‘With all my stuff,’ Andy Warhol told his diary in 1983, just before moving house, ‘I could probably fill up the whole new building.’ In ‘Magnificent Obsessions’, you got just a glimpse of the pack rat’s treasure trove – some boxes and neat vitrines lurking in the corner of a warehouse-sized space within the Barbican – surrounded by a mighty haul of other stuff with similarly exulted artistic provenance, elegantly tamed into an attractive jumble of significant loot.
Some delights found in the sprawl: enough animals for several circuses, including stuffed lions and tigers; typewriters, an assortment of those once-chic ‘primitive’ African masks adored by the cubists; stones, bones, coins; an Indian print (c. 1605) depicting a palace hidden in a luscious jungle; nine monochrome snapshots of Sol LeWitt’s shoes, taken by the artist in 1980 (he favoured brogues); a quintet of devils; some grinning skulls; and many breeds of Mickey Mouse. There was also the peculiar decorative presence of Persian rugs here and there, possibly intended to soften the mausoleum-like vibe of the Barbican’s pristine chambers, which fuzzily implied you were, indeed, inside the home of a dandyish über-collector. Not so much a blockbuster art exhibition as an eccentric pan-demographic triumph, this was a show that sold itself on the sheer gleeful charm of its materials and the quasi-anthropological thrill of gawping at them. It’s a fun game to play, exploring these curious preoccupations in the margins of an artist’s work: it can throw surprising light on an oeuvre or illuminate some fascinating background.
Though the mood drifted perilously close to cute at times – look at all this vintage bric-à-brac! – the exhibition’s contents were consistently beguiling. Martin Parr hinted at the ancestry of his lurid scenes by supplying a bunch of anonymous photographs from the turn of the last of century that captured touching spectacles of deadpan strangeness, including a gawky family huddled on a snowdrift and a glum cherub in an ill-fitting flying ace costume. Elsewhere, Howard Hodgkin furnished a room with a bedazzling assortment of Indian paintings that exuded the magical air of serious treasures.
In the meagre Warhol room, his cookie jars revived their role as symbols of his legendarily sweet tooth and equally gluttonous pursuit of kitsch, though they have a startling import up close. For an artist that was possessed by a chronic death fixation, it’s fitting that they’re suggestive of burial urns, even the one in the shape of a duck sporting pince-nez. Similarly, the little kingdom of cartoon totems, toy boxes and trinkets collected by the late New York painter Martin Wong carried the sweet but funereal atmosphere of an eternal child’s bedroom. Jim Shaw’s contribution was wickedly confessional: the paintings he rescued from thrift store oblivion refract Picasso and Magritte through a brain on a bad trip. Shaw learned all his macabre tricks from these oddball works, like an orphan adopted by the carnival.
Trawling through ‘Magnificent Obsessions’ was much like exploring a luxurious remake of the flea markets beloved of the surrealists. The belief that wild assortments of junk might be a secret goldmine was one of their conceptual lightning bolts, whose heat is still felt. But if so much of the show was like delving into pop art’s unconscious to discover the surrealism at its heart, it also provided a more meditative experience. The temptation is, perhaps, to spin some quixotic biographical scenes out of this or that galaxy of objects – have fun with Hanne Darboven’s Mellotron – but a more mysterious proposition is in the air. As these things begin to outlive their collectors they acquire a power of their own, evoking memories, riddles and a sense of wonder quite apart from the identities of their owners. That’s one of the special properties of objects. There’s still plenty of dreaming left to do in their shadows.