When it comes to art from the second half of the 20th century, few collections match the excellence of that built up by the Belgian couple Anton and Annick Herbert. Anton sadly passed away on 7 December 2021, aged 83.
The Herberts were renowned collectors of Minimalist and Conceptual art, as well as work from what might be called affiliate movements, such as Arte Povera, and a 1980s generation that included Jan Vercruysse, Thomas Schütte and others. John Baldessari, Marcel Broodthaers, Donald Judd, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Luciano Fabro and Mario Merz were among the artists that the couple collected — and, crucially, knew.
‘One of the things that made the Herberts special was the personal contact they had with artists,’ says Laura Hanssens, art director of the Herbert Foundation. ‘In their focus on contemporary work, they liked to get to know artists and find out what made them tick, before purchasing any of their art. The result was a longstanding commitment to a core group of figures.’
The Herberts restricted their collection to 45 artists, but tended to have in-depth holdings by each one, with the majority of the works made between 1968 and 1989 (a period when Conceptualism and Minimalism thrived).
The fact that almost all 45 are considered big names today confirms how sharp the Herberts’ collecting instincts were — and how much they helped shape artistic trends.
Anton’s father, Tony, had also been a keen collector, specialising in Flemish Expressionism. On his death in 1959, however, Anton had little interest in following his footsteps.
It wasn’t until a decade or so later that the young man and his wife Annick set out on their own collecting journey. By attending major exhibitions such as Documenta, and conversing with cutting-edge dealers such as Konrad Fischer and Fernand Spillemaeckers, they came to know — and love — art of a radical new type.
‘In three or four months, we completely changed our way of seeing, which until then had been fairly bourgeois and local,’ Anton recalled in later life. In 1973 the Herberts purchased their first works — among them 64 Lead Square by Carl Andre, which they acquired via Fischer.
Anton said that he and Annick had been ‘prepared by the spirit of 1968’, and it’s no coincidence that their collection’s earliest works date from that year, which was one of political protest and countercultural resistance among the world’s youth. This was matched artistically by an ethos that was anti-object, anti-commodity and anti-material, and wholly in favour of the creative idea or act.
The aim of this new, conceptual approach was — as the American artist Robert Smithson put it — to escape the ‘cultural confinement’ of the past and redirect artistic attention away from the object and out into the world.
‘[This] was not about possession of works, but a way of participating in a social structure’ — Anton Herbert
A close-knit group of avant-garde artists, writers, critics and gallerists participated in this venture — as did a handful of collectors, the Herberts being the most notable among them. ‘[This] was not about possession of works,’ Anton explained, ‘but a way of participating in a social structure… We didn’t collect artworks but a new way of thinking. The works were an expression of what was happening.’
Very quickly, collecting took over the couple’s lives. Their home in Ghent had to be arranged according to the size of their purchases — to the point where, in the 1980s, they moved into an old industrial building in order to continue living with their art.
The collection is marked by cerebral pieces whose minimal form often prompts the viewer to envisage the extension of the work into the surrounding space. It includes a number of sculptures from Sol LeWitt’s ‘Incomplete Open Cubes’ series, for example, in which the artist produced only part of each implied cubic structure, leaving the viewer to complete it in his or her mind.
As the years passed, the Herberts followed the evolution of this type of art, even as its conceptual nature came to be subverted by younger artists, such as Martin Kippenberger. The collection includes the puckish German’s Documenta Laterne, one of his sculptures of street lamps bent so out of shape that the lantern almost touches the floor.
In the late 1990s, however, the Herberts took the decision that 1989 would make an apt end-date for their collection. In part this was because the fall of the Berlin Wall that year seemed to mark the end of an era. It was also because the couple wished to focus as far as possible on their own epoch — and, in their view, this didn’t extend beyond the generation of artists that flourished in the late 1980s (when Anton turned 50).
‘We were preoccupied… with our own generation,’ said Anton. ‘Nothing else mattered.’
The Herberts purchased their final work in 2006. Five years later, they offered 35 pieces from their collection at Christie’s, using the proceeds to help set up the Herbert Foundation in Ghent. This opened its doors to the public in 2013 and today serves as an exhibition space, archive and research centre for the collection.
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‘Anton was involved in every aspect of the foundation until his final day,’ says Hanssens. ‘Every exhibition, every publication. He never liked to be a chairman who chaired from a distance.
‘His view of art was always a very distinct one. It was never about decoration or financial investment. It was about being part of a nexus of which the artist was always centre.’