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Figures of power: Steven Kossak's carefully curated collection of African and Oceanic art contains some extraordinarily resonant pieces. He talks to Apollo about his instinctive approach to collecting, and why the best objects are those which evoke an emotional response.

Three things vie for your attention as you walk in to Steven Kossak's Manhattan apartment. The first--in no particular order--is the sweeping panorama over the East River. The second is the astounding Indian and Southeast Asian stone sculpture, strategically placed to flame--or dissect--the two vast river views. The third surpise, perhaps because it was both so unexpected and large, was a cello lying on the sofa. I later learned it to be a venerable instrument by the great Venetian luthier Domenico Montagnana (1686-1750).

The last is more relevant than it might seem, for as we talk about collecting, it is invariably musical analogies that are used to make a particular point. 'For many years, music and art ran parallel in my life,' Mr Kossak tells me. Art, it seems, became the dominant force. Yet surveying this room, with its magnificent grand piano and several music stands at one end and the Montagnana at the other, one suspects, only just.

Mr Kossak belongs to that now almost extinct species in today's art world: the scholar-collector. When he left the Asian Art department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, he had forged a strong reputation as a curator and collector. In both, he is best known for what could be described as the sculpture of greater India--including Tibet, Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan--and Indian court and Himalayan painting. (There was a show of his Asian collection at the Met in 1984, two years before he joined the museum, and he and his family are significant donors.) This article, however, focuses on his far less-known holdings of African and Oceanic art.

As one might expect, Mr Kossak is clever, articulate and confident of his own eye, but he is also wildly enthusiastic--an instinctive rather than an intellectual collector. 'Part of what is instinct is an emotional response,' he begins by explaining. Certainly he could not be less dryly cerebral--or less interested in amassing a synoptic study collection. 'There was always that impulse to collect--as a child, it was stamps, rocks, butterflies, you name it,' he laughs. By high school, he had progressed to Old Master and modern prints and drawings. Does he come from a family of collectors? 'I come from a family in which ! collected for everyone,' he retorts, quick as a flash. (Revealingly, that first love was not forgotten, for one of his more recent acquisitions is one of the greatest and rarest impressions of a Rembrandt portrait etching.)


Then came Yale and art history. 'I studied mainly non-Western art,' he recollects. 'I had a fairly good familiarity with Western paintings, so I thought "why do that?". I can't remember if I studied any African art at the time, but I certainly did Indian and Southeast Asian sculpture and Indian painting. I did some graduate courses on Chinese painting too, but to this day I still find it somewhat inaccessible. It's not where my heart lies. It's very traditional, very intellectual and there's not a lot of emotional contact.' He pauses, before adding: 'I am more interested in things that have that emotional component out front.' A course in painting followed at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and then a doctorate in Indian art at Columbia. He had been interested in African art and had bought a few 'junky' pieces in Paris, but when he returned to New York he met, through a family friend, a woman who was collecting Indian painting. He was inspired to follow suit, acquiring, unusually, both sculpture and painting. It was through the Metropolitan Museum's then curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, Martin Lerner, who was also interested in African art, that he was introduced to the top tribal art dealers and began buying in earnest.

'I began collecting African [works] as I had Asian,' he says. 'I bought things that I found compelling, and they happened to be very good things. Most of them I still have. It was never the focus of my collecting activities--which were fairly large-scale but nevertheless over the last 30 years it has become quite a significant collection [his holdings of African art]. It is quite small--a couple of dozen pieces--plus the Oceanic component. Up until 10 years ago I had no Oceanic material at all except for Indonesian textiles--another niche collection.'

That all changed when an outstanding piece from Easter Island, an 18th-century male emaciated figure, or moai kavakava, came on the market. 'I had been very taken with the Easter Island material I had seen at the Louvre--it has a lot of character,' Mr Kossak explains. 'This figure came up and I thought the Met should buy it, but the curator, for reasons unknown to mankind, wasn't interested.'


Mr Kossak brings it in from its pedestal in the hall and places it on the glass table in the sitting room (Fig. 1). 'It is pre-contact, pre-Cook,' he states. 'You could argue that there are a few better ones, but it's up there in what is the best category of Easter Island figures. The early ones are pierced at the back and presumably were worn in some kind of ceremonial context. The good ones are all out of this kind of wood (toromiro--now extinct in the wild), and it hasn't been overly polished or overly patinated in any kind of way.' When I ask why the figure is emaciated, he declares himself 'not really interested in that aspect of things especially as no definitive answer exists'.

He continues: 'My taste tends towards the classical, towards the refined. Within African and Oceanic art there are things that are more classical and refined, and things that are less. The same is true in terms of greater Indian art. My response is always aesthetic and emotional.' Mr Kossak describes this effect as the 'blink phenomenon', adding, 'I see something and I generally know whether I want it. Whether or not I buy it is another matter. I would never buy something because it was interesting or because it filled a particular gap.'


I ask whether he is making a distinction between the good and the exceptional. 'It is partially that, although these things are to some extent subjective. I think that the exceptional part is not only to do with an object being intellectually exceptional, but also emotionally touching.' He elaborates this point with a musical analogy. 'It is the difference between playing music and being musical, and playing music and being technical. It's a big difference. Something may be technically perfect but it doesn't necessarily touch you.



'I find the Chinese tradition a little...' He pauses, and I suggest the word 'frigid'. He grins and claims he was trying to be tactful. 'The Indian tradition is very sensual, but African and what we used to call 'primitive' art tends to be somehow emotionally more to the gut. I find that very wonderful to live with.' He continues: 'A lot of the African and Oceanic things are in my bedroom. I don't find them difficult but I do find them very vital, and they touch me in a deep place. If an object is to touch me, it has to have an elemental power. My guess is that if I had to make a choice, I would go for the African and Oceanic. If I had to pare the entire collection right down, I would keep a few significant things from each area of the collection. Rather like composers, each one gives you different things.'

His first serious African acquisition was made in New York from the late Freddy Rolin, a Baule mask surmounted by two birds that had previously belonged to the actor--and distinguished collector--Edward G. Robinson. 'It is super-refined and I find it very beautiful, although it is a little less tough than the things I like these days. It's just a bit too pretty...' A Yombe white-faced mask of a chief followed (Fig. 6; top shelf), bought in London from dealers Lance and Bobbie Entwistle. 'It is a great thing, yet it was only the second or third African thing that I bought.'

Mr Kossak clearly has what might be described as a 'good eye'. 'It's like being musical,' he volunteers. 'You can't make someone musical. You can refine their musicality but it has to be there.'

He has always preferred to buy privately. 'Certainly in the last few years, the auction markets in the areas in which I have collected have become incredibly erratic. There is simply no logic as to why some very, very good pieces go within their estimate, and others go for 10 times more than what you could possibly conceive as a reasonable price. I am not by any means frozen into the deep, dark past in terms of prices. It's just like the Wild West out there.

'I think part of it is that a basic level of knowledge is necessary--and most people don't have any idea of what they're looking at (or listening to at a concert, for that matter). If you are looking at a field like African or Indian, you have to work out which objects represent the high points, and which traditionally have been considered the most important. You must also have a sense of the scale of the market and of what might become available. Only then can you buy intelligently. If you walk into an auction house and someone tells you that this is the greatest thing ever, you really have no idea how it fits into the bigger picture. That kind of approach has led to the volatility that we now see in the market, and which does not seem to be tied in to what we perceive as the accepted canon.


'A lot of people like buying at auction because they think it's a fair market as someone is bidding against you, but I think you can do much better buying privately. It is better to buy through someone whose honesty and judgment you trust, and who has a similar aesthetic--or at least is able to help you develop yours. In any of these fields, it is important to find the right set of dealers. It is rare that you go to a second-tier dealer and find a great thing--that's just not the way the market works,' he pauses--briefly. 'I used to spend a great deal of time and energy doing the rounds of the dealers, but these days I just deal with Entwistle. If one is able to be at the top of someone's list, it may be sufficient.'

Mr Kossak emphasises the importance of building a relationship with a trusted specialist. 'With antiquities and with African and Oceanic art, what is really important is to understand what a real surface is, and whether something has been overcleaned. This is so important, and yet you're not going to get this from a piece of scientific analysis. Hopefully one gets it from a reputable dealer.' He adds: 'Over the years I have bought some very wonderful musical instruments, and I have learnt that one has to be unbelievably cautious about how one reads and uses scientific information.' Later, we look at a tall and elegantly tapered pre-contact, 18th-century Maori whip sling. 'Talk abut surface!' he exclaims. 'This has a beautiful patina, and there are not many of this quality in private hands. It is strong but elegant, tough but refined...'

Another early tour de force is the kneeling Djenneke figure resting on a stool (Fig. 3). This delicate work has been carbon dated to the 14th century but may be even earlier. 'It is remarkable for its refinement,' states Mr Kossak, 'and the details of the textiles and scarification have survived in beautiful condition. If you look for 25 years, you probably wouldn't find another one.' He does not particularly seek out early pieces, but recognises that these works are closer to the 'primal impulse of form and feeling'.

He also insists that there are outstanding examples to be found that are not extremely pricey. 'It has to do with recognising that they are wonderful. One has to hone one's sensibilities and remember that the best dealers don't always have only the most expensive things.' To illustrate the point he singles out a refined little monkey mask from the Batwa people, pygmies from the Congo (Fig 6; top shelf). 'It's a real one-off kind of thing. It is full of something tender and touching.'



These days Mr Kossak is acquiring just one or two pieces a year. 'I have pulled back on collecting generally in the last few years, but that doesn't mean I won't swoop in and pick something up,' he states. Furthermore, not all acquisitions are of the expected. 'I never thought I would buy an ivory from the Lega tribe, which is a Congo tribe, for instance. Generally they are rather geometric and abstracted and not my taste, but I was shown this standing figure (Fig. 8). It's really fantastic, and I had to buy it because it speaks to me in such a strong way.' This figure, or iginga, has a monumentality and almost brute force belied by his small scale--a mere 16.5cm.

The ivory immediately brought to mind the wooden Fang reliquary figure from the Cameroon that we had looked at earlier (Fig. 2). Such figures were put on top of shrines, usually holding the bones of ancestors, in the belief that they deterred people from meddling with them, as well as symbolising the essence of the power of the person. 'To me it is this combination of tremendous power and a very beautiful and pleasing aesthetic that makes this an amazingly accomplished work of art. Look at the lines, the formal relationships--the line from the collar bone to the mouth, for example, or the way that the shoulder blades and buttocks are done...' I begin to recognise not only the underlying aesthetic that unifies this collection, but also that many of the finest figures assembled here are 'characters' with astonishing presence.

Naturalism is always preferred by this collector to abstraction. At times it is pure portraiture, as can be seen in the two examples of a female dance mask, or mwana pwo, from the Tshokwe tribe in Angola, (Fig. 7). This type of mask is believed to have been inspired by women of particular beauty. For Mr Kossak--and for me too, for that matter the jewel in the crown is the Ife terracotta head of a ruler, dating some time between the 12th and the 14th century (Fig. 5). Given its simall size (just under 13cm in height), it seems likely that it was once part of a full figure rather than an independent work. The extraordinary naturalism of these commemorative heads produced by the highly sophisticated Yoruba people in Nigeria may derive from their belief that the head was the repository of a person's essential nature. It is likely that these heads were done from life.

'It is just sublime,' enthuses Mr Kossak, hardly able to contain his excitement. 'There is something incredibly profound about it--and that quality of expression of being there. You feel the intensity of the gaze even when you are not the focus of it. I don't care that it's not perfect [the crown of the head is punctured by a hole]--it has got everything it needs.'

Although we look at other fine objects, there is a sense that the tour of the collection is over, and we soon return to the sitting room where he picks up the Montagnana and plays a few bars of Dvorak and Brahms. 'I gave up the Stradivarius I had because it was abstract in sound,' he explains. 'This is like a human voice.' The same analogy might be made with his tribal art.


Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.
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Author:Moore, Susan
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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