Interior Designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg Take a Heartfelt Approach to Collecting Art

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Art Market

Maxwell Rabb

Portrait of Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu with the Gao Brothers’s Miss Mao No. 1 (2006). Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

One afternoon last fall, while en route to their Tribeca office, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg stopped by the gallery 125 Newbury. The life partners were drawn by the gallery’s Peter Hujar exhibition “Echoes,” featuring images of queer life in New York City spanning from the Stonewall riots in the 1970s and through the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. At first unfamiliar with the artist, the two quickly became avid collectors and advocates of his work.

“That period is very interesting,” Yabu told Artsy from their home in Toronto. “I just want to emphasize that the New York life in the West—the piers and the gay [community], the pact with the local police that they don’t touch them if they’re having assignations on the piers—and it was very a dangerous time…it was a very unique time that was documented by the ‘Peters’ of the world.”

Gao Brothers, Miss Mao No. 1, 2006. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

The duo’s engagement with the artist mirrors their approach to collecting, which is driven primarily by gut instinct and personal attachment. “When we collect, it’s so personal that there’s no strategy at all,” Yabu said. “You have to go by your gut, and you must be somewhat fearless,” Pushelberg added, speaking from New York, where they maintain an apartment in the West Village.

Yabu and Pushelberg first crossed paths while studying design at Ryerson University in Toronto. Drifting apart only to reunite professionally in the late 1970s, the partners founded their eponymous design firm in 1980, which counts the Four Seasons and Louis Vuitton among its clients. Along the way, they have steadily built a collection that features works by Anish Kapoor, Wolfgang Tillmans, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and a four-foot-high bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama.

Portrait of Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu with Anish Kapoor’s Circular Lacquer Dish (Black), 2004. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

As their collection has grown, Yabu and Pushelberg have maintained a penchant for personally evocative work—the heart of the design duo’s impressive collection. “It didn’t start with an intent of collecting, [or] putting a personal collection together, but it became very personal,” Yabu said. Another thread is in works that are tied to memories and stages of their lives. “We started collecting work that reminded us of our youth, so we did that, and that was a trend for a while,” Pushelberg said. Their affinity for the works of photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus, for example, stems from their university days in the 1970s.

A formative moment for the couple came when they were serendipitously hired to design a space for fellow Canadian and seasoned art collector Bruce Bailey, who then introduced Yabu and Pushelberg to the nuances of purchasing art. He pointed the collectors to work by Canadian artists, such as four works from John Massey’s “Modern Waiting Area” series from 1997–99, which they acquired from Olga Korper Gallery in 1999. “When you’re young, and you’re curious about art, but you don’t know anything about it, it’s always good to have a mentor, somebody that can show you things so that you start to get your feet wet and you start to feel what you what responds to you,” said Pushelberg.

Marcel Dzama, My Pawn has Become a Queen, 2021. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Tokyo Comedy, c. 1995–97. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

This same resonance drew them to Hujar’s work during their visit to 125 Newbury when they purchased Gary Schneider in Contortion I and Gary Schneider in Contortion II (both 1979). The impact of Hujar’s photography, which vividly captures critical social movements—particularly those related to the LGBTQ+ community and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s—inspired the duo to continue working with the artist’s oeuvre. Currently, they are collaborating with the Art Gallery of Ontario to expand their collection of his works.

In fact, Yabu and Pushelberg frequently feel happy to loan out their art—whether to institutions, friends, or their workspaces (which contain gallery spaces)—to increase accessibility to works in their private collection. “Art is for sharing and exposing it, not for hiding it and burying it, because there’s a lot of that on Earth,” said Pushelberg. “We do put our art in all of our studios, in our homes, actually with some of our relatives’ homes just so that it’s on a wall that people can be exposed to it.”

L–R: Installation view, Yoshitomo Nara, Pee and Pee “Dead of Night,” both 2001. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

Installation view, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Joe (2082), 2005–06. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

Currently, two Yoshitomo Nara works owned by the couple, Pee and Pee “Dead of Night” (both 2001)—which they purchased from Tokyo’s Tomio Koyama Gallery in 2002—are on loan to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao for its retrospective of the artist on view through November. The couple also actively partners with other organizations or institutions to help expand the accessibility of art. For instance, Yabu and Pushelberg are working with the charity RX Art, where they have commissioned Canadian artist Marcel Dzama—whose My Pawn has Become a Queen (2021) lives in the couple’s New York apartment—to do a mural for an AIDS hospice in Canada called Casey House.

One recent artist who has particularly captured Yabu and Pushelberg’s interests is Ooloosie Saila, an emerging Inuit artist whose work was recently featured in the 60th Venice Biennale, “Foreigners Everywhere.” Their connection with Saila’s art began with a chance acquisition of Isolated Iceberg (2018) at the Art with Heart charity auction in Canada in 2019. Intrigued by her compelling story and the struggles of Indigenous artists, as highlighted by a 2019 New York Times article, they purchased more of her works.

Installation view, Thomas Ruff, W.H.S. 10, 2001. Courtesy of Yabu Pushelberg.

Motivated by a desire to support and showcase her talents, they are considering a collaboration that could provide Saila with a platform in their Tribeca studio gallery space. It’s typical for both Yabu and Pushelberg to dive into the history of an artist’s life, driven to learn as much as possible. The couple intends to visit Cape Dorset, Intuit land above the Hudson Bay, to learn more about Saila and the region’s Indigenous artists.

With an instinct refined by decades of design experience, Yabu and Pushelberg eschew a formal collecting strategy for a philosophy that art engages, touches, and provokes conversation. This approach, ingrained in their work as designers, ensures that each work they purchase is not only visually captivating, but also a living part of the spaces they occupy. “We’re not investors in art, we just buy what we love; some art has a lot of value, some doesn’t, but that doesn’t matter to us,” said Pushelberg. “Art is so important—it informs our society, tells us where we’re going, and that’s the only thing that gives some people some sense of stability,” Yabu added.

Maxwell Rabb

Maxwell Rabb is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

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