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Obituary: Thomas Frangenberg


The Renaissance art historian and collector of contemporary art Thomas Frangenberg died on 12 March at the age of 60. After studying art history, archaeology and early Christian archaeology at the University of Bonn, he received his PhD from the University of Cologne. He had also had an association with the Warburg Institute with a Yates Fellowship there in the year 1989/90 just prior to his appointment as a lecturer at the University of Leicester between 1990 and 2017, latterly as a Reader in Art History since 2008. Widely published, he was an authority on Italian, French and German writings on art, architecture and perspective from the 16th and 17th centuries, although his interests were always moving in focus – more recently 18th-century art history in Moravia and the 19th-century Romanian painter Theodor Aman came under scrutiny. Similarly his teaching at Leicester encompassed modules from ‘Sculpture by Michelangelo and his Contemporaries’ to ‘Conceptual Art and its Aftermath in Britain’.

He was a generous and active participant in the London contemporary art world for 30 years. That module on conceptual art described his passion as a collector and a writer on contemporary art that was immediately apparent on first meeting him (I first met him at an opening after-party at Milch Gallery in 1992), but also was the environment he lived in at home where virtually every surface was covered by art or books (there was also a collection of Bakelite – now with the Science Museum). His collection – which at the time of his death approached more than 600 works – was not the result of any predetermined plan to collect a particular kind of work or tendency, but was instead the natural result of an enquiring mind interested in the ruptures and continuities of history and an interest in the perspectives of text-based conceptual work (but not exclusively so); one of his early purchases as a student in Cologne in the late 1970s was a work by Hanne Darboven. For him, conceptual art did not have a capital ‘C’. As a result, it was inclusive and this allowed him licence to range far and wide: ‘I can include anything after the 1970s, after the heyday of conceptual art. To varying degrees, and with ever new emphases: idea driven. Self-critical, self-analytical. Language or text-centred. Titles often important in the economy of pieces. Huge versatility of techniques and media, which are not, however, drawing attention to themselves in the way marble or bronze sculptures would. Frequently an emphasis on political and gender agenda. A wide range within the spectrum ranging from apparently throw-away to extremely labour intensive. Calling on the observer to contribute to the existence of the work, practically or mentally.’ More recently he was, as he said, ‘getting more open to kinds of practice that do not have “conceptual” tattooed on their foreheads. For example, I have recently bought a number of photographic works that are more interested in the respective subject than they are in self-analysis of the medium. It would therefore be hard to classify them as conceptual works, even though what good work is not to an extent conceptual?’

His collection began, as it continued, as a result of being able to have conversations with contemporary artists – about their motivations, interests and concerns, or even about particular works – whereas it obviously wasn’t possible to have similar conversations with Michelangelo. Talking with contemporary artists (and living with contemporary art) also gave him the chance to engage with art in a more fundamental way, unconstrained by the demands of academe. Conversations with and then buying work from any artist is an uncompromising declaration of support, especially when the purchase is organised on the basis of payments of £100 a month, friendships and understandings ensued. Thomas wrote about the artists he was interested in, especially for exhibition catalogue introductions. His knowledge, contacts and friendships proved invaluable when he was asked to acquire works on behalf of the Contemporary Art Society distribution scheme for the year 2001/2. All the works he sought out now have their place in museums around Britain, and although – with the exception of Amikam Toren – it omits artists from an older generation who had a significant place in his collection (especially John Hilliard and Tim Head, as well as Stephen Willats, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Keith Milow and Paul Neagu), the list of artists he bought for the CAS also reflects in microcosm one slice of his collection: Shahin Afrassiabi, Fiona Banner, Matt Calderwood, Angela de la Cruz, Keith Farquhar, Liam Gillick, Luke Gottelier, Brian Griffiths, Nicky Hirst, Henry Krokatsis, David Musgrave, Seamus Nicholson, Shez 360, Jemima Stehli, Mark Titchner and Amikam Toren.


by Andrew Wilson

Photo by Alicja Dobrucka