A Closer Look at Erling Kagge's Art Collection

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

Although Erling Kagge purchased his first artwork 32 years ago, it is mainly in the course of the past 15 years that his art collection has taken form, expanded and become one of Norway’s most significant private collections of international contemporary art. His involvement as a collector is well known, but few people are really aware of what his collection comprises – apart from the Richard Prince painting Surfing Nurse, which made newspaper headlines in 2008 when it was sold at auction, generating a spectacular profit.

The Oslo art community has most likely noted his loans of influential individual works by prominent artists to a few exhibitions in recent years. Among these is Franz West’s Untitled (2007), perhaps better known as the Rolls-Royce auto featuring 6 miniature sculptures (“adaptives”) as bonnet ornaments, which was shown at the exhibition “Standard Escape Routes” at the gallery STANDARD (OSLO) in 2013. Another example of this is Kagge’s loan of the Lawrence Weiner work USE ENOUGH TO MAKE IT SMOOTH ENOUGH ASSUMING A FUNCTION (1999), which covered the feature wall of a foyer exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, in the autumn of 2014. And perhaps even Kagge himself has not recorded, other than in his own memory, a total overview of the constantly expanding contents of his collection. However, when planning was begun for the exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museet and the publishing of the associated book A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art, the project of registering and photographing his entire art collection was launched. When the museum gained access to this documentation, we carried out a comprehensive survey of the contents and profile of the collection in order to determine the best way of presenting it. Who are the artists whose work he collects, where do they come from, which generation do they belong to, and is there any thematic or formal focal point in the collection?

Kagge’s art collection is almost entirely contemporary; artists who have died or works dated before 1990 can be counted on one hand. With the exception of these few individual instances, the collection comprises exclusively works from the 1990s and 2000s, with a particularly high incidence of works from 2004-2005 and later. From this it can be seen that Kagge’s collecting activity has gained momentum in the last 15 – perhaps especially the last 10 – years. Kagge’s focus on art from his own time means that his choice of artists, with regard to the periods they represent, reflects the generations beginning with his own. Kagge himself has explained how he began to collect works by artists who were, like him, born in the 1960s, and then continued with those born in the 1970s. Taken as a whole, these artists comprise more than two-thirds of the collection. In more recent years he has also begun to collect works by artists born in the 1980s as they have emerged on the international art scene. The collection currently comprises works by more than 100 artists.

Kagge’s collection has a primarily international emphasis, but is also connected with the most important Norwegian galleries and a number of influential contemporary Norwegian artists. Twelve percent of the artists in Kagge’s collection are Norwegian. The collection boasts several works by artists such as Vibeke Tandberg, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Matias Faldbakken, Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Fredrik Værslev – a generation of Norwegian artists who have made their mark internationally. Apart from Tandberg (b. 1967), these artists are all born in the 1970s and all, again apart from Tandberg, are represented by the gallery STANDARD (OSLO). This Oslo gallery, which opened in 2005 and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, correlates temporally with Kagge’s most active period of collecting, and it is obvious from the content of the collection that he has followed the founder of the gallery, Eivind Furnesvik, closely. Kagge’s collection includes works by a total of 16 artists who are represented by the gallery, in addition to a number of works by other artists that have been exhibited at the gallery in the course of its history. Vibeke Tandberg exemplifies another important source for Kagge’s collection: Galleri MGM, and the gallery owner Atle Gerhardsen. During the period of the late 1990s to the early 2000s both Galleri MGM in Oslo and Atle Gerhardsen’s Berlin gallery were vital sources for Kagge’s art purchases. Kagge’s collection includes works by 13 artists who are in the stable of what is now known as Gerhardsen Gerner. Gerhardsen’s gallery illustrates another significant focal point for Kagge’s collection: the Berlin gallery scene. Galleries in the German capital, such as Galerie Neu, Esther Schipper, Klosterfelde, Neugerriemschneider and Peres Projects, are among the most important suppliers of works to the collection. When one takes a close look at the major holdings of artists’ works in the collection it becomes apparent that they can be linked to the galleries mentioned above. Gallery affiliation undoubtedly constitutes an important trend in Kagge’s collecting activities, and he has often acquired works by ten or more artists from each of the galleries that are his main sources of artworks. He himself has emphasised the importance of loyalty to the galleries in order to get the opportunity to purchase central works. This is also reflected in the age distribution of the artists and the introduction of new generations into the collection. Kagge does not seek to purchase works by young artists in an early phase, before they are represented by major galleries. Now that the generation of artists born in the 1980s has become associated with established galleries, their works are purchased for the collection – always through the galleries. He also generally deals with galleries based in Europe. Although he has made a number of acquisitions from American galleries such as Regen Projects, Gladstone Gallery, Tanya Bonakdar and, especially, Casey Kaplan, Kagge seems to prefer to purchase the works of American artists through the galleries that represent them in Europe. As a result of this gallery loyalty, the geographical distribution of his collection also seems to correspond to the nationalities of the galleries representing the artists. In Kagge’s collection 37 % of the artists are from the USA, 55 % from European countries, and only 8 % from countries outside of the USA and Europe. Among the European countries the emphasis is on Nordic and German-speaking countries. Individual artists from countries such as Brazil, New Zealand, Iran, Thailand, Argentina and India, plus a few from Japan and Mexico, seem to have been included in the collection because of their association with specific galleries rather than as the result of an ambition or interest on the part of the collector to incorporate artists from particular geographical locations and emerging markets, as many private collectors have done in the past few decades with regard to areas such as China, Brazil and India.

Kagge’s collection thus consists mainly of contemporary art produced by European and American artists who were born in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and who are associated with a number of major European galleries. But a certain interest can also be detected for important artists of an older generation who served as the artistic models for the artists on whom Kagge’s collection primarily focuses. Artists such as Franz West (1947-2012) have been a tremendous source of inspiration for many of Kagge’s favoured artists, and the same can be said about the influence of Lawrence Weiner (b. 1942) on the post-conceptual artists in the collection. The works of Weiner and West mentioned above demonstrate Kagge’s aim, when the opportunity arises, to acquire important works by artistic pioneers that are of interest to the key artists in the collection and that can contextualise their artistic concerns. But overall these are to be viewed as individual cases in the wider context, as these artworks are often found in a price category that is beyond the scope of the collection.

In contrast to a Norwegian collector such as Erling Neby, with his exceptional and consistent focus on concrete and geometric art, Kagge does not collect specific or sharply defined artistic styles, but is rather a part of the post-disciplinary contemporary art scene. The collection does not seem to have any clear or overarching thematic fulcrum, nor a preference for conceptual or formal focus – but reaches beyond such categories. Nor does it seem that the collection has been assembled with the intention of highlighting mutual thematic similarities. Kagge himself points out that there must be something that attracts his interest, something that is not quite obvious, and a number of the artists he collects could be described as “absurd” or “nonsensical”. Many of them are also concerned with linguistic matters or the investigation of subjects such as perception or reality versus fiction. Although there is no running theme in the collection one can nevertheless find many areas where the artists’ areas of interest coincide. One trend that is noticeable among many of the artists is that they operate within a field that can be defined as post-conceptual. This applies especially to artists such as Ceal Floyer, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Matias Faldbakken and Kirsten Pieroth – some of the artists who are best represented in the collection. The presence of neo-modernist tendencies can also be observed in artists who have developed various modes of abstraction within their distinctive artistic practices, such as Sergej Jensen, Tauba Auerbach, Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Fredrik Værslev. It is perhaps within these two areas that the collection is at its strongest – and not least in its concentration on the works of specific artists.

Without a doubt, what emerges as one of the primary characteristics of the collection is Kagge’s commitment to the work of a number of individual artists. If one disregards the many artists who are represented with only one or two works in the collection, a number of artists can be seen whose work Kagge has collected in depth with regard to time span, techniques and media, as well as subject matter within the works of the individual artists. This is the aspect of the collection that stands out most strongly: a comprehensive focus on a number of individual artists and a thoroughgoing commitment to their artistic practice. This approach is the privilege of the private collector – the opportunity of being relieved of the necessity of documenting the entire breadth of an area of art and being able to collect the works of selected artists in depth. Kagge shares this tactic with the Astrup Fearnley Museet collection, which has also concentrated on individual artists and artworks in the contemporary art scene rather than on movements or historical periods. Where Kagge’s collection has central and influential works, an in-depth collecting effort has taken place that follows the artist’s career throughout various time periods, thematic structures and media. At its best, these collections-within-the-collection hold a large number of works covering a considerable number of years, and touch on key elements of the individual artist’s production. Kagge’s collection  holds dozens of works  each by important artists such as Raymond Pettibon, Sergej Jensen, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Olafur Eliasson and Klara Lidén, and a significant number of central works by artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Dan Attoe, Ceal Floyer, Ann Cathrin November Høibo, Adriana Lara, Kirsten Pieroth and Tauba Auerbach.

These last-mentioned names also draw attention to an interesting detail in the collection with regard to the representation of women artists. Only 27 % of the artists represented in the collection are women. But what stands out in this context is the commitment on the part of the collector to collect individual artists in depth, and it is here that the percentage of women in Kagge’s collection is striking. Some of the largest groups of works consist of those by women artists such as Ceal Floyer, Klara Lidén, Kirsten Pieroth and Trisha Donnelly. This displays Kagge’s commitment to these artists and also shows how he has acquired collections of works that defy the borders that, in the beginning, often limit private collectors, who mainly collect for themselves and their own homes: that is, a focus on easily handled two-dimensional or sculptural formats. Kagge’s collection demonstrates a willingness, which has increased through the years, to reach beyond these formats and purchase larger installations, videos, sound art or works that must be realised with site-specific manifestations.

With an artist like Ceal Floyer, Kagge’s collection includes works spanning as much as two decades (from 1995 to 2014), and representing a number of media and techniques ranging from two-dimensional wall pieces, sculptures and objects to projections and sound pieces. The collection features works that touch on such essential thematic elements in Floyer’s artistic oeuvre as perception, language and the modification of everyday objects. Very central works such as the projection Auto-Focus, the sound work ’Til I Get It Right and Monochrome Till Receipt (White) are part of the collection. This collecting strategy can also be observed in the fact that Kagge has purchased as many as 17 works, spanning a period of 11 years, by a young artist such as Klara Lidén (b. 1979). The works range from the very early video Paralyzed (2003), made while Lidén was still an art student in Stockholm, to one of her newest works, shown at Galerie Neu in 2014 – which, startlingly, is an installation that includes live canaries. The collection also includes central works from her photographic series of urban spaces, her poster paintings and rubbish bins, as well as elements from larger installations, which shows how Kagge concentrates on collecting across time, formats, media and thematic structures.

In a Norwegian context, Kagge’s collection is distinctive in its unique combination of international contemporary artists, many of whom are either not represented in other collections or, in many cases, do not exhibit often in Norway. The most outstanding of the collector’s features are his absolute commitment to the works of individual artists, and his inclination to collect in depth and across media. This aspect was what weighed most heavily for Astrup Fearnley Museet when selecting the artists and works to be exhibited. The selection imparts a good, if somewhat fragmentary, understanding of the strategies and history of Kagge’s collection. Rather than focusing on individual works of a larger number of artists, the exhibition includes 18 artists who, each in his or her own way, is central to the collection. It ranges from artists Kagge began collecting at an early stage, but perhaps was unable to continue to pursue along the subsequent price trajectory, such as Raymond Pettibon, Wolfgang Tillmans and Olafur Eliasson. At the other end of the spectrum are artists he has begun collecting more recently, but from whom he has already acquired works that have attracted considerable attention, such as Jana Euler and Adriana Lara. The chief emphasis lies on artists he has concentrated on collecting actively and in depth, such as Manfred Pernice, Andreas Slominski, Klara Lidén, Tauba Auerbach, Ceal Floyer, Kirsten Pieroth, Trisha Donnelly, Dan Attoe, Ann Cathrin November Høibo, Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Sergej Jensen – and who, perhaps, best illustrate the Kagge collection’s dedication to art.

(Translated from Norwegian by Shari Gerber Nilsen)

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