Suzanne and Eric Syz are based in Geneva, Switzerland, and have been collecting art for over 30 years. They started building their collection in the 1980s when they were living in New York, with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente and Andy Warhol. Today the Syz Collection comprises 300 works by more than 100 artists, including renowned names such as Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Elaine Sturtevant and Rosemarie Trockel. It is housed in the Syz Group Headquarters in Geneva to allow for an overarching view that stands as a vivid testimony to the diversity of contemporary art practices.
Hi Suzanne, thank you for participating in the exhibition. Of your collection of more than 300 works, you chose to feature Balaklava by Rosemarie Trockel and Warhol Flowers by Elaine Sturtevant. Why did you select these two works in particular?
Suzanne: These works are by two women artists that are very powerful, strong and dear to my heart, and they are also rich in insights that are as relevant now as they were years ago.
Since the 1980s, Rosemarie Trockel has been well known for her knitted wool paintings, which imitate the aesthetics of the abstract. Her works are inspired by Pop Art, Minimalism as well as modernist abstraction, and are also known for their social criticism and imitation of women’s techniques. She appropriates symbols that are usually connected to men’s culture but changes the context into one that is more decorative in order to question women's role in the world of art. Balaklava is undoubtedly the work that best encapsulates this.
The work is composed of 5 industrially-knitted wool caps with openings for eyes. The caps bear symbols of the swastika, Playboy bunny, plus and minus symbols, a wave motif inspired by Bridget Riley and finally the hammer and sickle. Initially made for winter sports protection, the balaklavas are now used by burglars or demonstrators to preserve anonymity. This is a very important work because of all the symbols that represent the change with the evolution of society.
As for Elaine Sturtevant, she is one of my favourites. She’s best known for her repetitions of the works of other artists which she recreates manually from memory after having seen a piece that intrigues her. Begun in 1964, Warhol’s Flowers was one of the earliest works in Sturtevant’s ouevre, made in the same year Warhol exhibited his silkscreen flowers at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. When Warhol was asked how he made the silkscreen works, he famously replied “Ask Elaine.” In fact, Warhol had actually given his original silkscreens to Sturtevant to produce her flowers, which now seem indistinguishable from his.
Sturtevant’s aim was not to achieve an exact replica, but rather to address notions of authenticity, authorship or originality. This would later come to the fore in our digital age characterised by endless circulation and recombination of images.
Apart from knowing Elaine Sturtevant, is it true that you knew Andy Warhol too?
Yes, absolutely! I had the chance to meet Andy after we were introduced by the gallerist Bruno Bischofberger, who was a mutual friend of ours. I arranged the meeting as I planned to do a portrait with Andy. When we first met, I was really impressed by the person that he was. I did the sitting with my son, because I thought it would be nice for him to have a picture of us together.
Andy called me a couple of weeks later asking me to come by and see the finished work. I was so excited. But while the paintings were beautiful, they were not me. I summoned all my courage to tell Andy that I am someone who is always laughing (and in his paintings, people usually have their lips closed), and since I would be giving the painting to my son as a gift, I would love for him to remember me as I am – someone funny, witty and not very serious. Andy looked at me and asked me what I would like, and I said “Well, I would like to be smiling, and for the background to be a little bit more gay and so on..” (laughs) And then I left.
A couple of weeks later, Andy called me again and I thought he must be so furious. He didn’t say a lot but when I came back he looked at me and he said, “Okay, now see. Do you like these?” and there were three beautiful paintings ready, all of me smiling, and I said, “Oh I love them!” Andy said, “Okay, I admire your courage. I never had a client telling me that they didn’t really like the stuff I did, so you can have them all.” I was really thrilled.