The Contemporary Curator

For many years the Living Area has served as the one true document of the Sainsbury Collection. When the building was opened in 1978 this gallery contained the majority of the works in the Collection, now, with just over 400 works on show, the Living Area contains a third of the nearly 1,300 objects in the Collection. Though there have been redisplays, the Living Area has endured as a very particular statement of the Collection. It is characterised by non-Western work shown in cultural or geographical groupings. These groups of works are enlivened by a sprinkling of works by modern masters - the Picassos, Giacomettis, Moores and Bacons for which the Collection is deservedly renowned.

So how to make an exhibition to celebrate our 25th Birthday? The birthday really belongs to the building and all of the activities it houses, rather than the Sainsbury Collection which predates the building by 40 years. The impact that the SCVA and all its allied academic activities have had on the University, the region, the world, seemed to be a better book than exhibition - and so we made a catalogue to serve as the lasting record of our anniversary. But an exhibition was needed - we had to have something for people to see. The making of the 25 years exhibition became for us an opportunity to leave the Living Area undisturbed and, instead of making a show of the Greatest Hits variety, demonstrate the fluid nature of the Collection and how works that continue to be acquired, and some that have seldom been shown, shape our understanding of it.

There are 13 works by Francis Bacon in the Collection - but 22 by Philip Stevens. The Sainsburys have known Stevens for 10 years. They met through mutual acquaintance at a time when Stevens was teaching adult education classes in Dulwich and Sir Robert was involved with the acquisition of many of these works. For some years these have been in store and the Sainsbury Centre staff have, frankly, hardly known what to do with them. In so many ways they appear not to fit. They are about landscape, while the Sainsbury Collection is about the figure. They are about colour, where the Sainsbury Collection is about monotone, neutral greys, browns and blacks. They are about atmosphere while the Sainsbury Collection is about the formal, often very clean and clear delineation of volume in space.

But they do fit. They fit because Robert and Lisa bought them - the same base standard of individual taste still applies (no matter how surprising it might seem to be at first). They fit Lisa's passion for colour and the expressive gesture - represented in the Living Area by works by Bacon and Saura. We also have landscapes by Zabarov, Maussion, Caughlin and Hamish Fulton. The Philip Stevens works also fit within a body of abstract painting that can be used to illustrate a number of important points about the nature of the Sainsbury Collection.

Much of the modern painting in the Collection demonstrates the Sainsburys' engagement with painting in post-war Paris - the inclusion of works by artists such as Mübin, Maussion, Fautrier, Lanskoy, Tancredi and Michaux - little known in England - is one of the elements that distinguish the Collection.

These paintings have an ambiguous relationship with the Collection as defined by the Living Area. They were originally bought for the walls of the Sainsburys' country home, Bucklebury, and many were not given UEA numbers, and so not formally given to the University or incorporated into the Collection. They are, (with the notable exception of works by Michaux), not included in the three volume catalogue of the Collection (Steven Hooper ed.). They are however viewed as part of a collection, if not the UEA Collection, and are recorded as the Sainsbury Abstract Collection. They have also been the subject of temporary exhibitions such as: Painting in Post-war Paris, shown in 1994. They are housed in the building and not only in store - they are almost on view, tantalisingly semi-displayed but largely concealed, in the 'Compact Store' of the Reserve Collection.

For the 25th Anniversary exhibition we began by aiming to illustrate the Sainsburys', and now Lisa Sainsbury's, continuing relationships with living artists and the impact of the recent Japanese acquisitions. But in doing so we entered an interesting territory at the fringes of the Collection, of works that are changing in status, moving towards a more thorough incorporation into the whole. Rather than put the Stevens paintings into the 'too hard basket' of curatorial concern, by displaying the works we start to understand the seams of interest, not on show in the Living Area, that run through the Collection. I have begun to appreciate the extent to which the body of work included in the Collection (and so my understanding of what the Sainsbury Collection IS) continues to change.

The Collection includes 60 works by Orhon Mubin, but these are part of the Sainsbury Abstract Collection and so that would explain their slightly unsure status, but we have 53 works by Yuri Kuper, 35 works by Charles Maussion, 24 works by Boris Zaborov - all of them belonging to UEA and none represented in the Living Area. However, these works are conserved, shown as special exhibitions and displayed in the Reserve Collection. Most importantly, they consistently capture the imagination of our visitors. On a smaller scale there are works on paper in the Collection by Christo, César, and Music (23). Again, none of these are shown in the context of the non-western work of the Living Area. Interestingly, the Living Area has been occasionally updated with new non-Western acquisitions but the huge body of modern work is not so fully represented within that gallery.

Amanda Geitner | May 2003