When the artist Fred Tomaselli moved to New York from Los Angeles in 1985, he joined an early wave of his peers beginning to colonize the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. “It was really ugly but it was cheap,” Mr. Tomaselli, 62, said, lounging in the well-lived-in and now valuable house he shares there with his wife, Laura Miller, and their grown son.
On every wall and bookshelf are artworks, a collection hovering near 300 objects that the couple has accumulated from friends, colleagues, teachers and students. Some pieces were wedding presents, like a geometric abstract etching by James Siena, who hooked up Mr. Tomaselli with a frame shop job when he was new to New York, and a watercolor of a pale pink oval by Spencer Finch with the handwritten text: “Trying to remember the color of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat.”
“Spencer did a whole wall of these that are all slightly different colors of pink,” Mr. Tomaselli said. “It’s a funny, beautiful piece I think.” The inventory of gifts and trades from other close friends includes works by Amy Sillman, Allen Ruppersberg, Tom Burckhardt, Byron Kim and Kurt Hoffman.
Alison Elizabeth Taylor, who lives across the street, once arrived at his doorstep bearing one of her wood inlay pictures in appreciation for all the vegetarian burgers she’d eaten there.
Mr. Tomaselli, who had a midcareer survey of his psychedelic resin paintings at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, is known for using actual pharmaceutical pills and hemp leaves as design elements in his buzzy collages that play with ideas of perception and reality. Damien Hirst, who also makes artworks displaying pills (albeit ones that are cast metal and polychromed), gave Mr. Tomaselli a fistful of fabricated pills during a trip to London. “He said, ‘Your art and my art — hmm, you should have some,’” Mr. Tomaselli said. He has arranged Mr. Hirst’s pills in grids inside small Lucite boxes on a bookshelf in homage to his work.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Do you consider yourself a collector?
I don’t. But we’ve amassed a collection through the years, mostly through trades and the occasional art auction. It’s an ad hoc thing, networks of friends who brought these works into our lives. You’re looking at the objects that come with aging.
How do the trades go down?
Usually it’s like, ‘Come over and look at my stuff and you can take the one you like.’ With Sol LeWitt, he said, ‘I’d really like to trade with you,’ and I sent him a piece in the mail to Chester, Conn., where he lived and then he sent this [abstract gouache] to me.
Are there any works you feel particularly sentimental about?
These drawings were given to me by Mark Lombardi — two of his flow charts that map out financial scandals and all the players and connections. I helped set Mark up with people when he wanted to move to New York. Sadly, Mark was bipolar. He gave me these drawings and then he killed himself a week later. He gave away a lot of drawings that week. I guess he knew what he wanted to do. It was in 2000.
Has anything in your collection been inspirational for your own work?
I’ve gotten a lot out of this 17th-century Tibetan thangka over the years. A guy I know brought it out of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, and I traded a piece for it. It’s the Union of Compassion and Wisdom, a figure with four heads and four sets of arms devouring this other figure. There’s this piling up of imagery and you have to really stare at it a long time to decode it. As an image it just keeps generating new ideas.
This Tom Friedman is a digital print of a collage he did out of one-dollar bills. It’s such a trippy image with this multiplicity of eyes. Both these objects are really psychedelic in their own ways.
Do you have any regrets about things you didn’t acquire?
Raymond Pettibon is the one that got away. Raymond and I were friends in L.A. in the early 1980s. I could have bought anything from Raymond for, like, $10. He actually offered, saying, ‘I really need the money.’ I said, ‘I need the money, too.’ We all needed the $10 more than we needed our art.
Show Us Your Wall is an occasional column focusing on the art of collecting.