James Collins (Born in Northampton, UK in 1939) was a conceptual artist, photographer, painter and writer-critic. Moving to the USA at the age of 31 he frequently travelled back and forth between the countries until finally settling in his land of birth until his death in 2021.
His earliest work was as an art theorist and he found a home in the US wing of the conceptual art group Art & Language that was based around Joseph Kosuth and the Fox publication. He wrote a number of articles for the group and also a number of stand alone important artist’s books such as Revision and Prescription in 1971 but was criticised by some in the British wing, of the oft intolerant group, because of his commercial articles in art magazines. He exhibited in the important Narrative Art exhibition in Galerie Templon, Paris in 1979 and before that in Lucy Lippard’s 3,549,000 conceptual initiative in Buenos Aires.
In the mid 70s Collins created a number of very important conceptual art works usually referred to as Introduction Pieces – he accosted strangers in the street and asked them to take part in small, easy actions (such as showing him some treasured item in their possession or introducing two strangers to each other). Usually these works were accompanied by photographs by Collins or even a commercial produced strip of portraits if they could be persuaded to follow the artist to one of the photobooths usually found in London’s train stations and post offices. He also collected signed certificates by the participants indicating their agreement to be taking part in a work of art: sometimes those certificates were in themselves the artwork. These clearly conceptual works overlapped the artist’s increasing interest in photography.
He began to be better known as a photographer in the mid-1970s when a series of colour and b/w images of himself typically gazing at women – usually with a considered physical or abstracted gap between them – were exhibited giving the impression of alienation or even distrust between the figures. These works were often considered as part of an emerging movement concerned with inferred narrative in art called “Story Art” along with other artists such as Bill Beckley, Mac Adams and Peter Hutchinson. His later photographic career was even more concerned with erotica – with his hiring models to pose for him often with a mild sexual frisson.
His method of creation usually took the form of short Super 8 films from which he selected still images for display. In some installations (such as at Documenta 6) he showed still images alongside the films as installations.
Collin’s career continued with him creating many paintings in pastel or oils again of women (usually using photography or film as source material) but his seeming obsession with the female form and its sexuality became tired and even objectionable with the rise in feminist criticism of the “male gaze”. By 1988 as exhibitions began to be less frequent he regarded his career as being in the doldrums and while he continued to paint (mostly in pastels), he became something of a recluse with depression and other mental health issues. He continued to take photographs throughout his late career but the imagery was often his own painted works.
While the criticism of his pronounced “male gaze” is a fair one, Collins artistic practice is both historically and aesthetically important – some have suggested his post-modernist objectification of gender roles predates the work of Richard Prince and Jeff Koons and much of his mid-career and late photographic output may be seen as studies in gender psychology. His death in 2021 was sadly a lonely one.