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Komal Shah on what she collects and why

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Komal Shah, a former engineer and executive of technology companies such as Oracle and Netscape, is now one of California’s most influential collectors. She sits on the board of directors of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and, along with her husband Gaurav Garg, has spent much of the past decade assembling an art collection of nearly 300 pieces. Largely devoted to modern and contemporary works by women artists, it includes pieces by Elizabeth Murray, Jennifer Bartlett, Laura Owens, Carol Bove, Carrie Moyer, Phyllida Barlow and Cecily Brown.

The couple regularly loan works to museums – their Yellow Quick-to-See Smith painting Escarpment (1987) currently hangs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the artist’s retrospective (see our preview p. 19). Many other works from their collections are brought together in Leaving Their Mark: The Art of Women in the Shah Garg Collectiona 432-page book published earlier this month by Gregory Miller & Co.

The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?

Komal Shah: A painting on paper by Rina Banerjee in 2011, titled It rained, so she rained. I saw it at my very first preview at Christie’s New York and was immediately drawn to it. It’s a beautiful and poignant painting, with a woman holding her tears in an upside-down umbrella. I was not registered to bid in the auction, but once the bidding started, I begged my friend to lift her paddle for me, which she did, very graciously! I still love the job to this day, and it also reminds me how lucky I am to have such good friends.

What was your last purchase?

A Trude Guermonprez wall hanging circa 1974. Trude had a busy career. After World War II, she left Europe to teach at Black Mountain College at the invitation of Anni Albers. After Black Mountain College closed, she moved to California and eventually taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, becoming the president of the handicrafts department. There she taught artists Kay Sekimachi and Barbara Kasten – I also collect the works of both – and left an indelible mark.

If your house was on fire, how much work would you save?

It’s difficult. by Joan Mitchell Untitled (1992), which is one of his last known paintings. It’s a reminder of how she portrayed the beauty and joy of sunflowers. The shots are powerful and confident. I see this painting as capturing her sense of freedom and strength to be her most authentic artistic me. The exuberance of this painting reminds me of the quote: “A flame burns brightest just before it goes out.”

If money weren’t an issue, what would your dream purchase be?

There are so many works on my dream list. The ultimate purchase would be the complete suite of paintings by Hilma af Klint. I would also love to have a work by Joan Mitchell from each decade, a large wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, and a painting by Lee Krasner from the 1960s in the vein of fight (1965).

What work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?

A relief from Lee Bontecou. I was the underbid six years ago and I still regret it today.

What is the most surprising place where you have exhibited a work?

I don’t know if it’s surprising, but we try to use every space in the house. The house was designed before our collection grew and matured, so over the years we have changed the house to accommodate more art. We replaced our fireplace with a neon painting by Mary Weatherford and enhanced the ceilings with an important work by Charles Gaines. Right now, every inch of the stairwell wall is covered in art.

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I was traveling back in time to the 1970s and having a loud party with powerful female artists. The founders of the AIR Gallery, like Howardena Pindell and Mary Grigoriadis, and Lynda Benglis and Louise Fishman, would be there. I would make sure Yellow Quick-to-See Smith and Kay WalkingStick and Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago were there too. It would be a truly amazing party!

What’s the best collection advice you’ve ever been given?

Collect what you love and believe in – you may never know how the market is going, but you can surround yourself with joy and wonder. Museum curators are an invaluable source of knowledge – support them and learn from them. And nothing beats the mileage – visit as many museums, biennales, art fairs and galleries as you can, to start developing your own vision for collecting.

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