‘The collection was part of him’ — George Michael and the art
Kenny Goss, the singer’s former partner, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, music journalist Miranda Sawyer, broadcaster Nick Grimshaw and photographer Mary McCartney discuss George Michael, the YBAs and the art that connected them
‘George Michael is one of the only artists who united people of any age,’ states Nick Grimshaw, the British radio and television presenter. ‘When you’re performing songs that are so honest, that’s when you connect with people. It’s that rawness, honesty and vulnerability… [George] was always true to himself in whatever he did.’
On 14 March The George Michael Collection will be offered in a live auction at Christie’s in London, with additional lots offered in a dedicated online sale (8-15 March). Proceeds from the sale will be used to continue the singer’s extraordinary philanthropic legacy.
In our film (above), the Radio 1 DJ is joined by Kenny Goss, the singer’s former partner; Miranda Sawyer, the journalist, author and cultural commentator; photographer Mary McCartney, whose work appears in The George Michael Collection; and the art critic and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon.
Together, they discuss the period in which YBA artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas and Jake and Dinos Chapman broke the mould, and produced the art that George Michael responded to and collected.
George Michael started collecting art after meeting artists such as Hirst, Emin, Quinn and Michael Craig-Martin, reveals Goss, the co-founder of the Goss-Michael Foundation. ‘The art collection was part of him. The YBAs’ openness and honesty about life, death and sex were a huge part of his world.’
He first became interested in Tracey Emin after reading about her and seeing her on British television. ‘George liked what she stood for,’ says Goss, who recalls their first encounter at the Ivy restaurant in London. Before long the British artist was travelling with them on tour. ‘She did a story for The Independent [newspaper], which came out on Valentine’s Day,’ explains the Texan, ‘hence the neon George Loves Kenny.’
George and Tracey had what Goss describes as an ‘outrageous relationship’ in which they would tease each other mercilessly. ‘She was one of the few people who could do that with George,’ he says. Emin’s Hurricane, above, was acquired by the singer in 2007, the year it was created, and was one of his favourite pieces.
‘If I was going to be very selective I would pick out the works by Tracey Emin,’ says Andrew Graham-Dixon, who knew and worked with the YBAs. ‘They seem very confessional and to talk about vulnerability. I wonder if they perhaps reflect something that George Michael himself shared as a group of feelings. They feel to me like very personal objects that meant a lot to the collector.’
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Michael Craig-Martin, who taught many of the YBA artists at Goldsmiths and has a number of works in the collection, including a portrait of George Michael, spoke of how they engaged ‘artist to artist’.
‘We talked about the problem of sustained creativity — how anyone can be creative for a short time, but sustaining that over a life is a big challenge,’ he explained. ‘There was clearly something in visual art he could identify with.’
In the same interview, Sue Webster, who is also well represented in the collection with collaborator Tim Noble, commented on the ‘sexual nature’ of many of the works George Michael bought. ‘But it’s all got two sides to it,’ she said, ‘a darkness and a light — and George’s music worked on many levels like that, so I can see the attraction.’
The singer-songwriter was drawn to the artists he collected because, says Goss, he admired their honesty. ‘He liked who they were as people. He related to them and he particularly loved the work.’ He was also keen to support them, along with other artists who emerged in their wake.
‘They were very competitive with each other,’ Graham-Dixon recalls of the YBAs. ‘But at the same time they were very supportive and generous to each other. Damien is perhaps the most competitive of the lot but also the most generous. He would always help another artist if they were trying to get an exhibition off the ground; he would use his own fame to bring others into the limelight. I was very struck by that and I think it’s probably something that really attracted George Michael.’
Another of the Grammy Award-winning artist’s most cherished works was Damien Hirst’s Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, which he was determined to buy even before visiting the artist in his studio.
Mary McCartney believes the collection is quintessentially George Michael in that it consists of art that’s impossible to ignore. ‘He was very impactful,’ she says of the man who had 15 number-one singles in Britain and America, and sold over 125 million records over the course of his career. ‘[The collection] shows a lot of his character; there are a lot of brave pieces with an opinion.’
‘Traditionally there’s a very strong connection between British pop and Brit art,’ comments Graham-Dixon. ‘When the YBAs first came to prominence they did so almost like rock stars.’
Miranda Sawyer remembers the 1990s as a time when pop stars and artists mingled at the same parties. ‘They had similar questions about contemporary life,’ she says. For Goss, getting to know the artists was one of the best things about living in London in the latter years of the decade and early 2000s. He says those same artists would often come to George Michael’s concerts and his parties.
‘It’s hard not to be influenced by George,’ states Grimshaw. ‘He is part of the fabric of music, his songs are so omnipresent. It’s hard to not hear a George Michael record when you go about your daily business, he’s sort of everywhere. I think that he’s definitely been one of the biggest musical influences of all time.’
A big part of the star’s charm, adds the broadcaster, was that he was ‘very true to himself in his songwriting. He considered himself a writer first rather than a pop star, which is really interesting.’
George Michael was never afraid of baring his soul in his music, and there was a similar unflinching honesty to the YBAs, whose impact was felt across Britain and beyond. ‘They had a knack of appealing to everybody,’ states Sawyer. ‘There was a democracy [to their work] without ever sacrificing quality. It opened us up to art as a nation.’
Andrew Graham-Dixon goes further, suggesting that Tate Modern would not have opened had it not been for the YBA generation. ‘They transformed British culture,’ he insists. Much as George Michael did with his music.
Order the souvenir catalogues and tote bag for The George Michael Collection. The collection is on view in a special multi-media exhibition at Christie's London (8 King Street, SW1Y 6QT) from 8-15 March. Admission is free of charge