Abstract Collage

I bought several pieces recently from an artist named Janet Ahrens. She is an Iowa artist that starts by making her own paper. She adds squares made of various materials, such as porcelain, tile, rock, or plastic. Found objects, usually twigs, may also be used. She puts them in very deep frames, but not shadow boxes. Some are titled, but most are not. She does not like to put titles into her work, because she does not want to put her interpretation on it. This way, the viewer is allowed to come up with their own interpretations.


I see abstracted landscapes and cityscapes. I love the juxtaposition of the natural with the man made and the irony of the coarse material that is man made, but looks natural. The framing of the piece also intrigues me. There is a mat around the field, but the art doesn’t fit inside it. She purposely places part of it outside the allotted space. To me, this is representative of the creativity of humanity, refusing to stay within their self-imposed bounds. It also shows the wild forces of nature, where such bounds are irrelevant.


I purposely arranged the pieces in an order that followed this sort of irreverence. The pieces are placed so that they form a definite grouping. They are aligned along the center, but not on any edge. The distance between the top and bottom of each piece was kept the same to give more structure.


I hope to see more of Ms. Ahrens art in the future.


What I look for in Abstract Art

Abstract art. Strange images of lines, blobs, fields, and whatever. Some people love it, some people hate it, and I would like to say no one really understands it. Even a lot of artists who make abstract art don’t claim to understand it. It could be highly symbolic, like Aquarium by MAGIC.


Some have no significance outside of themselves, like these pieces by Shawn Wolter.IMG_2972

As an amateur art collector, what do I look for in abstract art? First, color. If the colors catch my eye, I am much more likely to buy the piece. I particularly like contrasting colors like the red, black, and white on the piece above. I will admit that I tend to buy particular colors. My walls are like a palette, just like an artist might have. If I don’t like the color, I won’t buy it, even if I like the imagery.

Second, depth. The shininess of Aquarium made a big impression on me, particularly with the flatness of the black and blue on the piece. The random lines contrasting with the different shades of white on the Wolter piece on the left draw my eye. I am a fan of Rothko and his color field paintings because of the interplay of the colors involved in the pieces.

Third, composition. How are the elements arranged on the piece. Are they interesting? Do I connect with it in an emotional way? Are the shapes interesting enough that I can look at it over and over and still be entranced? Do they symbolize anything to me? What was the intention of the artist? Do I agree?

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because the art is simple it was not difficult to make. Believe me, it isn’t easy to make paint scribbles look good. It also isn’t easy to make color fields have depth and interest.

As with any art, you have to connect to it on an emotional and intellectual level. Look carefully at the art in the shows you attend. Talk to the artists about their techniques and why they do what they do. If they mention an inspiration or another artist that they admire, go look them up. It makes looking at blobs more interesting than you can imagine.

The Importance of Supporting Your Artists

I found out the other day that one of the artists that I have bought from in the past is reducing their output. This is for the simple fact that they can’t make enough money being an artist to make ends meet. Being an art collector and fan of this particular artist, I feel this as a loss. Art is part of our culture. When we look back at the times of history, we look at the books, the paintings, the murals, the letters, the sculptures, the music, and the dance. We don’t look (generally) at the bank statements. The world is driven by the creative types.

I can’t name the first commanding officer for Fort Des Moines. I certainly can’t name his second in command. These are people that were fantastically successful in their career. Let’s be honest, here. I doubt anyone who would read this post cares who they are, what they did, or what effects that had. These are people who, in effect, founded the capital of my State. But everyone knows Grant Woods. Everyone knows one of his students, Jackson Pollack. Is it because the Army is that much less important than the arts? To be honest, my answer is yes.

It isn’t that the military is unimportant. They are vital to the health and safety of our culture. The arts ARE that culture. The protectors are always less important than the protected. The vault is not as valuable as the items inside. Members of the military are honored for their sacrifice, and rightly so. What better way to honor them than to glory the freedom and culture that they risk their lives defending?

Support the artists you buy from. Promote them to your friends and family. Buy consistently from them.

Art Festivals

I have found that a great way to learn about art is to visit art festivals. You don’t have to go to Art Basel or Frieze Art Fair to get a good experience. There are dozens, if not hundreds of art fairs and festivals around. Here in central Iowa, the biggest and most prestigious art festival is the Des Moines Art Festival. This coincides with Artfest Midwest on June 27-29, 2014. However, there are several other art shows around. The Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames, IA does an art show every year. Art on the Prairie in Perry, IA is another. There are two art shows every year in Valley Junction, one of our historic “art” areas. No matter where you are located, there is likely an art show somewhere nearby.

The first time I went to an art show, it was pretty intimidating. The prices were way higher than I had anticipated. Everyone seemed to know way more about everything than I did. On top of that, I actually did not like most the art that I saw. There I was, watching people buying art, seeming to really like it, but most of what I saw did not do anything for me. I remember thinking, “What are all these people seeing that i’m not?”

I decided that I needed to figure out what was going on. So, I did what anyone who wants to learn does. I went to someone who clearly knew a lot more than I did. I started talking to the artists, one by one. I talked to as many artists as I could in the amount of time I had. Artists that made art I liked, artists that made art I didn’t like. I asked about their art, the art at the fair, artists that they respected, and styles that influenced them. It was fascinating. It was a lot of fun.

Now, when I go to art fairs, the first thing I do is walk the entire show just looking from the aisle, window shopping. I look for artists that I know, especially ones that I have bought from in the past. I look for art that catches my eye, either favorably or unfavorably. I make note of where everyone is and get a feel for what sorts of things are there. Is there a lot of photography, painting, sculpture, jewelry, other? What do people seem to be buying? Then I walk the whole thing again. I will stop in all of the booths that I found before, paying particular attention to artists that I follow and artists whose works I don’t like.

Yes, you read that right. I pay particular attention to the works I do not like. The artists I follow make art I do like. I want to know why I don’t like the art. Is it the particular style. Is it too cartoonish? Do I not like the colors? What doesn’t work for me? Then I compare it to the art I do like. What is different about them? Why do I like a particular abstract artist and not the other? What part of this landscape appeals to me that the other doesn’t have?

That’s how I’ve figured out what I really like. I go to several shows every year. I see a lot of art and artists with a lot of different styles. I like some. I don’t like most. That’s OK. Most artists recognize that they won’t appeal to everyone. And most artists are very friendly people who love to talk about their passion.

If you listen with an open mind, there is a wealth of information to be found at your local art shows. Who knows, you might find a piece (or better, an artist) that you want to buy.

Article on Art Collecting

Many people learn more about art and art collecting by reading about art. This can be books, magazines, on-line article, and blogs. Obviously, I think that is an important outlet for learning about art and art collecting, since I blog about it. I have also found that discussion groups are helpful in learning about art, art collecting, and artists. There is an art collecting group on LinkedIn that I follow and sometimes post comments. It has been a very positive experience for me as a collector.

Recently, one of the members posted a link to an article on art collecting that I thought I would share. The article can be found here.

While the article is supposed to deal with Asian contemporary art, it really has good advice for any art collector, including amateur art collectors, like me. The best point in the article, in my opinion, was when Mr. Wemhöner said not to worry about liking what you bought 5 years from now. Buy what moves you right now.

Your tastes are going to change. I started collecting exclusively landscape paintings. I now have more abstracts. I had thought that I would have a 50/50 split between sculpture and paintings. That has not happened, and I have many more paintings than sculptures.

Does that mean I’ve made mistakes in buying? Not at all! I still enjoy the works that I bought years ago. I hope to enjoy them for years to come, but if not, I will be more than happy to rotate them out and into storage for a while. Who knows, perhaps I’ll find in the coming years that the works that I enjoy now have lost my interest and the “older” pieces will capture that passion again.

The only real mistake you can make is falling in love with a piece and regretting that you didn’t get it.

Amazing Art Installation

I’m a big fan of the Des Moines Art Center. I have had the privilege to see American Gothic, the Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and other works by Grant Woods, one of the Pope paintings by Francis Bacon, and Mural by Jackson Pollack. They currently have a series of installations by an English artist named Phyllida Barlow called Scree. Part of it is a series of drawings by the artist combined with several works in the permanent collection of the Art Center. This part was OK, but the installation of the Scree Stage sculpture was amazing. It literally took my breath away.

Because of copyright issues, I could not take any pictures of the installation. Here is the web site from the art center. Iowa Public Radio did an interview with the artist and one of the installation crew with much better pictures of the work. The work is enormous, consisting of multiple pillars of plaster covered steel. These have a needle like hole in the top of each. Some of these columns do not reach to the floor. These columns support a structure of square tiles that have what looks like canvas on them. They are then painted, typically one color. These are stacked with more plaster or foam coated steel in the shape of rocks. It is like a strange landscape. The entire structure is elevated from the ground, and you can see under it. I recommend doing that as well, as the effect is completely different and very complementary.

On the other wall, there were awnings covered with fabric. The awnings themselves were grey, but the fabric was brilliantly colored. These played with the same colors as the stage, lending an interesting contrast in style, but with the same colors. Again, looking under these individual pieces is worthwhile, as the effect is very serene and yet surreal.

If you are in the area, I highly recommend seeing this installation. If not, I suggest doing a web search on Phyllida Barlow and seeing where she is exhibiting.

Finding Your Style

Most artists have their own particular style. This style can be defined by the subject of the art (landscape, abstract, portrait, still life, etc.), color schemes (Picasso’s Blue period, Rothko’s different color fields, and the like), or most likely a combination of both. Great artists define or expand art with their style. Dali is instantly recognizable, but many are hard pressed to name many more surrealists. Landscape painting has been in existence for most of history, even if they were primarily used as backgrounds for portraits (look behind the face on the Mona Lisa), but it wasn’t until the Hudson School of painting that it really hit it’s stride, at least in my opinion.

As collectors, it is important for us to identify our style. It can be as diverse as we want it to be, but the best collections are generally centered around some sort of theme. Dorothy and Herb Vogel primarily collected Minimalist art, but also supported conceptual artists. Are you interested in landscapes, the color purple, wildlife scenes, or something more specific like Mormon art after the pioneer days? I find that I am attracted to groupings of small works to form a larger, overall work. My first commission was based on this idea.

The artist who inspired me in this concept is Shawn Wolter (www.shawnwolter.com). When doing research about art, collecting art, and local artists, I found his web site. While looking through his work, he had a picture of a grouping of many smaller works. Right after, I read about a showing at the Museum of Modern Art where an artist made a large work that was a grid. Each grid was a different color with a slightly different painting style with lines connecting all the sections. It hit me that here we had two ideas, a large work made to look like it is small and small works that are arranged to look big. My favorite works in my collection have been influenced by this idea.

I recently bought several pieces from Shawn of many different sizes, colors, and even styles. As someone passionate about his art, and generally a very helpful person, Shawn helped pick the pieces and arrangement for the work. Using small pieces in a random looking placement makes the space and the overall effect look huge. The “spill over” effect onto the wall and to the other side of the fan shows that the work is too big to be contained. To me this is an interesting idea for paintings that individually are small.
Near this work is a piece I commissioned of 24 small works in a grid. This gives a dissonance that I find not only eye-catching, but playfully ironic. When I purchased this work, this is exactly the effect I wanted.
Find your style. It will not only make each piece more meaningful to you, but the collection itself will become greater than the sum of its parts.