Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, at the Barbican Art Gallery

1883 magazine

The role of collectors and the act of collecting is hugely important to art history. From Hans Sloane's worldly objects which formed the foundations of the British Museum, Horace Walpole's rich and eccentric collection which he housed within the giant gothic display case of Strawberry Hill, and John Soane's fragments and pictures which can still be visited in the labyrinthine spaces of his house in Holborn.

The idea of the collection, however, doesn't need be so grand or important as those examples. My aunt's collection of jigsaws, my mate's vinyl archive, my own shelves of books all, in their own way, offer a small insight into the person who brought them together. Here, the Barbican are offering up private collections of selected artists to offer a glimpse into the aesthetic and creative inspiration of their own practice. The opening space starts well. A display of optics and anatomy belonging to Hiroshi Sugimoto neighbours Victorian display cases with taxidermy from the collection of Damien Hirst. I can picture these traditional museum cases dotted around Hirst's house or studio, full of ghoulish skulls, medical objects and stuffed animals.

But then I enter the next space dedicated to Sol le Witt. Black and white photographs hang on the wall either side of a fire surround and mirror. But this artifice of a residential location looks cheap and tacky, I don't believe the pretence. And it makes me wonder about the lovely cabinets the Hirst objects were housed in – were they part of his collection or were they chosen by the curator to present them within? This nagging feeling only grows as I delve deeper into the exhibition. It feels so overly curated, so precise in the arrangement of objects and yet so unnatural.

Collections are so often sprawling and unmanageable things. They can overwhelm and subsume the owner. They can happen almost accidentally – a piece of curio here, a holiday souvenir there, an unnoticed growth of interest and then, wham, your house can be full of trinkets. This seems even more to be the case for artists with magpie eyes curiously drawn to aesthetics, objects, histories and ideas. Which is why it is so disappointing that this exhibition is so tidy, organised and precious. Of the fourteen spaces, each given over to a separate artist, only two have any sense of busyness or obsessive collecting.

Hanne Darboven is one. She has pictures, a model aeroplane, a proud white horse, a life-size model of Charlie Chaplin, and on and on. But it so artfully arranged into clusters of objects there is no sense of clutter. Though there is visual noise and the eye can bounce around between disparate objects, there is little excitement within such contrived arrangements. Even Peter Blake's objects, which in the third Museum of Everythingwere so stimulating and vibrant, are displayed here in such a deliberate and sparsely ordered way that they lose romantic qualities.

I wondered why the curator chose these specific fourteen examples. Most artists collect to some extent, whether that be visual resources or objects, so why these? There is a total lack of context or explanation for either the reasoning behind the show or the decisions within it. The Barbican have produced a free app to run alongside, and it offers short sound-bites to support the work in the galleries but it seems a missed opportunity to really offer a new way to explore the subject. For some of the artists it also shows the collections in-situ highlighting how they live and work amongst such stimuli. They look so much richer and more intense than the rather dry arrangements in these large Barbican spaces.

The two most successful spaces are in fact ones which were curated by the artists. Pae West's collection of Vera Neumann patterned material appears more as an artist-led installation, hanging delicately from densely hung washing lines filling her space. Danh Vo's space is interesting too; he discovered the collection of kitsch and curios belonging to the deceased artist Martin Wong and after failing to find a museum who would house the trove he acquired it himself and it now sits as a work of art in its own right. Both these spaces felt less like they were designed by the curator of the exhibition and more that they were instigated by the artists, and both were richer for it.

It's true that within the show there are interesting specimens and objects, but they rarely act to offer any true insight into either the artist they represent or the role of collecting to the artistic process. The problem here is the curation. The artefacts are so carefully chosen, arranged and spread out that they seem less like a person's collection and more like supporting evidence for a curatorial idea that which has not been thought through. If there was some historical context to forefathers such as Sloane, Walpole or Freud, if there were the images featured in the app showing the homes and studios of the artists so visitors could relate the objects in the space to how they sat in the artist's environments, if there was more critical reflection and supporting evidence. If, if, if. As it is I left the Barbican without any real insight when I wanted to come away with a mind bristling with ideas and images as cluttered and multi-meaning as the collections from which extracts here were plucked.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Colletor is on at the Barbican Art Gallery, 12 February – 25 May