“I look for presence”

Interview with collector Gary Yeh

After visiting an Yves Klein retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, Gary Yeh developed an interest in contemporary art and has since then engaged more directly with the art community, not least by collecting art, which has become a personal diary to him. His collection reflects the path of his own life, thus evolving with every new footprint he sets. As an intensely personal collector, Gary Yeh looks for presence in every new work he adds to his collection, which serves as an expression of who he is at the given moment in time.

Name: Gary Yeh
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Started collecting in year: 2013 at age 17
Number of artworks in collection: 22
Name of collection: None
Instagram: @ArtDrunk

Gary Yeh in Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Room at the Hirshhorn Museum Washington D.C.

How did you become an art collector?
Growing up in a relatively modest household, I never imagined “art collecting” would be in my vocabulary. But I was inspired by the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel and set out to become a collector when I was still in high school. If they could get to know artists and put all their savings into acquiring work, I naively thought I could do the same. Of course, I had no real income at the time aside from odd jobs, but I certainly consider myself lucky for finding this passion so early in my life.

How would you describe yourself as an art collector?
I view art collecting as a personal diary. It is a way for me to express who I am at each moment a new piece is added to my collection. Undoubtedly, my tastes will change over time, but I see that as the beauty of an evolving art collection. I am excited to look back years from now and see a painting and remember exactly when I purchased it and why. Maybe one year I feel particularly meditative, which could be reflected in my collecting of minimalist works. Or another year, my life could be in shambles and I find solace in collages that put the pieces together. For those reasons, I would describe myself as an intensely personal collector. I care about each piece telling a story about who I am and reflecting my history.

Gary Yeh's very first piece was Adam Lister’s watercolor “The Son of Man” (2013).

What was the first artwork you purchased?
The first artwork I purchased was Adam Lister’s watercolor “The Son of Man” (2013), a take on Magritte’s painting of the same name. I had just taken my first art history class in high school, and the picture spoke to me with the digital take on a surrealist work.

What is the main motivation behind your collecting?
I am motivated by supporting emerging artists. The decision to become an artist full time is incredibly bold and admirable. I applaud artists for their utter belief in themselves to be the next great artist and their willingness to give up everything to achieve it. While I never aspired to be an artist, I appreciate what artists do to keep culture alive and to constantly challenge established norms. I am all in when it comes to supporting artists and their goals.

Describe your collection in three words.
Ambitious. Deliberate. Experimental.

Is there any particular type of art that appeals to you or anything that unites all the works in your collection?
I initially had an itch for Post-Internet Art. Most of my earliest memories coincided with the assimilation of digital technologies in modern society. Thus, I easily related to work that represented this period while maintaining tangibility through physical media of painting and sculpture. Currently, the majority of my collection reflects this digital society. I realized, however, that I didn’t want to pigeon-hole myself into one collecting category or “ism” because of so much good work elsewhere. That is one of the challenges now – I am ultimately buying whatever I love but figuring out the identity of my collection as a whole.

Loie Hollowell studio visit.

What considerations do you take into account before you buy a piece of art?
Do I love it? (And the less enjoyable consideration of “can I afford it?”)

What do you enjoy the most: The hunt associated with collecting art or the joy of ownership?
Definitely the hunt. Ownership is a dot on the timeline of getting to know an artist and their work. I enjoy visiting fairs, studios, and galleries – basically consuming as much art as I possibly can. Sorting through pictures afterwards can be a drag, but seeing so much art has helped me pick out the works that resonate with me more deeply than others. It takes dedication to sift through the haystack, but there is an instant feeling of recognition and joy once I come across the needle.

How important is it for you to meet the artist behind the artwork?
I hold dearest my relationships with artists. It is hard for me to find deeper meaning to an artwork if I do not know the artist personally. The constant dialogues I have with artists via text or Instagram make collecting a hundred times more fun and engaging. It is the crux of why I collect contemporary art rather than Old Masters.

Do you have a desire to have your collection shown?
Absolutely! Living near Washington, D.C. throughout grade school, I took for granted the free museums along the National Mall. Having access to quality work completely shaped my early appreciation for art. I am indebted to the collectors before me who saw value in giving back and making art available to the masses. I hope I too can show my collection in a public setting where others can be inspired by the art.

Gary Yeh
Gary Yeh

What are the wishes for the future of your collection? What would you like to see happen to it?
My ultimate dream is to take after Emily and Mitchell Rales with Glenstone and build my own museum. Heck, I already know I want Peter Zumthor to design it.

What work of art do you wish you owned if the price tag did not matter?
Gerhard Richter’s “Betty” (1988).

How do you know when you stand before a really great piece of art?
Admittedly, I cannot quite describe what it is like to be in front of a really great piece of art. I trust my gut. There might be an internal light. It might breathe. It might move you to tears. It just depends. But there is usually a quality to the work that distinguishes it from the others, even within the same body of work by the same artist. Generally, however, I look for presence. I want to experience a work that is living and evolving, not a simple inanimate object hooked flatly against a wall that serves as mere decoration.

Gary Yeh at Frieze NY 2016

What is the best advice you have given or been given in terms of art collecting?
I am still learning to appreciate this piece of advice, but a friend once told me: there are no mistakes in collecting. It is tough when you fall out of love with a piece not to think it was a mistake. I have already had this experience. But going back to the way I view collecting as a reflection of my personal journey, each piece was acquired for a reason. “Mistakes” have just as valid a history and place within a collection as homeruns.

About Gary Yeh
Gary Yeh currently manages ArtDrunk, an Instagram account with over 52k followers. He graduated from Duke University with a degree in art history and economics and served as a co-chair on the student advisory board of the Nasher Museum of Art.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/artdrunk/
Website: https://www.artdrunk.art