An installation view from Safn on Laugavegur in Reykjavík
An installation view from Safn on Laugavegur in Reykjavík

A glimpse into SAFN, the names of represented artists on the window, intermingling with a permanent installation by Lawrence Weiner and two specially commissioned works by Carl Andre.
In the middle of Laugavegur, in a wooden house wth corrugerated steel siding, is a very special museum, or should one say collection, as either term translates the Icelandic name SAFN. Located in the main shopping district, the establishment, at first glance, looks like any other shop-front on Laugavegur. But upon closer look, one realizes that the decor is very sparse for a shop and the merchandise rather too minimal. Beneath the traditional look of one of Laugavegur’s traditional wooden houses SAFN is truly an international art museum, with examples of work by a multitude of artists, among them Richard Long, Lawrence Weiner, Donald Judd, Dieter Roth, Sarah Lucas and Mark Lombardy.

SAFN at the moment enjoys the dubitable status of being the only museum of international contemporary art in Iceland. The large official museums, Reykjavík Art Museum and The National Gallery of Iceland, have always been underfunded and have therefore never even had the capacity to keep a representative collection of Icelandic art, let an international collection. Icelandic audiences have therefore always had to go abroad in order to encounter international art of any significance. Realizing this situation probably made the Reykjavík authorities eager to support Pétur and Ragna in their plan of making SAFN into an official museum. So it is with the opening of SAFN that Icelandic audiences finally have organized access to contemporary art from abroad.

Until about two years ago, the location on Laugavegur, housed the only Lewi’s store in Reykjavík. On the upper floors of the building was a family home, the home of Pétur Arason, who owned the Lewi’s store, and his wife Ragna Róbertsdóttir, an acclaimed Icelandic artist. Pétur, traveled abroad on business frequently, and started a modest collection of contemporary art in the sixties that in time evolved into SAFN. It is a private collection and the work for a long time adorned the home of Pétur and Ragna, where one would enconter a Judd piece among the bookcases, or an important work by Dieter Roth on top of the refrigerator. They often opened their home to the public, moving out of the lower floor of their apartment in order to exhibit the works from the collection or inviting important artists from all over the world to have a private exhibition in their home. As the collection of works grew over the years, the space gradually attained the special character that now is evident in SAFN–a character defined by P�tur Arason’s specific nose for contemporary art and the modest location of the work.

Two years ago Pétur decided to retire, and to turn his energies solely towards his long-lasting pastime, the collection and exhibition of the art he has taste for. He offered the city authorities the opportunity to make his collection into an official museum and they decided to accept his offer, granting the funds needed to change the Lewi’s store and the apartment of Pétur and Ragna into a museum. So it was, with support from the authorities, that SAFN opened up in June 2003.

The collection includes around 300 works by 120 artists. For such a small collection the quality of the work is excellent. Most of the work is small in scale, but non-the-less representative of the kind of work their makers often do. In fact this is what makes the collection so interesting. Most people are used to seeing the work of these artists in collections in every capital city in the world. Travelling city to city, there is little cause for surprise, as most collections tend to include the same kind of faire for the art enthusiaist. In SAFN, on the other hand, one has a collection of works by many important artists of a type one is not accustumed to seeing in the standard exhibitions. This is partly due to scale (here the works are generally smaller than the ones one is used to), but also to the private quality of the selection. Pétur and Ragna have a special taste for art, choosing pieces they desired for their home. The range of work is limited–they have a special affinity for minimalist esthetics–but in their sense, minimalism ranges from the rigorous simplicity of Carl André to the conceptually minimal attitude of Dieter Roth. In the more recent additions to the collection we therefore have work of a diversity ranging from the punk esthetics of crushed beer cans by the british Sarah Lucas to the elaborate drawings of political intrique by New York artist Mark Lombardi or photographs of hot springs by Roni Horn.

When one wanders through the collection, moving from room to room, one becomes impressed by the evidently private quality of the collection, by the feeling that a specific and private taste for art has governed the collection of works. Every item bears evidence to being specially chosen for the collection, and some are probably specially made with both with the collection in mind and personally for Pétur and Ragna. It is an unusual experience, going through a collection of contemporary art that is able to present the element of individual choice in this manner.

Published in the NY Arts Magazine in 2008.

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