He completed the collection – as you might a painting or a life’s work – with a crucial touch. ‘One particular gold weight represents the act of weighing gold itself. That seemed to be the key piece. I sort of half-knew where it was, and eventually I found it. So that was the end of that collection, and I wrote a book about it.’
Hodgkin, on the other hand, is inclined to emphasise the compulsive aspect of collecting more than its imagination. ‘It is true up to a point that it’s a creative act joining together disparate things. A great collection certainly has a character of its own. But it is accumulation. That can happen to anyone if they are unlucky enough to catch the disease.’ He has suggested, however, that collecting art provides a specific solace for artists. ‘A professional artist sells what he makes. Buying art fills the void that comes as each work leaves the studio.’
If artists have some particular reasons to collect, they perhaps also have an unusual insight into what collecting truly is. Hirst has defined it with a metaphor. ‘Collecting is stuff washed up on a beach somewhere and that somewhere is you. Then when you die, it all gets washed away again.’ This suggests that the fundamental connection between the items in any collection is the collector.
Lucian Freud once put this to me succinctly. ‘In the end, nothing goes with anything. It’s your taste that puts things together.’ Hirst agreed with that thought when I put it to him, but was less convinced by another of Freud’s dicta on the subject. Freud owned a number of works by Frank Auerbach – in addition to paintings and sculptures by Corot, Cézanne, Constable, Rodin and Degas, among others. But when I suggested he was an Auerbach collector, he was a little put out. In reply, he rephrased a remark by the American writer Djuna Barnes about her relationship with Thelma Wood: ‘I’m not a lesbian, I just love Thelma.’ Lucian echoed that: ‘I am not a collector, I just love Frank’s work.’ Hirst’s response on hearing Freud’s line was, ‘I think that’s good, but it’s not true, because that – loving something – could be all that it takes to make you a collector.’
Obviously, love for a certain kind of thing is likely to be a starting point. Writing in 1991, Hodgkin confessed that he started buying Indian paintings, ‘because I thought they were beautiful’. Subsequently, however, ‘after the wanting stage has passed, usually when large amounts of money have been spent on serious acquisitions, then you make a horrible discovery that a collection has a life of its own: it makes its own demands.’
Once the ‘design’ of the collection has formed in the collector’s mind, Hodgkin related, then things have to be bought out of ‘necessity as well as passion’. That, he concluded, was the most dangerous but also the most creative phase of collecting, involving the head as well as the heart and other ‘lower organs’.
Surely, this is the truth. Collecting is at once an obsessive compulsion and – at least potentially – a creative act. It is simultaneously an addictive disorder and, as the sculptor Richard Deacon RA recently put it, ‘a way of modelling the world’. You may accumulate works of art to hang on your walls – in Lucian Freud’s words – ‘to thicken your life’ and/or because you can’t stop yourself buying them.
Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation is at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.
Georg Baselitz: Farewell Bill is at the Gagosian Gallery, London until 29 March 2014.
Damien Hirst’s new gallery opens in London in Spring 2015.
Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.