La Collection Michael Werner

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Palais de Tokyo – 5 October 2012 to 3 March 2013

Michael Werner and the world of contemporary art

One of the glories of the French eighteenth century Enlightenment, was the attempt by a group of French intellectuals to synthesise the entire knowledge-base of humanity into one accessible publication generally referred to as the Encyclopédie Diderot-d’Alembert. The twentieth-century version of this endeavour would be the incredibly wide-ranging and very affordable series of books that make up the “Que-Sais-Je” collection published by the Presses Universitaires de France since 1946. Each book is devoted to one of approximately eight hundred topics, is exactly 128 pages in length and is written by a specialist in the field under study. They are intended to provide a good, basic grounding for the layman in whatever the topic may be. Unlike the Encyclopédie which was published only once, these books are regularly re-issued and updated as the knowledge evolves. In the 1992 edition of the Que-Sais-Je devoted to L’Art contemporain, Anne Cauquelin takes on the perilous task of attempting to explain the art of the moment without getting bogged down in yet another history of twentieth-century art, i.e. Picasso, Duchamp and all the others. In a world where art can be words painted on a wall, or a video projection, or just about anything, how does one determine what is and is not art? By its very nature, contemporary art lacks the benefit of hindsight to establish a pecking order of ‘important’ versus ‘forgettable’ art. So what are the criteria? The authoress came up with a brilliant and credible if somewhat cheeky answer : although she phrased it differently, the gist of her answer was that contemporary art was whatever New York art-dealer Leo Castelli († 1999) said it was. If he was willing to sell it, it was art. And if sold by Leo Castelli it was ipso facto ‘important’ (i.e. expensive) art.

If Castelli can be said to have had a European equivalent in terms of influence, he would be the German gallery-owner Michael Werner. So much so that when the latter decided to set up a New York branch for his gallery, he moved it into Leo Castelli’s former digs on East 77th Street. Thirty years ago when I worked for a gallery here in Paris, the craven servility of Parisian gallery owners (and indeed the entire microcosm of French contemporary art) used to make me cringe : always looking to Leo Castelli in New York or Michael Werner in Cologne to tell them who was hot and who was not rather than exercise their own judgment and look for their own artists here in France. It was all the more shocking because as a rule, the French (and particularly in matters cultural) prefer to set their own agenda. But my more mature self today understands that the gallery owners had businesses to run, they needed buyers and said buyers wanted either the Leo Castelli or the Michael Werner seal of approval before handing over rather more-than-handsome sums of money for, well,... For what? That was the question, wasn’t it?

Michael Werner’s collection

Let me eat my humble pie upfront. When I heard of an exhibition of some 900 (yes, nine hundred!) works from Michael Werner’s personal collection (including 60 of the 127 works that he recently donated to the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris) I expected something slightly vulgar, a sort of sales catalogue intended to boost the price of his collection. I thought to myself: ‘he must be getting along in years (after all, his first gallery opened in Berlin in 1964) and probably he wants to cash out’. The best way to do that is to organise a couple exhibitions before remitting the collection to Sotheby’s or Christies for disposal. Of course I expected it entirely to be made up of the German artists such as Bazelitz, Immendorf, Lüpertz and Penck who remain the mainstays of the gallery. The very last thing I imagined was that this exhibition would turn out to be a luminous embodiment of aesthetic intelligence, a journey through an expression of personal taste, happily free from the hackneyed litanies that tend to crop forth whenever debate turns to the art of the twentieth century. One of the greatest strengths of this exhibition is that it contains not a single Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Rothko or Warhol—not to mention Buren or Koons—whilst nonetheless managing to span the entire century.

Thanks to the large number of works on display, although some forty artists are represented, each one is well represented by several pieces. And unlike what tends to happen in provincial museums and some private collector’s houses, more often than not the pieces on display precisely are not those with the ‘iconic’ hallmarks of the artist : André Derain is represented by a series of twenty-one fantastical bronze busts but not a single fauve painting; amongst the works of Lucio Fontana on display, not a single slashed canvas is to be seen; for Joseph Beuys, not a trace of felt or a red cross anywhere; the only Yves Klein on display is red. This is refreshing, to put it mildly.

The scope of the exhibition is equally surprising : whilst I was expecting only works from the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties (and there are plenty of those), here are works by Fautrier, Derain, and Picabia as well as German Expressionists from the Twenties and Thirties, and even older works by Willem Lehmbrück as well as the abstract sculptor Otto Freundlich. Mercifully nothing is presented in chronological order : this is not a lecture on the history of art in the twentieth-century, this is a selective wander through some rich by-roads of a tumultuous artistic century ; a meander, as it were, through an artistic meadow where one encounters the solid, monumental bronzes of Markus Lüpertz, whose Daphne stands like a mighty oak-tree upholding the sky; the ethereal, conceptual works of Marcel Broodthaers could play the role of Queen-Anne’s lace and the joyful buttercups would be the prodigiously elegant, calligraphic ink-on-paper female nudes of Jean Fautrier. And speaking of meadows, two whole rooms are turned over to Per Kirkeby, including his luminous landscapes from the Sixties, before he had defined the style that today we think of as proper Kirkeby.

Amongst the other delights to be discovered I would count Eugen Schönebeck. He was closely associated with Baselitz, Michael Werner’s star artist since the very beginning of the gallery, but unlike Bazelitz, Schönebeck stopped painting and turned to other things. There is also the weird and wonderful Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, and so many others, some less than prominent, some overly famous, but all benefiting from the unexpected highlighting of this exhibition, perhaps none more than the proteiform Francis Picabia.

In a word, this is a must-see exhibition, even if you think you don’t like anything later than the Impressionists. This is not yet one more ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, filled with the endlessly recycled works of one of a handful of ‘major’ artists that will nearly identically re-surface in a few years in another venue. No, this is a one off, a very rare opportunity to fathom one man’s vision; literally to see a brilliant mind at work. Michael Werner may be a consummate salesman, but he also is a collecting genius.

This exhibition provides an added perk for the frustrated, queue-weary tourist: on the day I went to visit, there were perhaps thirty people in the entire, huge exhibition, counting the staff. If you are not prepared to queue to get into the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay and elbow your way to the masterpieces, then just buy a post-card of Mona Lisa or a Monet hayrick and head over to the Palais de Tokyo for an altogether different, less predictable experience. I promise not to grass you to your neighbours back home: they will never know that all your swooning and gushing over La Joconde is just a put on...