Interview with Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons

February 21, 2009

While some collectors buy art to put on their walls, Phil and Shelley Aarons build walls to hang more art. At their Connecticut residence, the Aarons are building a new pavilion to display monumental pieces by the likes of Aleksandra Mir and Tom Burr. In Florida, their entire bedroom is furnished with barricades by Tom Sachs. One of Aaron Young’s retinal retention paintings of Jesus hangs over their East Hampton bed. Art is so all-encompassing in the Aarons’ life that visitors, without fail, ask which artist made the yoga accessories in their New York bedroom. Our interview began shortly before midnight on the eve of Art Basel Miami Beach, walking the moon-lit waterfront. Phil, a real-estate developer, and his wife Shelley, a psychiatrist, were collecting sand in a little container. “We have to sprinkle it over a Christian Holstad installation.

It was supposed to come with it, but the gallery never sent anything. We had to take the matter into our own hands.”

Their wholehearted commitment to young artists and staunch support of a myriad contemporary art projects, publications and exhibitions has earned them a reputation as art philanthropists, an appellation they favor over the term collector.

Simon Castets: You are not only collecting art, but are also both committed at the highest level with an impressive number of New York institutions, including PS.1, the New Museum, Printed Matter, Creative Time and many others.
Philip Aarons: Our involvement with museums is intertwined with our collecting: we gave a Christian Marclay video to MoMA because we are supportive of Klaus Biesenbach’s work there, and we’ve been helping some of the Whitney’s projects because of our relationship with Shamim Momin.

Shelley Fox Aarons: We are often drawn to support projects at institutions where we have no affiliation, either compelled by the project, or because of wanting to support a particular artist, like Guillermo Kuitca at the Hirschhorn. The institutional context can be helpful but it’s not our primary focus, it is a way to implement our interest in bringing art to the public realm.

SC: Which you done many times by supporting publications…
PA: There is no better example. We helped publish a Dia book on Robert Smithson and supported the exhibition.

SC: It is particularly interesting that you mention Smithson because you are known for supporting the work of very young artists, some of whom you practically “discovered.”
PA: Indeed, we commissioned Terence Koh’s first work outside of zines and websites, and this is what gave him the opportunity to move to New York. We support primarily living artists.

SFA: And those who should be living… Probably Phil’s favorite work in our collection is Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous, 1973.

SC: How did you start collecting?
SFA: We’ve been looking at art for our entire adult life. Phil brought me to Documenta in 1972. Collecting wasn’t possible for us then. We had posters.

PA: I was an Art History major, and I learned about Louis Lozowick. We went to Sotheby’s because his work was coming up at auction. It was a print of Coney Island’s LunaPark. It was my first time at an auction. The estimate was $300-600, it was back in 1974. When the lot finally came up, I bid frantically like a crazy person. It was going up in $25 increments. When it reached $325, I raised my hand again and the auctioneer said “Sorry sir, you are bidding against yourself.”

SC: Which artists have you been focusing on since?
SFA: Guillermo Kuitca and Tom Sachs are the first two artists who we collected in depth. They’re very different, yet both have a conceptual underpinning to their work. I love the way that Tom is re-creating the world, one piece at a time, dub versions of the high and the low, made of police baricades, foam core and duct tape. One of my favorite art-related evenings was being invited to Tom’s studio for a ‘demonstration’ of the sculpture Chanel Guillotine (Breakfast Nook), 1998. Tom placed a large beautifully browned roast suckling pig under the guillotine, chopped off its head, and served us all greasy morsels of pork along with a lot of alcohol. The first time we visited Tom he had a gun chamber in which he was shooting Ross Bleckner paintings. There was a program from the police that if you would turn in a gun they would give you $50. He was not famous at the time and he found that making guns and giving them to the police was a good way to make money. Phil gave me a Chanel gun that Tom made for Valentine’s Day.

SC: Do they shoot real bullets?
SFA: That’s why Mary Boone went to jail. There was a big bowl of bullets on the front desk at his opening there and so she was arrested for distributing live ammunition.

SC: You have developed close relationships with several artists.
SFA: We are not only interested in the works but also, perhaps more, in how the artists come to realize them, therefore relationships are key to understanding the creative process. For instance, Terence Koh is much more interested in the performative aspects than in the products of his work, many of which are evanescent and designed to decay over time. We loved the evening at our apartment when we took apart Terence’s coffin sculpture and had an event for a group from the Whitney during the time of Terence’s show there, and Terence lay in the coffin in the middle of our living room in his gold Balenciaga pants and then continued the performance into Central Park. One of the benefits of being supporters of young art is to meet the artists and support their work in the long run, to see their careers develop. We’re dedicated to go see exhibitions of artists we like and admire, like Tom Sachs, Scott Treleaven, Paul P., Terence Koh, Guillermo Kuitca, Hernan Bas… Paul once said that we had seen more of his shows than anyone.

SC: But you don’t need a pre-existing relationship to get involved with an artist’s career, often at a level that very few collectors spend the time to reach.
SFA: True. We went to Henrik Olesen’s show at the MigrosMuseum and asked for the catalogue at the front desk. There was no plan for a catalogue. We thought it deserved a catalogue, so we helped produce one.

SC: Your collection of books has been compared to Richard Prince’s.
PA: Publications suffer from the fact that they are often marginalized as a minor part of what artists do. Ed Ruscha’s books are central to his practice but weren’t recognized as such until recently. They were seen as unimportant. Books are about process. It’s fascinating to see how artists express themselves through inexpensive, democratic mediums. Books are outside of the artist-dealer relationship. My library [over 10,000 volumes] focuses on books about art and books by artists, from 1965 to now. Especially on artists using books as a medium such as Sol LeWitt, Dieter Roth and Martin Kippenberger.

SFA: Books can be a point of entry into an artist’s larger body of work. We became attracted to Carol Bove’s work because she made shelf pieces with books on them. Now we have a large hanging sculpture made of beads in the middle of our living room. Everyone wants to run into it.

SC: As the Chairman and President of Printed Matter, are you also sometimes directly involved in editorial projects?
PA: The most recent one is Queer Zines [New York: Printed Matter, 2008], a publication that was about giving outside the mainstream artists and alternative means of “exhibition” a chance for recognition. Zines, and particularly queer zines, with their sexual content and political agenda push the boundaries of what the art world accepts as “art.”

SC: What is the piece you are most eager to get installed?
SFA: A ping-pong table by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled, (the future will be chrome)(ping pong table), 2008. We’ll put it on the lawn in East Hampton, it’s part of a limited edition garden furniture line by contemporary artists. It’s all mirrored steel but we’ll use it as a regular ping-pong table.

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