Collectors Barbara and Howard Morse have quietly supported some of the most challenging and provocative artworks made over the last few decades. At their home, surrounded by contemporary artists such as Cameron Rowland, Park McArthur, and Jason Loebs, they reflect on New York in the 90s, Colin de Land's American Fine Arts, Co., and their continued and unwavering support for artists who challenge the status quo. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith
“I’ve always liked things that are sort of off kilter, not part of the mainstream. Our collecting, for me, fit right into that." - Barbara Morse
How did you begin collecting? What brought you to the art world?
Barbara Morse: We were always involved in art. I went to Music and Art high school and then I got my BFA and MFA at Hunter College, so art was always part of my life. When I met Howard, we hit it off right away because we spoke about art, at that time Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. I was a Color Field painter, and Howard loved Color Field painters, so he came to my studio and we were just always involved in art from then on.
Howard Morse: But we never thought of being collectors at that point. One, we didn’t have a sense of the art market, art was just a piece of our lives. But after many years, after Barbara gave up painting and she went to law school, she practiced law, et cetera et cetera, we suddenly had some additional money in terms of where our professions had taken us, and we thought about buying some art. We initially went back into the art market where we had left it, mainly looking at painters.
BM: At that point, our children were in college so we had the time. We started in Soho, looking at paintings, and we really knew very little about what was happening in the art world. I don’t even know how we got to the galleries we got to.
How was it that you first met Colin de Land?
At one point we went to a gallery on Broadway, I forget the name, and there were paintings on the wall, but there was also on the floor a scattering of wood and scraps of paper, and we were fascinated by that. And when we told the gallerist that, ‘this really looks interesting’, she said right away, ‘well if this is something that interests you, you must go to Colin de Land at American Fine Arts.’ And she gave us the address and we went directly there.
Do you recall the year?
BM: It was probably 1989/1990, because we started looking in 1988. That was a whole new world for us. There were lots of people there; the art that we saw was so different and exciting for us, and we became very involved with the whole scene at American Fine Arts, because it also functioned as a social space where people seemed to just meet and talk. We were introduced to Colin, who we liked right away. He had this very subtle sense of humor and a great smile. When he started talking about his artists we really felt we had found our spot.
HM: So it was somewhat fortuitous that we ended up at AFA; interestingly, that particular piece we were enamored with at the Broadway gallery, Barbara referred to, was a construction site, it was not a work of art. In a way, the gallerist was trying to steer us in a consistent direction, but she was also being critical of our eye.
"What was so exciting at the beginning of our involvement in collecting, we knew all the artists personally." - Barbara Morse
And did she ever point that out to you both?
HM: Yes, yes she did!
At AFA, over time, the core group that Colin was showing were the Institutional Critique artists; Andrea Fraser, Christian Philipp Müller, Tom Burr, Mark Dion. Those were the people we focused on. So, the principal aspects of our collecting model: one, the intelligence of the gallerist was very significant to us, and that was Colin. Secondly, the group basis of the artists we focused on, in this case, Colin’s group were all coming under a particular heading, let’s call it ‘Institutional Critique.’ But not entirely so, because there was also Peter Fend and there was Dennis Balk, and they too were very special people and artists. That model, after we lost Colin, and of course Pat — we continued to look for groups, if you will, because if there was an artist that you were interested in, that artist had interesting friends, who were also artists. It was only natural for some of these friends to be making work, whether or not that would be of the same genre, that would be work we’d be interested in. And that pattern in fact continued, and continues to this day.
BM: What was so exciting at the beginning of our involvement in collecting, we knew all the artists, personally. We became very close with them and we still are today—we meet them for dinner, we meet them at shows, here and in Europe. That has become an important part of our life. It has really added so much, having these relationships.
Is having those kinds of personal relationships with the artists you support integral to your engagement with them? Do you have artists you collect who you don’t know personally?
BM: We know most all the artists, actually. There might be a few who we’ve never met.
Thinking about the artists you have supported over the years, is there a single artist that you feel your collection has been anchored around?
BM: I think it was always a group, always the group that we were involved with. It was never just one artist.
HM: I agree totally.
Do you find it is harder to find that group today, in contemporary art? Or younger artists?
BM: We’re very involved with Essex Street Gallery and are certainly excited by Maxwell's artists. So too with 47 Canal and Miguel Abreu Gallery. But, for us the field has really narrowed in terms of our interests.
HM: And the artists at Essex Street, there are, of course, layers of groupings within the gallery. Artists like Park McArthur and Cameron Rowland and Jason Loebs and, even though technically she’s not in the gallery, Carissa Rodriguez. It’s a great group, so that model has certainly worked for us and has given us a lot of rewards.
Is there something you’d say you have learned, or were surprised to discover, about yourself in this journey of collecting? Maybe a taste or a style you possessed but we’re not conscious of before you were introduced to some of these artists?
BM: No, I’ve always liked things that are sort of off kilter, not part of the mainstream. Our collecting, for me, fit right into that.
“We’d always end up in the back room at AFA, and then we’d always go out to dinner with Colin and on the way to dinner we’d go across the street and pick up Pat." - Howard Morse
HM: I agree. Typically work that has, one way or another, a political aspect to it. In my senior year of college, I had a great course on 20th century art, with Alan Solomon, who ended up being a curator at The Jewish Museum. This goes back to the early 60s, and that was a body of work that, just academically, through my exposure at college, that I liked. I really loved Morris Louis, I liked Kenneth Noland, I liked Jules Olitski, I liked the writings and I liked the concepts behind that, as Barbara mentioned, both Clement and Michael had spoken about. Barbara, who was a great painter and had great teachers at Hunter, was part of that so it was a marriage born in heaven! It worked, we had common interests and values.
Do you have a particularly fond memory of Colin that stands out? I’m sure you have many.
HM: We had a great relationship with Colin. Of course, there was always the business side because Colin was a survivor and the gallery was always challenged financially. To a degree we were supporters of the gallery by being customers. So there was clearly always that side. But we would end up – in those days you could cover Soho in an afternoon, in terms of the galleries you wanted to go to; there was just a small fraction of the number of exhibitions, spaces that exist today. So we’d always end up at AFA; we’d always end up in the back room there, and then we’d always go out to dinner with Colin and on the way to dinner we’d go across the street and pick up Pat. And that was a Saturday routine.
BM: I have a memory of being at the Venice Bienniale and Colin showing up at our hotel. He lost his passport, he was very disheveled, and finally that was resolved. We would walk around Venice with him, late at night, going to restaurants, eating. Colin would know everyone who passed and Peter Fend would be with us as well.
Did you go to the Gramercy Park Hotel when Colin was showing there? Do you have any memories of that, that stand out?
BM: Sure. I just remember it was very cluttered.
BM: There was a lot of stuff.
BM: I also remember there was a very large room, where there were several galleries. Matthew Marks was there, and American Fine Arts, and a few other galleries.
HM: You remember it better than I. I think it’s a good idea that you’ve involved Christian Nagel, because Christian was always Colin’s counterpoint or counterpart, if you will, in Cologne and Dusseldorf. And they shared a number of artists, and there was always the question who got who from whom. So, I think that that makes a lot of sense in terms of the history of The Armory Show. And Nagel, at one point in time, was a force behind the Unfair in Cologne, and maybe that might have been one of the initial gestures as against the larger corporate fairs. We used to go to the Art Cologne fair and then Nagel came up with this idea of having this other, if you will, and he titled it the Unfair.
I’m only mentioning it because it makes sense that Nagel is doing something which is reflective of the history of the Gramercy. As for Colin, he too was a survivor, and the Gramercy was another expression of his entrepreneurial bent and his drive to ensure AFA's survival. You might think this was out of context for Colin because he was very much an artist. But to survive in the art world, he also functioned as a dealer/gallerist, and as an art fair organizer. Colin did his art under the name J. St. Bernard, and he also collaborated with Richard Prince under the name John Dogg.
Yes, I saw those works at Bard.
HM: Bard, for us, was a very exciting and wonderful show. It brought back great memories.