Conversation: Eric Wolf Talks About His Expansive Art Collection
Contributed by Patrick Neal, May 26, 2020
The painter Eric Wolf is someone I have known since we met as students at Skowhegan School of Art in 1989. At Skowhegan, working outside during all-in-one sessions, Wolf devised a style of landscape painting that was direct and minimal, using only black ink on paper, or oil on canvas to respond quickly, transcribing mountains, trees, and lakes into graphic swirls and knots. He later expanded this approach, working en plein air in places like Rangeley, Maine, upstate NY, and Monet’s garden in Giverny, France, while supporting himself with various roles in construction and architectural design. In 2007 he established a relationship with The Endeavor Foundation, a private family organization that supports quality liberal arts education and other important causes. After designing the interior spaces and furniture, he lent art from his collection to hang on the walls. The project recalls Donald Judd House in Soho: an artist takes on all aspects in the creative planning and construction of an architectural space. Wolf recently spoke about it in an interview with the Gorky’s Granddaughter team, and I followed up with some more questions specifically about the art collection.
Patrick Neal: You and I met in the late ’80s as students at Skowhegan, and I remember reconnecting with you around 2006, when you came to a show of mine at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. You had shown with several galleries in New York City but were pulling back from that scene and I was becoming more active in the art world, after having been told as a student for so many years to avoid careerism. We started hanging out and going to openings together, and I think neither of us had big expectations from the art world. This attitude was somewhat freeing in that the emphasis was on enjoying time with art and artist friends, without necessarily hustling for position. Would you agree, and I wonder how this perspective has influenced your career since then, and how it has been a factor for you in collecting art?
Eric Wolf: After some early successes in the nineties, and then pulling back from participating in the early 2000s, I’d had enough experience to see the NYC art world in relative perspective. Youthful ambitions to succeed by way of talent and effort succumbed to the more political nature of advancing, where relationships played a role as critical as the artwork itself.
The 1990’s experience, and my discomfort with the relentless social dexterity required to advance, were key aspects in early 2001, to taking a break from the effort entirely. After a few years of contemplation, as I made my way forward in NYC design and construction projects, I decided to return to openings and pursue friendships with artists I’d admired along the way. You were first among those artists I sought out, as we’d had such a great time at Skowhegan in 1989.
It shouldn’t be a secret that your Honey Bears painting was the first artwork that I had ever bought, from your show at SIP on the Upper West Side in 2007. It was some time before I acquired the second piece from you, but the experience of having something aside from my own work, there in my apartment, this had a big effect. Soon I had a second and third piece of yours, and started putting up other artworks that I’d traded for, with the feeling that I was learning more from this than seeing my own work all the time. I had already amassed almost 100 works by trade, since my undergraduate days at RISD [’78 to ’82, BFA photography] and found that I could curate shows in my apartment from the artworks I already had.
Moving ahead into buying artworks from galleries was an interesting change in position, and right from the start of that, I was learning about the other side. The range of experiences was incredible! Most galleries are very welcoming when you buy things, but not all. Some galleries dreaded selling to someone they did not know (me) and were very unsure about how to handle themselves. I particularly enjoyed these experiences for all that I came to learn.
Patrick Neal: What you’re saying has parallels with when I first started writing about art. I would come home from my studio at night all wound up about issues I was facing in my painting, and my partner eventually suggested that I bounce ideas off of other artists by going to artist lecture series, panel discussions, crit groups etc. This advice led to initial forays into pitching reviews to blogazines. What I like about art writing and curating is that one gets to steer the conversation around contemporary art somewhat and seek out underrepresented painters or sculptors, or maybe talk about the less glossy aspects of surviving as an artist.
Could you delve a little deeper into what it means for you having other artist’s work around, the pieces you choose, and what it does for your own painting. How you forge relationships with different artists that leads to studio visits, engaging with an artist independently versus working with the gallery?
Eric Wolf: As I started collecting the artwork of friends, I was unsure what it would mean to me, and how and if it might affect my own practice. I was not thinking about that. I was feeling that it was such a pleasure to be looking at so much color (my work is black and white) and creating the chance to experience others’ works more deeply.
Once I’d gathered up recent works by a few friends, it seemed like a good opportunity to have artists over to my apartment, and show what everyone was working on. This turned out to be a lot of fun, and friends were energized by the experience. So began a series of gatherings occasionally, as I set out to get more and more recent work.
I started to mix older works, trades and gifts from RISD friends, with the new ones I acquired. The installation of works became a project in my apartment, where things would be in flux for months, as I continually moved things around. My apartment became a curatorial practice space.
Artist friendships that developed over my 35 years in NYC were the natural extension of regular activities: working as an artist assistant, going to graduate school, showing at galleries, going to openings, parties etc. Studio visits came about easily enough, usually for the asking. The visits are always so enlightening, with a wider view of each artist’s creative output, and their working methods seen in progress, to some extent.
While it may often be possible to buy works from artists’ studios, I became interested in buying works at galleries. My purpose for buying at a gallery is to support the artist’s position in the gallery system, which supports dealers as well as artists. It also allows access to works that artists have saved for their shows, often some of their best works. All of this was regulated by what I could afford at any given moment.
Patrick Neal: It’s true you have had interesting live/work spaces both in NYC and upstate that always seemed to be in a state of transformation. You lived in an apartment on the West Side but also converted it into a minimalistic white box where you installed exhibitions. Similarly, the walls of your upstate studio are filled with the collection as well as your own painting. At times, I’ve thought of these spaces as almost physical manifestations of how your brain works, creative thinking brought to life. Can you talk about these live/work spaces, how you build and structure them and what happens within?
Eric Wolf: I’ve always been motivated to reconfigure, redesign and usually rebuild the spaces I’ve lived and worked in, over many years. As a youngster, I’d created my own experiences as a builder using the basement of my childhood home as a workshop, building walls and making primitive furniture out of lumber. Thankfully, my family was always supportive of my creative efforts, even if they were odd… not what the other kids were doing.
I felt that each space had the potential to be something dynamic that would represent my interest in architectural design, aesthetics, and modernism. Whether using objects, adding elements, removing structures, or crafting new parts, I’d managed to create an early body of design work, in the 70’s and 80’s, with friends asking me to design furniture, and help them with their own spaces. Those type of projects continued and expanded, once I moved to NYC (1982) and needed to support myself.
I’ve always looked at the underlying structure of a building to find the generative forces that help to design a given project. I think that my childhood immersion in art, going to museums like the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim, the Marcel Breuer Whitney, and the original Museum of Modern Art designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, had considerable influence on me and my sensibility. Specifically, I think this impressed upon me the varying ways that architecture and art installation are connected. My enthusiasm for abstraction and modernism generally, have helped me to create much of what I’ve done as an artist and as a designer.
Patrick Neal: Regarding your collection and the curation that goes into it, have you thought about going public? We’ve talked about how there is so much great art in the Mohawk-Hudson region of NY state and the possibility for some sort of museum or gallery that showcases it.
Eric Wolf: There isn’t any imperative to go public with an art collection whose focus is so personal, in my opinion. The collection is not comprehensive, is still in formation, and the type of accommodation now required for compliant public occupancy is out of reach to me.
The experience of the four year loan to The Endeavor Foundation was the ideal way to show some of this work. I would consider loan exhibitions, given an appropriate venue. The collection, which is a snapshot of a moment in contemporaneity, focuses on painting, drawing, sculpture and photography, but I have not collected work in other important contemporary practices.
The upstate art scene has been lively and growing in the thirty years since I first came to Columbia County, to be a studio assistant to the extraordinary, talented painter David Deutsch. One of the most important venues was the Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, where Geoff and his guest curators would mix young and old, well known and unknown artists together, forging a country outpost of the New York art world, aside from Eastern Long Island.
The emergence of Hudson as an art and antiques center has attracted artists and galleries, both to Hudson, and surrounding towns. I expect that institutions will form and embrace the extraordinary creative work now underway in many studios across our area.