Collectors: Jarl Mohn
Collectors: Jarl Mohn
Collectors: Jarl Mohn

‘Collectors’ journeys into the homes of fledgling and seasoned art buyers from across the globe. The ongoing series offers an intimate spotlight on a range of personal collections from hobbyist ephemera to blue-chip artworks — all the while dissecting an individual’s specific taste, at-home curation and purchase trajectory.

Whether you’re a minimalist or a hoarder, we are all collectors to some degree. What you choose to accumulate can be as widely accessible as sneakers, books or a particular record label. It can also be more niche and certainly more expensive, such as a certain era of painting or sculpture.

There are no rules to collecting, nor is it necessarily tied to money or status. Rather, collecting opens a dialogue with oneself and the world: ‘this is who I am, this is what I aspire to be and for the time being, these are the things that describe my world.’

“The more we see — all of us, any of us — the more it’s going to shape the type of thing that we become interested in and it’s going to change dramatically over time,” said Jarl Mohn, the acclaimed media executive and philanthropist, who invited Hypebeast to tour his personal art collection.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

But before we get to that, who is Jarl? Long ago, he was known as Lee Masters, a radio DJ for stations such as WNBC in New York, where for years, he demonstrated a keen understanding of pop music. This led to him owning several stations of his own until he assumed executive positions at VH1 and eventually MTV back in its formative years, where along with the rest of the team, was accredited with bringing rap to the station.

After the meteoric success this brought MTV, Mohn applied the same foresight to Movietime, a cable station known for programming movie trailers, which he transformed into E! Entertainment.

Entrepreneurial excellence, clearly, has been a constant throughout Mohn’s career. From 1998 to 2001, he was the founding president and CEO of Liberty Digital, an online media investment company, which led to him being an early investor in companies such as, StubHub, Oxygen Media and Riot Games, amongst many.

In 2014, Mohn would be appointed CEO of NPR, where in his five-and-a-half-year tenure, would reverse years of net losses into surpluses. Having stepped down in 2019, Mohn now serves as NPR’s president emeritus and fully dedicates himself to philanthropy and his lifelong interest in art — which amongst the many boards he serves on, works with his wife Pamela and UCLA’s Hammer Museum in presenting the Mohn Award — one of the largest art prizes in the world, which grants $100,000 USD to a recipient of the Made in L.A. biennial.

For someone so experienced in media, broadcasting and the chaos that comes with surviving in the business, Mohn’s home reflects a man who is deeply meditative. As a lover of Minimalism and Light and Space, Mohn’s personal collection rivals some of the greatest gallery’s in the world — where you could find masterpieces by Donald Judd and John McCracken, Sol Lewitt and Dan Flavin, to Helen Pashgian, Robert Irwin and James Turrell.

Speaking on the latter artist, Mohn possesses a $2m USD Skyscape that Turrell installed in his personal theatre — the only one of its kind — and it’s here where our conversation begins.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

“I think it was almost in a weird way, escapism, that got me into what I’m doing today.”

Looking back on your life, what were some of the earliest things you gravitated towards and would you say you were a ‘collector’ growing up?

I was not a collector. I was very lucky my mother was a graphic designer, so she always had art supplies around. When I was a little kid, she made sure I had art lessons and my sister had art lessons. We weren’t particularly good. There was nothing of note that we ever did — but that we enjoy it.

My father loved talking about art — he was an English literature professor. And we talked about art, but oddly, [he] never took me to an art museum. It was something that just developed over over time. My first really big passionate interest was music and radio, which is how I began my career. Long story, my parents ended up getting divorced. My father was put in jail for non support, and my mother had a nervous breakdown and my two sisters and I grew up in a children’s home.

In the children’s home, I developed a real love of radio, and music. I think it was almost in a weird way, escapism, that got me into what I’m doing today.

Do you recall the type of music that galvanized you?

At that time, I was young, I was 12 to 13. So it was top 40 and progressive rock or album rock as it was called then, which is classic rock today.

I became a disk jockey for the first 10 to 12 years of my career, ultimately in New York at WNBC. Then I became a program director — I did that for years, station manager, I own some stations — then I got into the cable TV business. I ran MTV and VH1 in the ‘80s, then I created E! Entertainment Television, I did that in the ‘90s. I did venture capital for years and then I came out of retirement in 2014 to be CEO of NPR, which I was in it for five-and-a-half years. So it was a pretty varied career, but music was really the catalyst and I think escapism — escaping from home and this horrible place that I hated — was kind of the genesis of what I got into.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

“I’m less interested in the technology than I am in what it can be used to create.”

As someone so experienced in media and television, what are your thoughts on the growing dichotomy between print and analog experiences, as opposed to digital and even virtual frontier?

I don’t know enough about the virtual frontier to have any intelligent comments on that. I think different forms are really great for different things. And it’s really even hard to, in some cases, delineate between old and new.

Take, for instance, books. You can read a book in printed form or you can read it on a Kindle. Kindle is digital, I happen to read my books on a on a Kindle, just because I find it easier to carry around and I don’t have to worry — I can easily just download whatever I’m going to read next.

Is it digital or an old form? It’s hard to argue. The same thing, music of course, has been completely digitized. Television and film have been completely digitized. We watch so few things in real time. I think we really get hung up a lot on the form and every medium has had its transition. Whether film goes from not talking to speaking, whether it goes from black-and-white to color to 3D — which yeah, you can do it, but who cares, right? I think what really matters more than anything in any of these areas — literature, music, film, television, art – is less about the form which people seem so focused on and more about actual creative content.

That’s why I’m so intrigued by artists and why I’m so intrigued about the way they think about things. ‘I’m going to use this medium for this project, but I’m going to use this medium for this other project over here.’

They don’t restrict themselves. I love technology, look at this room, but I’m less interested in the technology than I am in what it can be used to create.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

“I think the best advice I’ve heard from a lot of people is: you should collect what it is you love, you should learn it.”

Are those sounds just the installation?

Those are the white lights. There’s a series of LED lights that provide color and another series of white lights that are incandescent lights that provide pure white light. There are two rows and when the white lights heat up, they start to expand and that’s the clicking you hear.

Notice how blue it is now? When we opened it, which was exactly — which is hard to believe — exactly six minutes ago. I would have described the color as being a very soft cloud white and now it’s blue — an eggshell blue.

Do you come to this room everyday or week?

Oh no, I would say maybe a couple times a month. I actually prefer to do it when I’ve got company, it’s a lot more fun. I have done it myself when I’ve needed to destress, but it’s much more fun with company.

When was the Skyscape installed?


2002.

You’ve stated in a past interview that you don’t like to give advice, because sometimes people don’t want to take it. But what would your recommendations be for someone who is looking to get into collecting art?


Again, one of the reasons I don’t like giving advice, just to be clear, is everybody’s in a different place. So, for instance, if you’re someone like David Geffen, or you’re someone like Eli Broad — he may say the best way for you to collect is to collect the bluest blue-chip material. People can’t do that. Only a handful of people can afford to do that. A: I couldn’t afford to do that and I’m a reasonably wealthy guy. B: if I was able to do it, I wouldn’t have been able to do a particularly good job.

People are always trying to think, ‘you know, how can I do this to make money? How can I make this an investment?’ I think the best advice I’ve heard from a lot of people is: you should collect what it is you love, you should learn it. Before you even buy anything, go to a lot of museums, go to a lot of galleries and look at a lot of things. The more we see — all of us, any of us — the more it’s going to shape the type of thing that we become interested in and it’s going to change dramatically over time.

It’s almost like music. When you’re a teenager, you’re going to listen to really pop music and be really into it. As you get older, your musical taste becomes a lot more sophisticated — you’re not interested in the same things. I think in many ways, art is the same thing.

I actually like to go look at art that is well regarded by a lot of critics that I particularly don’t care for. And I like to look at it so I can try to understand what is it that these people that are far better educated than I, that are far more knowledgeable than I — what did they see? Why did they like it? There’s always a learning for me. Also in terms of creative thinking, to me, it’s always a great jolt, a great kick in the head.

I’m not in business anymore, but when I was and I was perplexed and would take a walk, because walking always helped me meditate and relax. I loved to go see art and particularly art that I don’t know well unlocked something in my head. It’s not like it’s a direct line, where I go see a show and unlock the answer to my question — it doesn’t happen that way — it’s a process.

So I think the whole idea of if you’re interested in art, whether you are interested in collecting it for your walls, or collecting it for your eyes — some people I know, I call them the great collectors — and they don’t own anything. They go to every show, they see everything. They have a great appreciation for it. They collect it in their mind. And I think that is every bit of a collection as owning an artwork and putting it on your wall.

Unless you have unlimited means, I do think that the notion of specializing in picking something that is very personal to you, that has real meaning to you and not thinking about it as, ‘is this the right investment?’ Nine times out of ten, its going to be a terrible investment. Some people that are buying blue chip stuff and only the best of the best by the best artists can make money. But normally, its just not a way to make money and I think it cheapens the whole idea to think of it that way.

I’ve been very lucky with this collection. I just happened to pick Minimalism and Light and Space before it became a hot item. It’s so important to emphasize that I didn’t think I was going to get a jump on the market. I didn’t think it was going to become big, I did it because it really spoke to me and I really loved it.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

“The more I observe it, the more I see.”

Light and Space is such a fascinating field. And it requires so much introspection and reflection. Are there some experiences you’ve had while say, observing this piece, or even just artwork all throughout the house that caused you to have an epiphany?

I would say I’ve had epiphanies at other places. I’ve had small epiphanies here haha, but if you’re talking with this collection, I am surprised by it all the time. I remember before I started collecting art, I was talking to an art collector and I said, ‘you have this art up in your house, you see it everyday you come down, you walk into the kitchen, you make coffee, you have breakfast, you walk by it everyday, doesn’t it become invisible?’ He said: ‘oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I see it every time I walk by.’

I would think to myself, ‘I don’t know if I believe that.’ But as I walk down the hallway every morning, one way or the other to go downstairs to have my coffee, we have the benefit of this eastern light coming in through the windows and the Charles Ross prisms reflecting on warmth and that beautiful Helen Pashgian piece just floating. And I walk down the hallway and I look at the art and I don’t know that it’s an epiphany as much, but it always looks different. The more I observe it, the more I see.

The sky now looks like navy or an ultramarine.

And let’s take a look at what it really looks like, because I guarantee it doesn’t look like that.

The reason it’s looking black now: if you remember color theory, in light spectrum — and this is one of the great things that Turrell does and why this works, is in natural light, all the colors are there. All colors exist in natural light. So if you’ve stood on a stage in front of a group of people with lights in your eyes, and the house lights are down, you can’t see me or anybody — you can hear them — but you can’t see them. The same thing applies with color.

For instance, in this particular sequence we don’t see it. But in one, the lights on the ceiling are green and when they are green, it makes the sky purple. And the reason is, all the color that is coming through — the natural color — the green overpowers your eye, you cannot see the green coming through.

Right now, one of the reasons it looks so black and so much blacker than it is outside, is he put white light up there and taken all of it outside the sky. If you walked outside right now, the sky would not look that black at all.

It’s technically showing you color theory.

Collectors: Jarl Mohn

“Some of the epiphanies or surprises for me have been just the incredible experiences I’ve had. I love sharing the art.”

Now it looks pitch black.

I call it Elvis velvet black haha. Does that look like a panel in the room to you yet or does it just look like it’s painted?

Good question.

One of my favorite places to look at this installation is on one’s back. When I look at it here, it looks to me like a panel.

It does kind of hover.

In some of the sequences, when its black like this, you can actually see more room — aubergine or eggplant. There’s one that has almost like yellow streaks, they’re not streaks, they look like an under-painting from a painting.

There’s a star that now appears too.

Yes and that disturbs the flatness that you’re looking at. You can see a series of stars or the moon, which change at various times. I actually love not seeing it. It just makes the effect of the whole whole room and experience to be better for it.

You talked about epiphanies or surprises, some of the epiphanies or surprises for me have been just the incredible experiences I’ve had. I love sharing the art. I love doing tours. Every group has got a very different dynamic in different fields and I’ve met some wonderful people that I would have never met otherwise and have had great conversations.

Every time I have a group of curators, one or two had a comment that helped me understand what I’m collecting better, or give me a point of view that I hadn’t thought about.

Photos by Florian Folzherr, Jarl Mohn and Joshua White / JWPictures.com. Courtesy of Jarl Mohn.

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