This is an edition of the newsletter Pulling Weeds With Chris Black, in which the columnist weighs in on hot topics in culture. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.
Most athletes are single-minded. They have been working toward one specific goal much of their lives, and develop a sort of tunnel vision as a result. Reilly Opelka is different. The 26-year-old is a tennis player first, but also an avid and knowledgeable art collector and a fashion enthusiast. He got serious about tennis as a 12-year-old in Boca Raton, Florida, and has had a solid career on the tour since making his ATP Tour debut in 2016. Opelka is 6 feet 11 and has a powerful serve that helped him reach his highest all-time ranking of 19 in 2021 after a great showing at the US Open.
Opelka was in New York City last week for the Armory Show, the art fair that takes place at the Javits Center. (He was forced to skip the US Open, due to a wrist injury.) We met for a late breakfast at the Crosby Street Hotel. Opelka was prompt and dressed for the weather in a gauzy button-down shirt, jeans, and chunky loafers. A round Louis Vuitton bag carried his necessities. As he tucked into an omelet, we got into his love of Philip Guston, the secondary market, art advisors, John McEnroe’s collection, spending time in Antwerp, Bode, and how Margiela denim fits him off the rack.
GQ: You’re in New York. I’m sure you’re going to the US Open.
Reilly Kopelka: I’m not.
I haven’t been, no.
But you’re going to Armory. Are you shopping, socializing, or all the above?
I’ll shop a little bit. There’s an artist I want right now, Armen Eloyan. I think he’s Romanian. He’s about 50 or 60 years old. He lives in Switzerland, and he’s kind of an artist’s artist. He’s an unbelievable painter. My favorite artist is Philip Guston, and that’s where I got drawn to him. There was a show [Eloyan] did in 2021 that had these treelike figures, and it looked like SpongeBob Squarepants but smoking cigarettes and looking like he’s done a lot of drugs. And this show has a lot of Mickey Mouse figures, but the way it’s painted reminds me of Brice Marden. I read his book, and he takes a lot of inspiration from De Kooning and McCarthy, and that’s who Brice Marden was into. They’re pulling from the same source. He spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union watching American cartoons, so he takes these innocent Disney figures that we grew up with, like Mickey and Minnie and SpongeBob, and he shows them looking like they’ve been through the wringer. It feels like a rip on American society and the reality we’re all in right now.
What makes you attracted to a piece? Is it just, “Do I feel something when I look at this?”
Totally, because it’s gotten so bad. You look at some of these guys that are showing at major galleries that have never had a show before; they were a tattoo artist two years ago, and now they have a solo show, and they’re selling for 350 grand a painting.
The gallery has the power. In theory, they can make you a star if the brand is strong enough, and some people sign up for that.
I’m a tennis player before I’m an art collector, but I think the best advantage I have is that I’m confident. I know it’s not a contest, but as an athlete, it’s hard not to do that.
Sure, I gamify everything.
I think I see things a lot better than most young collectors because I don’t shop with my ears. I don’t give a fuck what the secondary market looks like, and I don’t look at comps. Every artist I’ve loved had no love from the secondary market. There was a surplus of Gustons in New York—I might never have one now, but if I was around during his time, I’d have a dozen Philip Guston paintings.
I think outsiders are attracted to that stock market vibe because it’s a lot of money and it’s sexy, but those are absolutely the wrong reasons.
It makes for a lot of sad collections. It is what it is.
Do you store your art, or do you like to live with it?
I have no wall space, but I live with everything I can. I’ll watch some in storage, and then I’ll pull some things out and rotate.
When I hear about those offshore, tax-free storage facilities, I just think, Wow, you really don’t care about looking at these.
That’s where the world’s gone, but I love any opportunity to go against the grain. That’s how successful collections come about.
Do you have an advisor you work with?
No, I don’t believe in advisors. I don’t respect that job one bit. There could be an art advisor right here—I wouldn’t mean it as a personal dig on them, but I don’t respect the profession. There’s value in expertise, sure, but their expertise is knowing comps. Go be a real estate agent.
When you go to the fairs, is it overwhelming to have that much stuff in one place, or do you like it?
They’re the necessary evil of the art world. If I can’t get context, I can’t really buy from group shows.
You want to be in their world and see it as a whole.
I’m not saying to get rid of them, because that might hurt the artists. They need to keep the lights on in their studio, and they need some works to sell randomly throughout the year, but it’s not the most appealing thing [as a collector].
And you see the worst art advisors walking around, networking, as they call it. I hate small talk because they’re all going to say the same thing. I can already tell you the three names I’m going to hear six times today, and it’s all based on auctions.
Do you follow auctions?
No. The market is the monster. I’m after this unbelievable artist named Norbert Schwontkowski right now, who’s dead, but you can only get his paintings when they come up for auction. So whenever Phillips, Sotheby’s, or Christie’s gets one, I’ll get a notification, but I’m not just going to scroll and look at what’s coming.
Do you do a lot of studio visits?
Yeah, I do. I love how artists hate the word “studio visit.” It’s the one thing they all have in common—the good ones, at least. It’s fake, repetitive, and they’re uncomfortable. They have to act like they love everything, or a collector will just cling to one work. So when I go, I try to not show any emotion or tell them how great they are because I know they always hear that. I just try to observe and leave.
Some people’s spaces are superclean, super buttoned-up with all the assistants and everything dialed in, but in other studios, it’s like, this looks like a bomb went off in here. It’s a true window into the mind. Who’s your art crew? Who do you roll with?
Tim Van Laere. He’s a gallerist. He’s a total punk, and I say that in a good way.
He’s been your shaman?
Totally. And Venus [Williams], we’ll talk about art all day.
Is she a collector too?
She’s got a great collection. And I talk a lot about art with John McEnroe. Mac’s got the most serious collection of all. Guston, Basquiat, Ruscha—Pettibone painted him. Warhol did three different McEnroe works. All the legends have. If I was playing in his era, my collection would be just like Mac’s. I don’t know if we have the same taste, maybe I wouldn’t have bought a Basquiat, but I would’ve bought 10 Gustons. Maybe not Warhol, but Cy Twombly…
Basquiat and Warhol are both interesting because the estate managers have ruined it. The license is too easy to get. I shouldn’t be able to buy boxers designed by Basquiat, but obviously, it’s not hurting the value.
And the critics will say, “Oh, this year is better than that one.” Everyone’s after 1982 Basquiats because some group of guys agreed that’s his best year, but in ’85, ’86, he was dealing with some dark, heavy stuff. Those paintings aren’t lesser than. They’re just different. That mindset drives me nuts. I also hate how they group artists. I hate the term “emerging.” You don’t have to label them. You can still have a conversation without the label.
Yeah, sometimes things get needlessly grouped by era or movement. Even in fashion, like the Antwerp Six—I get why it exists, but it’s mainly a device to frame it for people who need to understand it.
The Antwerp Six makes total sense when you realize that when you go into a coffee shop in Antwerp, like a small dive coffee shop, you’ll see a Franz West sculpture in there because they have the most art collectors per capita. There’s an unbelievable museum, and there are so many great dealers and galleries on every corner. Raf Simmons collects a ton of the same artists I do. Kris Van Assche, all these guys, they grew up with art, and they’re pulling from that.
That’s not how it works here. It was not available to me, and there was a lot of searching. It’s fun, and I’m glad it went that way, but the idea of being surrounded by art is still foreign.
It’s the same with fashion. Obviously, I love fashion because it’s like stepping into someone’s world, right? There aren’t really any brands I’m stoked about in the United States right now, but I do love Bode because that’s really like stepping into a different world.
Have you been to the store in LA? It’s very well done.
I’ve loved her from the beginning. I rolled into their first store in Chinatown in 2019. They were young, but all the fabrics were incredible. Good tailoring. I also love Thom Browne.
I worked with Thom, so I wear it all the time too. When you wear the uniform, the gray suit, you actually get treated better. People really respond to it.
And there are no rules. Sure, you can’t button all the way, and the collar can’t come out, but you don’t have to match the grays. You can wear shorts.
I’ve done the skirt, the shorts, black tie, I’ve done it all. He’s kind of done the same thing for a very long time, and now the world has caught up with him. So where do you shop? Online?
No, I can’t find anything that fits me.
Do you have to get custom? What size shoe are we rocking with?
Fifteen. Somehow, these fit me off the shelf. I saw them in Prada, and the lady there was like, “I think you’re just…wishfully looking,” but they fit me.
So you can’t go in and just cop?
I can with Margiela denim. Prada women’s wear. My nylon pants are all women’s. I custom order a lot, but I really only wear Prada, Margiela, Rick, and anything Kris Van Assche makes. He’s my favorite. I like JW Anderson a lot. Not everything fits me, but if it did…
They don’t make the frog slides in 15? He has fun with it, and it’s cool. He makes things that get people talking.
He’s so radical, and when you meet him, he’s supersweet. He’s not even wearing his own stuff, he’ll be wearing a soccer jersey and jeans. He and Kris are my two. In a world where everyone’s being so innovative and so creative, Kris sticks to the meat and potatoes, and he stands out because no one else does that.
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