Collector’s Eye: Amy and John Phelan

Art lovers tell us what they’ve bought and why

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Courtesy of The Phelan Art Collection

Courtesy of The Phelan Art Collection

When they first started collecting in 2001, John and Amy Phelan focused on Modern works, paintings and drawings by art historical heavyweights such as Picasso and Willem de Kooning. But with the acquisition of a Thomas Ruff nude photograph, their tastes broadened, and they began to seek out provocative, contemporary works. Over the past 20 years the Phelans have gone from buying works by long-dead artists to pieces primarily by artists who are working today.

Their collection, which is displayed in their homes in Aspen, Colorado, and Palm Beach, Florida, includes works by Andreas Gursky, Lisa Yuskavage, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer and Marilyn Minter, to name a few. And it continues to change and grow.

The art market titan Amy Cappellazzo once described the Phelan’s collection as “brave… a celebration of the sexual side of life with a sense of humour”.

While the couple is well known for supporting emerging artists, the Phelans also have a hand in making institutions more accessible. In 2008 they endowed the Aspen Art Museum, making sure that visitors could always come and appreciate its exhibitions without having to pay for admission. Every year before the museum’s ArtCrush gala, the couple host an exclusive, rollicking affair, WineCrush, that brings the art community together to celebrate the grape.

The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?

Amy Phelan: The first significant work we bought was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVI [1976]. It hung in our New York City apartment for years and is currently anchoring our living room in Palm Beach. It continues to hold a place of pride in our collection.

What was your most recent acquisition?

We recently purchased a Rita Ackermann from the Mama series from her most recent show with Hauser & Wirth [in Monaco, until 23 December]. I am a big fan and am excited to add this work to the collection. Also in 2021, we bought two Giuseppe Penone works from Marian Goodman Gallery: Leaves of Grass [2013], a large-scale fingerprint painting, and a carved marble tree sculpture from the same show. The exploration of nature in his work is exemplified in both.

If your house was on fire, which work would you save?

There is no way to answer this—I would die in the fire!

If money were no object, what would be your dream purchase?

Not to deflect, but there are just too many to choose from. If I had to it would probably be a work by Picasso or an early 1980s Jean-Michel Basquiat. We have his 1987 Untitled work and when it’s not on loan to a museum show, we love living with it in our home.

What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?

In the living room of our Aspen home we have a 2011 Walead Beshty mirrored floor. It covers the entire space. When the work is installed, the mirrors are pristine; over time they are meant to crack and change with the living in the house. The floor is constantly changing. It is amazing to see people’s reactions at parties when they realise what you can see in the floor—naughty and nice!

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

One of our favourite things to do is to socialise with the many artists we collect. It is a gift to be able to do so and we are honoured to have that opportunity often. We would love the chance to dine with some of the artists we collect who have passed: Picasso, Basquiat, Warhol, de Kooning, etc.

Nothing compares with the experience of being surprised by something amazing when you weren’t even looking
Amy Phelan

What’s the best collecting advice you’ve been given?

“Will it make the wall?”—if the answer is yes, then it is a work to seriously consider. Buy what you love, what you cannot stop thinking about and what you truly get enjoyment from.

What have you missed most during lockdown?

We really hunkered down during the pandemic. We have missed the opportunity to spend time with our friends in the art world—the dealers, the collectors and the artists who make it such an exciting and inspiring community.

We have also missed the moments of coming across something unexpected while exploring new exhibits and shows.

It has been very interesting to view art primarily online and everyone has really done the best they could to transition to these new digital platforms. But nothing quite compares with the experience of being surprised by something amazing when you weren’t even looking.

Have you bought an NFT?

NFTs are intriguing—but we have not bought one... yet.

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