What I Buy and Why: Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall on Collecting Art in North Dakota and the One Work Everyone Tries to Sit On

The couple also reveals which young artists they covet most.

Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

In the handful of years since collectors Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall purchased their first artwork in 2016 (which they discovered here), the couple has assembled a covetable—and trendsetting—collection of Surrealism-inspired contemporary art by primarily women-identifying and queer artists.  

A surgeon and a political theory professor who live in the tiny town Minot, North Dakota, the couple are far from your typical urban-dwelling, finance-industry art buyers. They decided to give the pursuit a shot after seeing a David Hockney retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on their honeymoon.

Now, they represent a new breed of open-book collectors who often share their latest acquisitions on Instagram @TheIcyGays, where they also highlight emerging artists whose work intrigues them. The couple’s unique vision and very personal collection also earned them a spot on Artnet’s 2020 Innovators List

Below, they give us a peek at what they’re eyeing now.

Corydon Cowansage, Stairs #3 (2016). Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Corydon Cowansage, Stairs #3 (2016). Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?

Rob wanted a print by a blue-chip artist, but Eric suggested buying an original work instead. We saw the painting Stairs #3 by Corydon Cowansage featured in Artnet News’s “10 Emerging Artists to Keep on Your Radar” and ended up purchasing it from Miller Contemporary (now 17 Essex) for $5,000

What was your most recent purchase?

We have been very busy recently! We actually just bought another work by Corydon, two paintings by Amanda Baldwin from her current show at Hesse/Flatow, a strikingly surreal piece by Molly A. Greene, and a fabulous work by Dalton Gata featured in a group show at Kurimanzutto. 

Amanda Baldwin, Rising Stem. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Amanda Baldwin, Rising Stem (2019). Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

We love GaHee Park’s surreal humor and would be thrilled to buy another one of her paintings. We are also obsessed with the darkly beautiful work of Shannon Cartier Lucy and the stunning vanitas art of Sanam Khatibi. Finally, we recently discovered the fantastic geometric abstraction of Elise Ferguson and Richard Tinkler and are excited to expand the collection in that direction.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

Since we mostly collect emerging contemporary artists, the value of pieces can change fairly rapidly. However, with regards to primary price, the most expensive work was a recent purchase of Dirt God by Kyle Dunn from P.P.O.W.

Kyle Dunn, Dirt God (2020). Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Kyle Dunn, Dirt God (2020). Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

A primary goal of our collection is to support female and queer artists. We focus on buying directly from these artists as well as the galleries that support them. In addition, we frequently discover new emerging artists through our Instagram page. Several deals have gone down in the DMs!

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

We committed as a couple early on to only purchase works that resonated deeply with us and helped us see the world through new and unique perspectives. As such, no regrets and only fabulous art that we love to look at and live with every day. 

Anthony Iacono, Rose. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Anthony Iacono, Rose. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

The bronze sculpture Floating Head by Sarah Peters sits on a low bookcase behind our sofa and Sarah Slappey’s Yellow Field Figure hangs on the wall behind it. Erin Riley’s tapestry Origin and Anthony Iacono’s collage Rose are both hanging in our bathroom.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

We bought an unusual untitled sculpture by Hannah Levy from Casey Kaplan, which is basically a 3/4 size nickel-plated steel chair wearing a silicone two-piece. Not only do we constantly have to remind people not to sit on the sculpture, but the silicone tends to collect much of the hair our dogs shed around the house. Hannah has said the accumulation is part of the piece, but Eric can’t resist the occasional cleaning. 

Sarah Slappey, Yellow Field Figure. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

Sarah Slappey, Yellow Field Figure. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

We were very excited to see several fabulous surreal paintings at Independent last year by Anna Glantz. By the time we had finished walking around the preview, they were all sold. However, we were able to see the works again and rue our hesitancy when we ran into them at the top floor of the Hort Family Collection in New York City. Lesson learned! 

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

We would break into the Whitney! Rob would take Andy Warhol by Alice Neel while Eric grabbed Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper.

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