“The word ‘taste’ is disparaged by many in the art world as coarse or capricious; an obsolete word to be avoided because it does not convey the interpretation and analysis integral to considered value judgements about art.”
So says Thea Westreich Wagner, art advisor to some of the smartest collectors in the world today.
But the inescapable fact is that your taste in art - be it for an Artspace Edition, print, sculpture, photograph, or unique work - is as much a reflection of your sense of self as the people you pick as friends, or the car you drive or the outfit you choose for the office each morning.
“Taste is a characteristic to be embraced, not denied,” says Westreich in Collecting Art for Love, Money. and More. “It allows for the creation of something unique. We’re using the word ‘taste’ as a synonym for ‘like’: a simple, handy way for us to describe the collector’s responsive chord.”
So, navigating the vicissitudes and vagaries of the contemporary art world and art market, taking account of the trends, investment opportunities, emerging artists, and the art world critics whose opinions count, all remain well and good; but the key to building a great collection is to begin by defining and recognising the importance of what you actually like, and want to surround yourself with.
“Exercising one’s personal taste – buying what you like – is its own reward; it is an exhilarating and self-defining activity,” says Westreich. “Passionate collectors are provoked by what’s in their minds and hearts. Much of the personal excitement they derive comes from ‘seeing’ an object that strikes a response deep inside them. In a flash, desire takes hold, and the object must be theirs."
So how do you figure this out?
Every art advisor we've ever met has had the same advice. Look hard, and look long, before you leap. And then look hard, and look long, again. Such an approach may help prevent simple errors, but learning about, and refining one’s taste, is not a one-time achievement; it’s an ongoing process.
"Over the years I have worked with many clients who feel overwhelmed by the idea of investing in art, not sure what to prioritize or whether to trust their own eye,' says Artspace MD Amanda Knuppel. "I believe that the best way to approach collecting is to consider your goals but not overthink your instincts. Buying something you feel a genuine connection with is always a strong start.
"At its core, art doesn’t just invite conversation, it engages in it — so ask yourself what kind of conversation you want to find yourself in. Are you excited to find your own piece of art history and collect legends like Helen Frankenthaler? Or perhaps serenity is in order courtesy of a work on paper by Despa Hondros. Are you looking to get lost in another world? Look for creative and complex paintings like those by Peter Barrickman. Or are you excited by ideas that challenge you to question the status quo, like this arresting photograph by Edward Burtynsky?
"If you answer questions like these honestly, you are sure to find a work that you’ll love to live with. And if you're still feeling cautious or like your favorite works are out of reach, remember to look at prints and multiples. Limited editions often present a great opportunity to access artwork by your dream artists at a less intimidating price — like this stunning piece by Loie Hollowell."
The idea, as New York Times Art co-chief art critic Roberta Smith says, is to never stop looking. “My main activity is looking, looking, and more looking,” she says. “I learn from everything I look at, good, bad or indifferent. You train your eye, build up a mental image bank, and constantly try to pinpoint why some things are convincing and others aren’t. When I look at a new work, my image bank goes into action.”
And when you’ve looked long enough to trust in your own personal taste, the time has come to buy because, according to Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington DC: “Buying provokes a more profound and considered engagement with art, and provides a deeper understanding of one’s taste and proclivities.”
But like those tastes and proclivities your taste in art is not something that has to remain static. So don't feel the need to stick to the same thing when buying for a second or third time. As your tastes change in fashion, music and food, so they can they change in the art you put on your walls.
"Remember that just like film, music, or fashion, your tastes may change over time and that is part of the journey: everything you learn along the way helps you to refine your unique point of view," says Amanda Knuppel.
“Missteps can occur at any time along the way," says Thea Westreich. "When they do, changes can be made; many collectors plausibly call this process ‘upgrading’ a collection. Taste is not something that should remain static, perpetually mired in whatever initial conception the collector may have of what she or he likes and finds beautiful. And it matters not whether that initial conception came about through gallery or museum visits or what a decorator brought in to place above the couch.
"The individuality that characterizes one’s choices and the conceptual thinking that coheres them, are among the qualities that can make collections especially admirable.”
And remember, even if you suspect that personal taste may appear less admirable to others take some reassurance in the words of Charles Baudelaire who asked us to remember that: “The beautiful is always strange. It always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and it is that touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality of Beauty.”
Or maybe - more succinctly - when it comes to your own personal taste and asserting it on the walls of your home, they’re wrong and you’re right. It’s time to put your personal taste into purchasing practice.