David and Annette Raddock at home with artworks. Photo courtesy of David Raddock.

Personal Reflections on Collecting Contemporary Art

A Conversation with David M. Raddock

David and Annette Raddock at home with artworks. Photo courtesy of David Raddock.

When my visitors remind me that I have a ‘full house,’ they’re not talking about my hand in poker.

– David Raddock

Nearly every patch of wall in David and Annette Raddock’s house is lined with works by giants of modern and contemporary art—from Picasso and Zhang Daqian to Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, and Julie Mehretu. Over tea and cake, we chat about personal journeys, kismet, and living with art.

“I have collected for more than half a lifetime.” Dr. Raddock muses, gesturing towards the museum-worthy collection he has cultivated over the years. “These days, I tend to restrain myself and will buy a new piece only if it can replace another. Even as I get older, I must admit that my appetite for new art often thwarts any attempts at decluttering, or now, even downsizing.”

black and white photo of David Raddock and Liu Kuo-sung as young men sitting in front of artworks
David Raddock and Liu Kuo-sung. Photo courtesy of David Raddock.
calligraphy artwork on a wall in the Chinese Art area of the Asian Art gallery
Xu Bing, Chinese, born 1955, lives in the United States and China. No Man Is an Island. Ink on paper. Gift of David M. and Annette Raddock, 2018.680

What propels you to collect contemporary art?

Well, the plain answer is that, daily, I can stand before my favorite painting or sculpture in the intimacy of my home and savor it, with calm and excitement.

Another argument would be that most works continue to appreciate in value. But truthfully, these works provide an impetus for reaching beyond my comfort zone. They send me on visits to new gallery shows and museums like the Denver Art Museum, to meeting artists, and listening to talks. They constantly push me to broaden my perspective.

Could you talk about your first collecting experiences and what led you to it initially?

On my first overseas journey following graduation from college, I visited Hong Kong. At the time it was still a British colony. I was en route to Taiwan for further Chinese language study. Strolling through a downtown Tsimshatsui area, I unexpectedly spotted a tailor shop amid the hubbub of town. As I peered into the back room, I discovered traditional Chinese art, somewhat dog-eared, and apparently for sale.

As I wandered into the back room and peered in curiously, my eyes lit upon a Qing Dynasty landscape that showed scholar-gentry sipping wine in the foreground, writing poetry. This scroll was formalistic and stultified but sufficiently arcane to appeal to me at the time. It represented a facet of the culture that had first drawn me to the study of China’s history at Cornell University. The acquisition of this artwork, which was a rendering that I later discovered to be but a poorly put together copy, sold for less than fifty dollars. Admittedly, in that particular shop, perhaps I should have limited myself to being fitted for a custom-made suit!

Has this experience altered your collecting interests?

Well, strangely, this adventure sparked my interest in acquiring art. My ‘losing face,’ following admission of apparent ignorance, was not a deterrent but rather a challenge, a goad. I thought of myself as a ‘China hand’ and a budding collector. Perhaps somewhat naïve but inspired by the very idea of possessing a piece of history.

In 1963–4, at the National Taiwan University, I was introduced to a young Chinese painter from the military college. He specialized in abstract landscape paintings with inks and tissue paper, which he ripped to achieve his effects. He had even written a book on modern art. I thought that a knowledge of the Chinese terminology would help me understand visual art in general. Together, we read through the book, which was written entirely in Chinese. That young painter was Liu Kuo-sung, one of the fathers of modern ink art in China.

The Denver Art Museum is privileged to have several of Liu Kuo-sung’s important early works. Could you talk more about your relationship with Liu?

Well, that initial intellectual endeavor actually turned into a real friendship. By then, I was even poised to buy a second Chinese painting—this time, an example of Liu’s cutting-edge work.

When Liu Kuo-sung and the Fifth Moon Group, which he founded, had their first major show in Taipei, I summoned my energies as a would-be collector and writer. The cost of a painting by him was negotiated at an outlandishly low price (after all, I was also a friend!) Returning home in the Summer of 1964, I wanted to raise awareness for rising stars like my artist friend, and so I wrote an article on the nascent modern art movement in Taiwan for Arts Magazine. This was the start of a double-track avocation: that of writing about contemporary art for popular magazines and newspapers, and of collecting.

Though your journey as a collector started in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the collection itself definitely casts a global net.

Yes, my interest in the international dimension of art collecting is no accident. It is the fruit of lifelong travel, intellectual, and professional endeavors on the global stage. In fact, I found a shared love of art with the political and economic leaders with whom I interacted in Hong Kong and elsewhere. This contributed to a deeper mutual understanding that extended beyond pure business.

Still, the original focus on Chinese contemporary art holds strong.

Through the years, you’ve gifted many works to the Denver Art Museum. Could you speak about the Xu Bing calligraphy, now on view?

Some years ago, I was interested in acquiring Xu Bing’s work. In his lifetime, he has been globally recognized with an international professorship at Cornell University and the vice-presidency of the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA). He even received a MacArthur Fellowship. My interview with him occurred at a time when we were on an uncertain ride into a new millennium. He and I shared an idealized vision of the world in which we might all live in harmony. As he pointed out an example of his Square-Word Calligraphy, hanging on the studio wall, he explained that the seemingly Chinese characters in each square were actually English words when pronounced aloud. The squares were to be read top to bottom, each column from left to right. I then commissioned a work from Xu Bing that would metamorphose the opening paragraphs of John Donne’s epic sermon No Man is an Island, from English into Chinese. Each square in the columns would contain characters that comprise an English word when read aloud and in proper order.

Two weeks later, the calligraphic piece was delivered into my brownstone in Brooklyn. Several museums expressed interest in the piece, which now hangs in the Asian Art galleries at the Denver Art Museum. Although I find it difficult to part with the art I own, (maybe I have become a bit of a hoarder), I continue to donate artworks to museums where a larger and diverse public can enjoy them.