When I was young, my grandparents’ art collection seemed to me a huge annoyance. The blinds were always drawn to protect the art from the sun, and when all the cousins came over there was a strict both-feet-on-the-ground-at-the-same time rule to avoid any art-child collisions. Tag between the 10 of us looked a lot like those Olympic speed walking races, and was about as much fun.
My grandparents started seriously collecting art in the 70s. By the time the grandchildren came along, they’d amassed a collection of modern and contemporary art that was tightly packed onto every wall and surface of their Buckhead bungalow. They always said they collected to live with their art, not to put it in storage somewhere as an “investment.” That was all well and good, but it made finding a backdrop for our yearly cousins musicals a challenge. Despite its varied color scheme, Judy Pfaff’s After Eight, which took up the main wall in their old living room, didn’t always provide the right mood. Les Misérables was always out of the question.
As the eldest of the Taylor grandchildren, I spent many a night sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, lured by the temptation of Eggo waffles, and happily pawned off by my exhausted parents. With a newer, shinier kid at home hogging the attention, I loved these overnight visits to their house, complete with swimming and whatever Disney princess movie I felt was à la mode.
The only issue was the Green Man. When bedtime rolled around, I’d retire to the guest bedroom, and that’s where he waited for me. Hanging across from the bed was a self-portrait by Rainer Fetting, one of the German Neo-Expressionists of the 80s, turned child-eating monster by my prepubescent mind. I imagined that the real Green Man would emerge from the closet or crawl out from under the bed to retrieve his portrait and dismember little girls. To get me even to consider sleep, my grandmother would have to come in, take the canvas off the wall, and turn it around so I didn’t have to look at Fetting’s green face.
As I got older, I began to appreciate my grandparents’ art collection. In high school, when I started making my own art, I’d show up at their new place—a chic condo overlooking the city—and wander around seeking inspiration. It was like my own private museum. I’d spend hours in front of my favorite piece—the giant Kiefer that hangs in their living room. An empty dress holds two planes against a backdrop of ash and ruin. Acquired and hung on my grandparents’ walls long before 2001, it feels even more haunting and poignant since the fall of the Twin Towers.
In college I began to study art history, and started to truly understand the significance of my grandparents’ collection. I’d call my mom after my Contemporary Art 1 lecture to double check which of the artists from the slideshows had works present at my brother’s briss.
Around that time I brought a boy home from college for the first time, I took him to my grandparents’ condo to see the view of Atlanta from their balcony 39 stories up. He was a total yuppie, who I wouldn’t openly admit to dating given my collegiate environment’s penchant for drum circles and my own affinity for longhaired men who dressed like lumberjacks. His confused eyes darted around the apartment, taking in the walls crowded with art, finally landing on a Mariko Mori photograph hanging over their dining room table. The piece features the artist in a bright yellow jumpsuit enclosed in a glass pod with the Shanghai skyline in the background.
Connor immediately started in on his love of Asian culture; he was taking Mandarin at school and intended to go into international business. As he won my grandparents over with stories of embarrassing Chinese pronunciation slip-ups, I focused on the crowd captured in the image. They gathered around Mori taking photographs of the spectacle on their smartphones and cameras. I felt a kinship with the artist; Connor’s visit had brought my family buzzing around me with comments and questions I couldn’t really answer. We broke up a few short weeks later.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been lucky enough to have my birthdays, holidays, fights, and childhood pageantry play out across a backdrop of fabulous modern art. Yet, one day my grandparents’ collection will most likely be auctioned off or housed in museum storage. The ultimate appraisal of their life’s passion will be measured in hammer prices and acquisition reports based on the value of the works’ size, color, and date. But it won’t take into account all of the memories that have etched themselves invisibly onto each surface.
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Burnaway’s bi-weekly news roundup includes the digital preservation of Joe Minter's African Village in America, a newly proposed Creative Economy Revitalization Act, and April Parker becoming Managing Director of Elsewhere in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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Burnaway takes a close look at El Lewis: Voyage to ATLantis, an exhibition by El Lewis on view at MINT in Atlanta.