerable popularity in Brazil and in England and my house is full of groups of written texts presented in the forms of drawings, objects or sculptures that trace some of the relationships between these artists. I think that the theme of the Amazonia, a more recent interest that you have developed so well for this exhibition, could be the subject of a forthcoming hanging of my works. Deep down, I think I am an aspiring curator, or an artist—to quote my hero Marcel Duchamp: “A collector is an artist with four walls.”
AK: What was your latest acquisition?
CP: I hardly dare admit it: a new work by Francis Alÿs! It is one of his very early works, A Collector from 1990-1992, a sort of dog-shaped toy that a child would pull on a string. This object contains powerful magnets and “collects” all sorts of metallic waste from the street. It’s a playful work that derides collectors, such as myself, and that I had been after for a long time. I bought it at an auction to support the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which is very dear to me: so, it’s also a philanthropic action!
The last major work to enter the collection was the beautiful Dibujo sin Papel (Drawing Without Paper) from 1988, by the Venezuelan artist Gego, who is presented here. I have an enormous amount of admiration for this artist of German origin, who came to Venezuela as a refugee in 1939 and who passed away in 1994, whose poetic and meticulous work is just starting to be acknowledged.
AK: Is there a work that you regret not buying?
CP: I keep and update a list of works that I would like to acquire to expand one part or another of the collection, artists that I’d like to meet, art space that I’d like to visit – I need another lifetime!
AK: In your wildest dreams, which work would you include in your collection?
CP: You mean in addition to the small painting by Paul Klee that I already mentioned? Well it would have to be one of the works of Henri Matisse – I never tire of admiring the joie de vivre that explodes from his paintings with their colours, the ingenuity of his paper cuttings that combine sculpture and painting in one fell swoop, and of course his taste for orientalism. I very recently spent an entire hour sitting in front of La Piscine (The Pool) from 1952, which has just been installed in the new hanging of the MoMA in New York. To quote my favourite verses by Charles Baudelaire: “There, all is order and beauty, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness”—which furthermore is the title of one of his works. He remains very influential among painters in Latin America.
AK: What does public opinion tell you about your collection?
CP: The possibility of presenting the works to the public is the main purpose of the collection. That is part of the mission I set myself, to promote contemporary art from Latin America on the international scene and to offer the artists access to a wider audience, that can lead to new opportunities and new projects for them. I regularly loan works from the collection to exhibitions. I have also had the good fortune to be able to display some extracts in public in recent years: the collection of English Constructivists in England; a selection of Colombian artists in Miami, Madrid and Bogotá; a selection of works on the Amazon as part of Art Paris 2019 and an individual exhibition of the Brazilian modern artist Ivan Serpa in London recently. I hope that the public are intrigued by my collection and that they take the time to question the deeper meaning of the works. If we manage to arouse the curiosity and commitment of the public for this region of the world, and more especially on the threatened future of the Amazonian basin, then the exhibition will have been a success. Public opinion therefore confirms to me the need to search for highquality, original works—there’s still a lot to do.
AK: As an art historian, what would you like to highlight through your collection?
CP: I believe that what makes a collection interesting is its power to reconstitute links between artists to present their works in a richer context, whether they be links between artists of a same generation, between one generation and another, or between one country and another. What I mentioned earlier, on the surrealist collection or concrete poetry, also applies to more recent works. The painting by Beatriz Milhazes exhibited here for example, Feria de Verão (Summer Holidays) from 2005, made us want to seek out other artists from her generation, such as Luiz Zerbini, as well as artists from the neo-concrete movement of the 1960s in Rio, which led us to the works of Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Ivan Serpa.
The Bicho by Lygia Clark from 1960 led us to question ourselves about participatory art in Brazil, especially with works such as Zé Carioca by Rivane Neuenschwander or the works of OPAVIVARA!. I hope that this collection will show that Latin American artists do not work in isolation but are indeed part of the wider debates on the international scene.
AK: Do you think that one day your collection will be complete?
CP: I collect more to participate in the life of the artistic scene around me than to accumulate objects. The collection will not be complete as long as I am able to continue to collect.
AK: How will your collection live on beyond you?
CP: My son Victor is 21 years old. I have endeavoured for many years to pass on my passion for art to him. My efforts are starting to pay off: he has a critical eye that I admire and often accompanies me in my visits to institutions, fairs, biennales. I still hope that he will become more actively involved in the collection. Otherwise I have deep faith in public institutions that are accessible to all. If I have the means to do so, I would be happy for my collection to contribute to broaden the collections of certain institutions I support.