On view now is Mizusashi: Japanese Water Jars from the Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz Collection. Boston-based Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz have one of the finest collections of Japanese ceramics in the U.S., and have lent a selection of their works to museums across the country. In February they were in Honolulu to see the exhibition here, and talked about the art of collecting art.

When did you begin collecting art?
Jeffrey: I was supposedly working on my doctorate in the department of psychology at UCLA in 1972. Somehow I fell into selling [Victor] Vasarely posters on the side to make some extra money. I bought a big chunk of them cheaply and was selling them through a small ad in the Los Angeles Times classified section. That business grew, and effectively by 1974 I actually had an art business. At that time I also had a choice, because now I had a full-time art business and a full-time graduate career—something had to give. I picked, with some regret at the moment, being an art dealer.

So I became an art dealer in Los Angeles, and by 1976 I had a public gallery that dealt with modern and contemporary art, which is what I know best. Years later my family had a few businesses they were operating that appeared to require some more family involvement for management, and in 1980, after about six months of thinking about it, I closed the gallery and moved to southeast Florida.

I tried to stay involved with the art market by doing deals remotely, but it was purely for financial reasons, so I wasn’t physically having any contact with the art or the clients. It was less interesting, but through that I ended up with a pretty decent collection of significant 20th century art that included a major [Georges] Braque still life, a big Franz Kline, and a Morris Louis that ended up in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

At that point I thought it would be more fun to be on the “buy” side instead of the “sell” side. I asked around and after eliminating a few genres I decided to collect Old Master drawings, specifically French and Italian. Eventually I sold and donated the Italian drawing collection—about 165 drawings—at Sotheby’s New York. What was coincident about it is that in the same month of the sale of that collection, Carol and I started collecting Japanese ceramics—despite the clear, rational behavior of just letting it go.

Carol: I had previous experience with Japanese ceramics. I used to collect antiquities, but I became afraid because of the provenance issue. I stumbled across Japanese ceramics as I was going past a dealer’s window. She was on the ground level in New York so I could see the pieces. Then they had a show at the Japan Society and in Boston, so I decided that I could collect this. The idea of being able to actually meet the artists, especially since we had previously collected Old Masters, breathed new life into collecting. I began by buying one-off pieces and giving them as gifts [to Jeffrey], and that’s how we got started.

What do you look for when adding pieces to your Japanese ceramics collection?
Jeffrey: When we started collecting in 2008, we had a very specific mission statement—the works would be ceramics that were clearly Japanese, they would be clearly modern in some way, and they would need to be museum quality and museum displayable. Just as important is what we don’t look for—we do not, for the moment, collect what I call the “kitsch aesthetic arm” of Japanese contemporary, best evidenced by [Haruki] Murakami.

We look for objects that are rooted in tradition in some way, and relates to my art history hypothesis that—with one exception—all art is either a continuation of the past, or a rejection of it. The exception being Duchamp’s Fountain, which is just orthogonal to all of art history. 

You will see in these works a relationship to the past in some way, even if it’s to reject it somehow. In Japan, it’s almost never fully rejected there’s almost always some element of tradition that flows into the object.

Now we have about 800 pieces. It’s like having two gerbils—you start with two, then you have four…

When you collect works, do you go through galleries, or visit artists in their studios?
Jeffrey: Every other year we go to Japan with a small group of collectors to see the artists. It’s a great pleasure to do that. They’re not always very receptive at first, because there are lots of other groups that do these visits, but our group has the lion’s share of the most active collectors of this material. Once we get there, and they realize that we know what we’re looking at, they become more welcoming.

What we’re doing is different from most collectors in that our collecting has a public purpose, and word about that has spread throughout the artist community. They know that their work is not going to just end up at somebody’s house, its primary purpose is for public consumption, and to give the artist exposure to an international audience that they otherwise might not have had.

In Japan they’re often very cautious with buying and collecting.

Carol: The first time we went, the artists were reluctant to meet with us. They saw us as another “tour group.” Now they’ll work for two years knowing that we’re coming and bring out all their prime pieces.

Horvitz 2

Four of the water jars on view in ‘Mizusashi’

As you said, many collectors acquire works for their own homes, what is behind your philosophy of acquiring works for the purpose of public consumption?
Carol: I wouldn’t collect unless we had museums to lend to. That’s why I love connecting with new museums.

Jeffrey: We’re crazy. This is expensive, and a lot of work, but it’s fun for us to do it.