Known for his unconventional taste and adventurous acquisitions, Paul Leong is not your typical investment banker-turned-collector. Leong speaks with The Armory Show about his approach to collecting, what catches his eye, and the work that got away. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith
“I’m very open minded when it comes to what physical form the art takes”
You're known to have adventurous taste when it comes to collecting. Your collection focuses on artworks of unusual mediums, some that even involve upkeep or maintenance regularly. Does an artwork have to be "difficult" or somehow unusual to catch your attention?
I would not say I seek out “difficult” art. I do gravitate to art that in concept or form is pushing forward and seems innovative—maybe even challenging norms for a given medium. I’m very open-minded when it comes to what physical form the art takes and usually get more caught up in the concept and thoughts behind the work, which can sometimes lead to acquisitions of unusual pieces.
Do you have a work in your collection that you consider a turning point for your interest or direction as a collector?
I have a work called Tank by Lutz Bacher. It consists of a found, large toy tank mounted to the wall and a corresponding set of embedded tracks in the wall. When I first encountered Lutz’s work I was hesitant about art which consisted of found objects typically not altered much, if at all, by the artist. However, when I saw Tank for the first time it resonated with me personally and I continued to think about it for weeks after and eventually purchased it. After embracing this found, readymade toy as art rather than just a discarded object, I became more open and responsive to a broader range of conceptually driven works. It took finding the right piece to stir an emotional response and experience. It’s still one of my favorite works today.
In 2014 you participated in a work by Goldin+Senneby, for which you provided a financial algorithm that the artists used to fund a performance for as long as the algorithm was profitable. In in exchange for the algorithm, you received an artwork by the artist duo. While this may be an atypical approach to collecting for most, is it common for you to partake or collaborate with the artist?
I do like to get to know the artists I collect personally, but the opportunities to collaborate with them or trade for a work is rare. That being said, it has happened a couple times after the Goldin + Senneby project.
One work in your collection, Max Hooper Schneider's Genus Watermeloncholia, requires you to seek out and purchase a square shaped watermelon to complete the work, replacing the melons as frequently as needed. The concept of ownership, as a voluntary and sometimes involuntary act, comes to mind here. Do you ever feel as if the artwork owns you and not the other way around?
Finding and maintaining the square watermelons is tricky. I think of it as voluntary rather than involuntary as I make the choice to install the work and accept its particular challenges. However, I do feel that the process of sourcing the square watermelon and the maintenance is part of the work and different from just an installation process.
"I think of it as voluntary rather than involuntary as I make the choice to install the work and accept its particular challenges”
Do you feel your interests and tastes have changed as you have become more deeply involved in the art world?
I feel that my core interests have stayed relatively consistent from the perspective of what catches my eye. If anything, my interests have just expanded from when I started. However, my taste and process for whittling down all those works that I learn about to what ultimately enters the collection has become more refined and rigorous.
Many collectors have a memorable work that they hesitated on and then never purchased. Does one artwork stand out in your memory as one that got away?
In general, I wish I had started collecting Danh Vo earlier. I had a piece on hold from his first show at Marian Goodman and I ended up passing on it. I saw it recently in his Guggenheim retrospective and really regretted not going for it.
As a member of Salon, our young patrons group, you generously opened your home to Armory Show VIPs this past March for a collection visit. Do you envision one day making your collection available to the public through museum donations or your own foundation?
I’ve donated a couple of works to date. I imagine as my collection evolves there will be more museum donations in the future. I very much like the idea of having another space to display and enjoy my collection but haven’t given much thought about if I would go as far as establishing a foundation. I think something like that would be way off in the future.