Brett Levine: John, talk to me a little bit about how you began collecting work.
John Morton: I started about fifteen years ago, with prints mainly, I started out with what I call the “Old Masters”, but who are really Hockney, Serra and the like. But I am really more drawn to photography, so about six years ago I committed to totally collecting photography.
BL: Did you have a fine arts background before you began collecting?
JM: No, nothing at all. I think the interest in photography comes from my early love of the movies, television and magazines. I think perhaps it was a visual love of these types of images that led me to photography.
BL: Was there a point in time when you made a conscious decision to collect?
JM: Do you mean my very first piece…
BL: The very first piece, if you can remember it…
JM: Yes, it was 1982, at the Knoxville World’s Fair…
JM: …I ran into Peter Max, and he had a print.
BL: No way…
JM: I bought it, and he signed it, and that was the first piece.
BL: Do you still have it?
JM: I do, but I don’t show it.
BL: Why not?
JM: Well, I feel like I may have outgrown it…
BL and JM: (laughter)
BL: You know, Peter Max did the illustration for the Statue of Liberty restoration benefit, he worked on Yellow Submarine, and at the same point in time he seems to have suffered from this very much in the “serious” art world.
JM: I was familiar with his work. I had worked on a number of presidential campaigns, and Peter Max had done posters for both the Kennedy and McGovern campaigns, and I was very aware of his friendship with Warhol, and Rauschenberg.
BL: So once you had made the purchase, how did you proceed?
JM: I started to collect a range of works from local galleries. I remember a Christenberry print that was available, and lord knows why I didn’t buy it!
BL: Did you focus locally for a particular reason?
JM: At that point in time I wasn’t really traveling to collect works, so I was interested in works that were locally available. I also became interested in folk art, and I began acquiring works by Jimmie Lee Sudduth, and Mose T, and related works. I also had the opportunity to travel to their homes, which was something I could do reasonably easily. I am actually very proud of those works, particularly the older pieces.
BL: Did you make distinctions between folk art and fine art as your collection grew?
JM: I started to make more of those distinctions as I started to collect works. Particularly with the Hockney and Rauschenberg works initially, I started learning more about the artists and their editions.
BL: Were there particular resources you were relying on?
JM: I started buying more art books, and really it was just reading and reading and reading. Of course there was also the (Birmingham) Museum (of Art). It was a very valuable resource, but more from the perspective of looking at specific works and then doing additional readings. At that time, there wasn’t a specific person I was speaking to about the works that interested me.
BL: Were there other members of the local arts community that you were speaking with about collecting and your collections?
JM: To tell you the truth, I have been a member of the Collectors’ Circle at the Museum for about seven years, but prior to that there weren’t really any people I was discussing this with. I think one of the major people I was talking with at the time was Maralyn Wilson.
BL: John, one of the things that strikes me about your collection is that it is incredibly personal. It seems very educated, but it focuses on subject matters that interest you. You seem very unapologetic about this, and also very unabashed. You seem very unafraid to take risks…
JM: I think that art has to make a statement. With my photography, for example, the concept can at times be more important than the image itself. I’m very interested in what it is that the artist is trying to portray. Many people will comment on some of my collection being “ugly”, or they will remark that they couldn’t live with the image. When I look at these works I think about the reasons I bought them. That may sound strange, but an image that may seem ugly at face value may actually be beautiful when you understand what the artist is trying to say.
BL: It is fascinating that you say that, because many of your recent acquisitions deal with subtle comments on the human body. When you consider the Jen DeNike, or the Alison Brady, or the Walead Beshty, or the Malerie Marder, they all deal with representing the body in a challenging way. Is this a conscious area of focus for you at the moment?
JM: No, it’s probably not a conscious decision. It may be the individual concept behind each work, rather than the idea of the body as an overarching collecting theme. But it does seem to end up that way, doesn’t it?
BL: It does. (laughter)
JM: Maybe it’s unconscious, I don’t know.
BL: Do you actively think about the other works in your collection when you make an acquisition? Do you think about how it will relate to the other pieces?
JM: Only when I bring it in, and when I try to determine where it will go on the wall.
BL: Do you rotate your collection regularly?
JM: I try to. I try to ensure that one work doesn’t detract from another, although given my space it is getting more difficult to do that. I try to ensure that the images don’t clash because I want them to have the opportunity to convey their internal concepts that we were discussing a moment ago.
BL: Let’s talk a little more about the shift to photography. What prompted that?
JM: Well, as a I mentioned earlier, I love the history of photography, film, the moving image. As a result, I respond immediately to both the concept and the content of a photograph. I feel like it both engages my interest and provides an immediate engagement.
BL: I see…
JM: And of course people often regard photography as the art of the masses. I believe that it has the potential to engage a large audience, but to be something that is both immediate and complex.
BL: Yes, that’s true, and many people regard it as an artform that was long considered to be held in lower esteem than the fine arts.
JM: Yes, that’s true. But to me, all younger people are brought up on this style of imagery, whether it is photography, film, or video. Often, they don’t even look at paintings anymore. If they’re going to look at a painting, they look at it as a digital file online, or they look at a picture in a book. As a result, I believe that this type of imagery, whether in a book, on a video, or on your cellphone, is very indicative of where culture may be going. I could be wrong, but it seems even more pervasive today than we would have expected, and each new development seems to build, in some way, on photography.
BL: You’re probably right.
JM: I find with my own personal collection that people respond more to the photography in the collection than they do to the prints. So it may also be a way to get other people interested in the fine arts, and then they can proceed to consider something else. It’s a great entry point.
BL: But you came to photography in an entirely different way…
JM: That’s right.
BL: You made some of your earliest purchases at a point in time, the early 1980s, when we were considering what role painting might play in contemporary image making. Maybe the idea that you could switch to collecting photography, and find an immediate dialogue about the imagery, was something that was interesting to you?
BL: How many works are in your collection?
JM: There are probably 80 here, and then there are probably another forty in storage.
BL: Do you sell works from your collection?
JM: No, at least not yet. Even though there are works that I haven’t had up in a long time, I still feel a connection with them. Each work has a specific history, and a series of memories, so no, I could never sell them. Maybe I could in the future, I don’t know, but not right now.
BL: And yet many of the works you’ve purchased have also turned out to be really astute purchases. You seem very willing to take risks on artists who are at very early stages of their careers.
JM: Well, I have this discussion with other local collectors, and I understand, as we all do, that in a contemporary art economy these works certainly have value, but I have always tried to take an educated, but extremely personal, approach to my collection.
BL: What do you see as the biggest challenge as a collector?
JM: For me personally? Price. After coming back from Art Basel Miami Beach, even some of the younger artists, very early in their careers, are six thousand dollars for a very, very small work. It’s getting wild, and it is getting more difficult to acquire works.
BL: One of the things I like about your collection is that you take risks on works by people who may have built reputations in other creative disciplines. You have a work by Viggo Mortensen, for example, and he has a press, and is an actor, and also a photographer. You seem to be very willing to make these acquisitions, and to take risks on works by younger or emerging artists. Is this a conscious approach?
JM: Yes, I love seeing new works when artists are at earlier stages of their careers. They are willing to be more conceptual, they seem to take more risks, and I really respond to those works. They speak to me. For example, Carlin Wing is a young photographer who got the idea to shoot images of artworks held in corporate collections. Mine is an image of an iconic work by Nan Goldin, which itself is a priceless piece, in a room with boxes stacked in front of it. So here is a younger artist who is trying to build a body of works that are clearly situated by a well-conceived concept.
BL: Are there particular artists that you responded to early in their careers who ended up experiencing a success that you might not have anticipated when you purchased their works? And are there artists that you purchased prior to their experiencing widespread critical acclaim?
JM: Ryan McGinley is one, and Aaron Young is another. In the last two years Aaron Young’s works have really exploded, but that work is really early, and he hasn’t done much photography since then. He has primarily focused on video and sculpture since then. And Walead Beshty is another. In terms of prints, I purchased a Damian Hirst print, as well as Gary Hume, Rachel Whiteread, and Tracey Emin. Back in the 90s these artists were hot, but just starting to pop, and I liked their works, but I doubt now I could even afford them. I would like to think I had an eye, but I don’t know…
BL: You actually ended up with a collection of works by people we now regard as major artists, and on a certain level it is arguably the most comprehensive contemporary collection in Birmingham.
JM: Well, I was shocked that more people didn’t own these prints. It wasn’t like I had a special knack for collecting, and these works were all available.
BL: Were there works you hesitated to purchase that you now regret not acquiring?
JM: There are tons, like Loretta Lux, which I could have purchased right when her works first showed at Yossi Milo in New York. I just kept waiting, I don’t know why. And I really loved her works. Also, Alex Soth, and I really should have purchased his works when I had a chance. But I am not going to buy anything just because I think it will go up in value. I do look at cost, because I have a limited amount of money to spend, but I don’t really think about it as an investment, as I mentioned earlier.
BL: Do you like acquiring ongoing series of works by the same artists, or do you prefer getting representative work by an artist and then moving on to the next? How do you approach this issue?
JM: As I have become more of a collector, this has become an issue. I would love to collect artists in greater depth, but there are also so many artists whose works I would like to acquire. I have two works by Jen DeNike, but so far I haven’t really acquired any single artist in depth.
BL: Do you travel specifically to look at works, or how do you go about structuring the acquisition process?
JM: Many dealers send me JPEGs of works they think I might be interested in acquiring. Since I do have a collection now, I have been able to build a relationship with a number of galleries, and it helps to the extent that they take me more seriously as a collector. They also have a better understanding of the types of works I collect. They send me images and catalogues, but in many ways this is also easier because I collect photography. It’s very similar to the way you would experience a photograph in a magazine, so it is not that unsettling. Of course you have to deal with issues of scale, or the print quality, but it is certainly helpful. I think it is easier than doing this with sculpture or painting. For example, last year I bought eight pieces, and I couldn’t travel to New York eight times. I just don’t have time to do that.
BL: Does the relationship help?
JM: Well, I’m not that special of course, because they may send this information out to two thousand other people, but it is helpful.
BL: Do you deal directly with artists at times?
JM: Yes, I do, particularly younger artists. But some more established artists work this way too, like Viggo Mortensen, who I dealt with directly and, at the time, Aaron Young.
BL: Is it difficult as a collector when you consider the perceptions other collectors may have about your works?
JM: Yes, it can be. Sometimes people don’t necessarily like what I collect, and at times I get some very thought-provoking comments about my collection. I think people try to guide you as a collector. At times, I do think very carefully about what I acquire, and I do also think about the ways my collection might relate to the community.
JM: Well, I’ve been told I have one or two really great works, and the rest are a bit iffy…
BL: You seem to have two distinct series – one that is made up of classic contemporary prints, and another that is more experimentally based.
JM: I think you’re right, and the more experimental, more conceptual work is what interests me now. That, I think, is really the key. Buy works that you like, and have the belief and courage to take risks as a collector. In the end, it is the opportunity to live with the works, and to experience them, that really gives them value.