“I think people need to accept and embrace the absurdity of the collecting impulse.”
New York collector, curator and director of Team Gallery, Todd von Ammon, has a private collection teeming with works from artists he knows and loves. He gives us some insights into the mind of a collector and we find out about his herd of lava lamps.
Linda Green: What kickstarted your art collection?
Todd von Ammon: To start off with I spent all my money on this one piece by Josh Tonsfeldt, it was like 2000 dollars. I love it, it’s a spider web that’s spray painted green, and then put over paper. It’s the first thing I got and it’s still one of my favorite things. It’s just so weird and buggy and usually when I love something I will do whatever I can to become involved in the artist's career.
Would you say your collection represents relationships you have?
I think it definitely makes it better when you have a positive relationship with the artists. I have never found any use in having something by a stranger.
I’m also getting into design objects because there’s no more room for art so I had to start looking for pieces that sit on the ground. Take this piece by Olivia Erlanger who is a very young artist who’s just started showing. This is kind of a hand-sculpted bovine tongue that she then casts in black silicone. It’s supposed to be this kind of borderline sexual, aggressive, thing, and I thought it was great. I were worried about the dog chewing it, but she seems to know what art is, which is a bonus.
Do you rotate stuff or have a storage?
The storage is our closet. There’s no hierarchy about what’s in the closet or not. We’ve tried to hang everything at once and it looks crazy.
Do you think about what you have already when you buy the next thing, or do you just get what you like and hope it goes together?
Things tend to be pretty purple or green, I’ve noticed. We certainly have one purple and green section with this painting by Robert Janitz who’s an artist I work with really closely and a photographic work by a friend of his, Ryan Foerster. Robert’s paintings are about entropy to a degree, that painting is slowly changing because parts of it are getting lighter. The paint has flour and wax in it and the wax crystallizes over time. Ryan’s piece is an undeveloped piece of photo paper that he composted in his garden, and you can see where slugs crawled over it. He lives down in Brighton Beach and a lot of that work was made around the time of Hurricane Sandy when his house got totally flooded and he got a lot of artwork out of that destruction.
And what about being a dealer, has that changed your ideas about pricing or collecting?
I’d say the only thing is that I have a decent amount of stuff from Team Gallery at home just because it makes me a compelling dealer, to live with the stuff I work with.
So if there were a fire, and you had to take one piece with you, what would you take?
Well the dog and turtles come first, but I’d probably take the Stanley Whitney painting. It might be hard to get down the stairs but I’d really hope to make it out with the larger one. Stanley gave me that painting on the occasion of his solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which was a big moment in his career. He and I work very closely, and we’ve seen both sides of what it is to be an artist—the struggle that goes into being an artist and also the joy that is being an artist.
Working with artists for a living, and curating shows makes you a really disciplined art collector too, because the artists’ personalities really blend into the art in a way that perhaps doesn’t necessarily apply to a “collector collector.” Dylan actually did a solo show in our apartment about six months ago and it was all these clocks and I thought they were so great because they were so simple in their execution but my experience is that despite their simplicity having a clock reflected like that is a super confounding experience.
Your apartment is in a Frank Gehry building—one of the only ones in New York—and you have a lot of windows with amazing views. Which comes first the architecture and the views or your collection?
There are four walls that are almost completely windows, designed in such a way that they look like picture frames around views of the city. We do a lot of controlled shade-drawing. Anything with light-fast pigment is in the kill range.
We have to think about art that won't be affected by sun—like art that lights up. Max Hooper Schneider worked for Pierre Huyghe for many years, more as a biologist than an artist. Anytime that Huyghe needed a fish tank, Max was the guy. His work often involves ecosystems and that piece has plastic over mealworms and dried botanicals like Buddha’s fist lemons and neons which says “Myiasis” which is when flies implant larvae in a mammal’s skin, so it’s pretty abject. For an upcoming show that I'm curating, (Dolores opening 8th September) he's working on an electric eel tank that's going to power the lighting system. It's the first time anyone has employed electric eels for such an ambitious power source.
And what about this herd of lava lamps?
I got one or two lava lamps, and then for my birthday friends found out about my recent obsession so they each gave me one! There was a week where we would get packages and unwrap lava lamp after lava lamp.
So what I’m hearing is that collecting should just be out of love and relationships?
I think people were led to believe that there was investment potential in young contemporary art and the resounding conclusion is that there probably isn’t! It’s a totally irrational thing to want to have this stuff. I think people need to accept and embrace the absurdity of the collecting impulse.
So what would your advice to a young or first-time collector be?
Just only buy things you can afford. If you need to go to the dentist, go to the dentist before you buy a piece of artwork. Accept that you might be stuck with something, and be happy about that.
You have a lot of artworks that change over time, which seems like a really poetic and antithetical stance to investment collecting.
Well it’s also a way to be an active participant in contemporary culture. You can do that by going to a museum, too, but by collecting and living with artwork you are directly accessing visual culture and artists, and it’s a much richer connection to the work.
Would it be fair to say that you have a sort of gothic or macabre streak in your collecting?
Yes! In the hall we have a work by Daniel Turner that definitely fits into that category. It’s basically roofing tar that’s been sealed inside transparent vinyl. So the tar is always going to be liquid. It doesn’t change or anything but it will always be viscous, and this is a form that he uses regularly. This was another early acquisition, and it was difficult to find a place for it because it is such an intense object.
What can you tell me about this bizarre looking chair?
This is by Jessi Reaves, like a lot of her peers she uses a lot of abject or tossed-off materials but she departs from that in a good way by actually creating these functional and objects. This also involves decay because she invites wear and tear to the work. She’s also in the upcoming show that I’m curating, and my colleagues have been teasing me by saying it’s a giant “Todd’s Living Room” show. I have to admit that’s kind of fair because I’m very interested in the idea of living with art as a microcosm of your taste and personality. It’s not about just putting nice-looking decorative objects together, it’s about putting things that have deeper, personal meanings into play with each other.
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Interview by Linda Green