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What happens when artists step into buyers' shoes: New Barbican exhibition "Magnificent Obsessions" showcases curios owned by the likes of Warhol and Hirst

Cookie jars and seven-legged lambs invite us to consider how distinctive styles emerged from the building blocks of various visual languages

Lydia Yee, the outgoing Barbican Art Gallery curator who has organised “Magnificent Obsessions”, has been thinking for a while about contemporary artists who are avid collectors. “When I heard an artist had a collection, I made a mental note,” she says. Eighteen months ago, Yee began approaching the heirs and foundations of artists including Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Arman and Hanne Darboven for some of the significant objects they collected, as well as for the art they created.

Andy Warhol was as prolific a collector as he was an artist. Most of the rooms in his homes in New York were devoted to storing stuff. When many of his personal items were auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York after his death, the sales lasted ten days. So what did Yee, who starts as the Whitechapel Gallery’s chief curator this month, choose to convey Warhol’s deep love of things of all sorts? Cookie jars. On show will be jars shaped liked pigs, policemen and even a Puss in Boots, alongside the artist’s screenprints of things like clowns, spaceships and toys. The jars are “quite sculptural”, Yee says. “It probably goes back to his childhood,” which was relatively deprived.

Living artists such as Damien Hirst, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Peter Blake, Howard Hodgkin and Pae White also have an obsessive need to accumulate. Their collecting habits often began early. White fell in love with shiny things at the age of five. Now the largest part of her collection is of textiles by the designer Vera Neumann. The 3,000 scarves White owns are the kind her mother and grandmother once had, Yee says. Their design introduced White to Modernism.

For the young Damien Hirst, minerals (neatly stored in boxes) were must-haves. But the Barbican exhibition also forms a taster for the kinds of things Hirst collects today, ranging from taxidermy and surgical instruments to 18th- and 19th-century human skulls—some real, some artificial—which will also go on show in his new London gallery, which is due to open this summer. (Spoiler alert: among the oddities of nature Hirst owns is a seven-legged, two-bodied lamb.)

Peter Blake has collected many things. He is especially big on miniature figurines of elephants. On show are some of his old metal signs and screens as well as a natural curiosity (second spoiler alert: Blake has lent a lamb of his own, this one with six legs). His urge to collect is inherited, as the practice often is. Blake told Yee his collecting habits resemble those of his grandmother, who filled her tiny house with mincing machines and cocktail cabinets.

Howard Hodgkin is a collector-connoisseur whose Indian paintings are now on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He proudly comes from a family of collectors: one of his great-grandfathers formed collections of English pottery, early printed books and papers of the French diplomat and transvestite Chevalier D’Eon.

Whereas Hodgkin sets his sights on museum-quality items, the Mexican-born artist Dr Lakra is happiest when scouring Mexico City’s chácharas, vast flea markets near municipal dumps. The things that others have scavenged, such as record covers, are often the raw material or inspiration for his art. He is also a devotee of scrapbooks made by ordinary Mexicans in the 1940s and 1950s. For Dr Lakra, the more personal the scrapbook is, the more he wants it. “It’s a vernacular form of collecting,” Yee says.

The exhibition is supported by a range of foundations including the Institut Francais, the Danish Arts Foundation and the Henry Moore Foundation.

• Magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 12 February-25 May

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cookie jars, seven-legged lambs and other precious treasures'