Among Belgium’s many private collections, one of the most impressive is definitely Annick and Anton Herbert’s. Focused on minimal and conceptual art from 1968 to 1989, it is internationally respected and of a museum-like quality. Indeed, various institutions (Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum, Barcelona’s MACBA, Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz…) have already dedicated exhibitions to it. Since June 2013, the collection has also found a permanent dwelling in a former industrial building in Ghent, the city where the Herberts are based.
One of the reasons the Herbert Collection is so highly esteemed is that it does not run after bling bling big shots, as some other collections do, but focuses instead on thorough ensembles of specific artists. Besides the actual artworks, the Herberts also collect all the archive material around them, enabling a deeper understanding of the work. This focus on depth is a passion they share with scholar Lynda Morris, who has curated the exhibition Genuine Conceptualism at the Herbert Foundation. Morris is not only a walking encyclopaedia; she was also a first row witness to the lively art scene of the 60s and 70s—as immortalized in Film Script (1972) by David Lamelas, shown here—that included many gin-infused nights with Gilbert & George. In 1972, Morris set up the emblematic exhibition Books as Artwork in London’s Nigel Greenwood Gallery. Based on an earlier article of Germano Celant, Morris made a list and exhibition of 259 artist books, that was later expanded by art historian Benjamin H. Buchloh to 508 titles published between 1960-1974.
Installation view, Genuine Conceptualism, Herbert Foundation Ghent, 2014; Photo: Philippe De Gobert; Courtesy of the Herbert Foundation, Ghent
Books from that list, that are also featured in Morris’ accompanying, yet independent, eponymous publication Genuine Conceptualism, are displayed in the Ghent exhibition, including classics like Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Gilbert & George’s first publication Side by Side (1971). The books, from both Morris’ and the Herberts’ collections, are contextualized by works of the same artists. But there are also personal souvenirs, like postcards written by John Baldessari (next to the famous video Baldessari Sings LeWitt, 1972), letters of Sol LeWitt and Douglas Huebler, invitations, posters, and a glass Gilbert & George dedicated to Morris displayed next to Bollocks by the duo from the Herbert Collection. “These are not all works of art,” Morris admits, “but some of them bring you close to the mind and work of the artist. Museums often show big star pieces. They have huge archives but never show these. For me, these have the real meat.” Though the show mainly consists of archival material, it is not at all dry as some might unjustly fear. It gives a nice sense of the heydays of early conceptual art.
Installation view, Use Me, Herbert Foundation Ghent, 2014; Photo: Philippe De Gobert; Courtesy of the Herbert Foundation, Ghent
People who are more into the “real thing” should not worry however. On the upper floor, the Herbert Foundation presents the group show Use Me. The exhibition unites around forty works mostly made in the 80s (Thomas Schütte, Martin Kippenberger), in a way as a kind of follow-up to the show at the ground floor. Though the theme is rather vague, apparently a kind of a reaction to a changing Zeitgeist, the exhibition unites works by kindred artists that go surprisingly well together. From Paul McCarthy’s Painter (1995), a kind of gory instruction video on painting, to the carmine red sculpture Händler (2001) in which Katharina Fritsch playfully portrays a slick art dealer with a ponytail and a devilish hoof as a left foot. Works by Mike Kelley, Heimo Zobernig, Franz West, and others complete this portrait of a generation, leading to a colourful—in both the literal and figurative sense—whole.
The Herbert Collection is clearly set up for depth, not width. It is a witness of the couple’s passion for art: focused, without concessions, and with a desire to understand an entire body of work rather then an accumulation of spectacular one shots. It is, briefly said, an example of genuine collecting.
(Image on top: Installation view, Genuine Conceptualism, Herbert Foundation Ghent, 2014; Photo: Philippe De Gobert; Courtesy of the Herbert Foundation, Ghent)