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Collector Spotlight: Robert Bills

Edited by MK Meador

As the owner of a gallery and proprietor of art, Robert Bills is figure firmly planted in the Chicago art scene.  With a brand new gallery on West Lake Street and a booth at this year’s NEXT art fair, Bills commitment to the arts and Chicago artists is well established. As a writer in the arts, I am always curious to see what makes it into a gallerist’s personal collection. I had the opportunity to visit the home of collector Robert Bills and preview his diverse collection. Bills is passionate about the work he has amassed and was kind enough to speak about a few important selections, among them a painting by John Copeland and an intriguing and blink-and-you-miss-it work by sculptor Susan Collis.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Gaieté Rochechouart: Nicolle, 1893. Photo: Ian Issitt

When and where did you get your start as an art collector?

I started collecting old master and twentieth century master prints nearly thirty years ago. I bought my first print from Stanley and Ursula Johnson at R.S. Johnson Fine Art. I have been good friends with the gallery ever since.

What, specifically, do you find intriguing about the prints by the old masters?

The best thing about master prints, I think, is that you can collect great works by well-known artists for a fraction of the cost of the same artists’ paintings. Also, being involved with old master prints requires you to develop connoisseurship. Old master prints can be pretty tricky. It is usually quite important to buy lifetime impressions. Identifying a lifetime impression frequently requires the use of a catalogue raisonnes. These can be pretty difficult to decipher in themselves. There are usually a number of editions with different states within an edition because copper plates are often reworked and/or added to after each printing, Characteristics such as the type of paper, watermarks, the ink, how good the impression is, inclusion or exclusion of type on the front or back of the print can all affect the value and rarity tremendously. Of course, one needs to be aware of the fakes and forgeries that abound in certain names.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2007. Photo: Ian Issitt

As for your background – how did you come to the decision to open the gallery and eventually, to collect art?

Becoming a gallerist probably emanates from a confluence of interests. I am a former trader. From that experience, I really have a pretty good understanding of markets and auctions. The affiliation with the Johnson gallery developed my interest and my eye through the years. Two other pursuits also helped me develop my artistic eye. I got a certificate in drawing from the School of the Art Institute continuing education department. I also have been an actor and director for some time now, although I have always pursued it sporadically. I took a plethora of acting classes and saw great teachers critique actors. Because of this, I really see what is going on with actors onstage. This “seeing” background helps me look carefully at contemporary work. When I look, I try to determine if an artist is putting themselves in the path of art history. Of course, this is very difficult to determine, but it seems I have some sense for it. Also, I have to like the work. It needs to be something I would put on my own walls. This requirement certainly prevents me from embracing any number of artists that might go on to do well. This said, I do think I am able to appreciate a pretty broad range of work. I had a number of great teachers at SAIC, including Barbara Cooper, Jackie Kazarian and Olivia Petrides. They get a lot of credit for exposing me to new ways of thinking about art.

Etching by Piranesi. Photo: Ian Issitt

Who, specifically have you collected over the past few years?

I currently have two important Piranesi etchings [On Right], a Durer woodcut, a Giacometti lithograph, a Gleizes stencil, a George Bellows boxing print, to name a few. In the contemporary arena, I have an Anish Kapoor etching, a Susan Collis sculpture, a Magadalena Abakanowicz sculpture and a John Copeland painting.

What qualities make your Piranesi etchings important – according to you?

The Piranesi etchings are important not only because they are superior images, but also because they are early states of lifetime impressions. This tends to make them rarer, as the artist may well know that he or she is not done working on the image and therefore may not run as many prints of an early state. Also, they allow the viewer a window into how the artist’s vision evolved over a number of states.

Susan Collis, As Good as it Gets, 2008. Photo: Ian Issitt


Do you have any favorites in your collection?

I am not able to name a favorite among the images I have sent you. I have always loved the Nicolle print by Toulouse-Lautrec. The subject’s attitude and the gifted treatment and use of materials by Toulouse-Lautrec really engage me. I like this print better than many of the color prints by the same artist. I love John Copeland’s work, because he found a way to make figurative work very relevant. You can really see the bone structure, etc. of the figures through the clothing and in their very abstractly-painted faces. You can also gauge their expressions and thoughts. There also seems to be something nefarious going on beneath the surface of most of his paintings. I love that edgy sort of thing. The Susan Collis sculpture [On Left] brings Trompe l’oeil into the twenty-first century. It looks as if someone simply took a painting off the wall and left the screw and anchor exposed. Upon further investigation the materials are found to be 18 carat white gold (hallmarked), white sapphire, turquoise, and onyx.

If there was one secret you could impart on young collectors, what would that be? Put another way, is there anything in particular that you would telling beginning collectors to look for?

Going back to the black and white versus color statement I made earlier–in terms of developing an eye, I think that an appreciation of black and white images first is a really good thing for a collector. It forces him or her to focus on characteristics that are more about how the image was made, why it is a good image, etc. Color is great and can be very intoxicating. Nevertheless, it can be dangerous for artists as well as those who appreciate art. I read some research in the New York Times a few years ago that concluded our eyes pick up color first when viewing. This suggests that one could go around choosing paintings or works on paper solely based on color scheme preference, without ever looking deeper into that artist or that period or school of art. I know of people like this that aren’t collectors. These are some of the reasons I think an introduction into black and white imagery first can be very valuable.

Robert Bills Gallery is located at 650 West Lake Street.

Collection Photography courtesy of New Bound Media.

John Copeland, Get in the corner Jesus