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‘Allen Ruppersberg Sourcebook: Reanimating the 20th Century’ (image courtesy Independent Curators International)

In 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, which looked at the connection between the American photographer’s nine thousand postcard specimens and his own body of work. The conceptualist artist Allen Ruppersberg attended the show. It had a profound impact on him, as he himself collected postcards as a young boy.

“Artists, as we know, are notorious collectors, but you always wonder what came first, the chicken or the egg,” he writes in an introductory essay to a delightful new monograph, Allen Ruppersberg Sourcebook: Reanimating the 20th Century, published by Independent Curators International. “The Met’s exhibition went a long way in providing an answer to this magical question by, in this case, privileging collection over artwork.”

Sourcebook similarly follows the development of the artist’s own work through the objects he’s obsessively collected over the years. Divided into the categories “typewriter,” “gramophone,” and “film,” these include books, comic books, posters, album covers and scores of magazine clippings, which Ruppersberg guards at his family home in Cleveland in clear plastic sleeves and carefully labeled boxes.

The book specifically focuses on the ephemera central to nine projects created between 1978 and 2012. In a section about his installation No Time Left to Start Again (2012), readers can examine the photographs, sheet music, pop music album covers, and even Beatles-related newspaper clippings that inspired the project. “I collect not as a collector, but as an artist who finds things to use,” he told BOMB in 2009.

A collection of elephant figurines in the studio of Sir Peter Blake, featured in ‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector’ at the Barbican (photo by Hugo Glendinning, courtesy the Barbican)

The book’s examination of the link between creativity and collecting will continue in February, when Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector opens at the Barbican. The exhibit will explore the diverse and sometimes unusual collections that post-war and contemporary artists have amassed.

Most artists keep things because they are a reflection of the world around them – it might be books, printed images, objects or works by other artists – and these can serve as props, reference material, source of inspiration or talismans,” said Lydia Yee, who wrote the upcoming show’s companion book (to be released Feb. 1 by Prestel). Most famously, Picasso collected African masks. Le Corbusier accumulated shells, pinecones, pottery and glassware that inspired his architecture and became props for his still life paintings.

The list goes on. Barton Lidice Benes was obsessed with celebrity relics, and his art installations were filled with everything from Frank Sinatra’s nail clippings to Bill Clinton’s throat lozenges. Mark Dion spends hours in flea markets to unearth the curiosities he includes in his wunderkammers. And lest we forget Andy Warhol: the pop-culture curator kept a “Time Capsule” box beside his desk that he filled and sent to a storage facility monthly (the Warhol Museum is still unsealing them).

The ‘Picasso’ or ‘tower’ room of the Hamburg studio of Hanne Darboven, featured in ‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector’ at the Barbican (photo by Rainer Bollinger, courtesy the Barbican)

Of course, there isn’t always a clear connection between an artist’s collecting habits and work. While no one is surprised that Damien Hirst owns skulls and taxidermy, who would guess that photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has a penchant for 18th-century French and Japanese anatomy books? Or that British abstract painter Howard Hodkin is a devotee of paintings from India’s Mughal period?

It’s not always obvious from which direction inspiration enters, though we do know that collecting is a creative act, Yee said. From a very young age, it helps us explore, understand, and organize the world — whether it be through a bag of marbles or a box of rocks: “[It’s] something that artists are able to extend into adulthood, while most others tend to sublimate this impulse towards more rational ends.”

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...