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Interview with
Michael Werner

I WANTED MY OWN HIERARCHY
by Birgit Maria Sturm
translated by Caroline von Falkenhausen
 
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Michael Werner ranks among the most influential gallery owners in the world. Together with artists such as Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, A.R. Penck and Jörg Immendorff, he assisted in bringing international acclaim to new German art, which today is represented by great painting and high prices. But it was not always this way: in 1963 he caused outrage in his Berlin gallery on the Kurfürstendamm by exhibiting the famous Baselitz painting Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain), which depicts a boy masturbating.

Werner moved to Cologne in 1969, and opened his New York gallery in 1990. These days, he has grown calmer, but he has never considered quitting the business: from his base in Märkischwilmersdorf, near Berlin, he continues to act for art and against the system. This year he received the Art Cologne Prize in recognition of his outstanding achievements as an art intermediary. In an interview with Birgit Maria Sturm, Michael Werner tells of his fight for the eccentric, his distaste for consensus and event culture and of the method of continuous assertion.

Birgit Maria Sturm: Mr. Werner, for decades you have worked together with a successful group of artists, including Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and Per Kirkeby; Jörg Immendorff and Sigmar Polke were also part of the group. What sort of relationship must an artist and art dealer maintain in order to make it last for so many years?

Michael Werner: One cannot say that there is a group as such; there are no organizational principles and no secrets. The artists are unique individuals, who have come together over time, with me acting as a catalyst. More often than not, collaborations do not work out well as there are always disagreements. I am fascinated by eccentrics who produce complex and interesting art -- you might say that I was the artists’ legal mistress. I was always together with them, I struggled intellectually and emotionally with them; there was equilibrium. My ground rule was that I only represented artists who worked exclusively with me. Baselitz played a special role; from the very beginning he was the engine, the kick-starter for me.

What was your first meeting with Georg Baselitz like?

I was Rudolf Springer’s assistant from 1958. He had a gallery on the Kurfürstendamm. One day two young men came in with a huge roll under their arms. They were evidently artists: shoulder length hair, long coats that came down to their feet, both as white as chalk. A wordy poster advertised their exhibition in a condemned building on the Fasanenplatz. Well, my boss was away on business and because I was the greatest art dealer of all time, I stuck their manifesto in the gallery window. They watched me and chain smoked. After they had politely thanked me, they left. I looked at it more closely and thought: what reactionary stuff!

In those days, Berlin was an interesting island with lots of crazy people. Some of them frequented the gallery, one of whom was a reporter by the name of Martin Buttig. He came in shortly after the two, looked at the poster and said that I should go with him to the exhibition of Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönebeck. They were two highly strung young men who had made a pact: to exhibit as a duo until they became famous. Then the city offered Schönebeck his own exhibition, which Baselitz resented so much that he broke off all contact. Later on, my first signing was Schönebeck. That was naïve and pointless, as I did not earn a penny from the deal.

What was pivotal in your decision to become an art dealer or gallery owner?

My art teacher, Johannes Gecelli, gave me the idea. I come from a lower-middle-class family; we had three books at home. This was the terrible reality and I longed for good and beautiful things. In Rudolf Springer’s gallery, I was at least on the periphery of the upper class, and one could say that Springer acted as my surrogate father for many years. He came from a large publishing family which was also interested in art, and in the 1920s, they had published a book about the Prinzhorn Collection.

What experiences did you have at this time which taught you something about the modus operandi of the art business?

Right up until the early '50s there was still a traditional perception and exertion of influence by certain art societies, which were made up of museum staff, critics, intellectuals and artists -- not collectors. Will Grohmann, a great man, belonged to this old school; he never said anything wrong about anyone, but for us he classified as an old bore. Within these groups, it was made clear which artists were important and which were not. Collectors were only indirectly involved in the decision-making -- by purchasing accordingly.

Another key experience for me was learning that all German dealers acquired art from Paris. It became clear to me that in post-war Germany, no great artists could be born, as was the case in Italy or France. On top of that it was evident, and it is still the case today, that artistic brilliance in Germany was not recognized -- instead, it was destroyed and undermined. This can be demonstrated by the fate of Ernst Wilhelm Nay, one of the most significant artists in Germany after the war. He was felled in one blow by Hans Platschek, a critic, who counted the number of circles in Nay’s work and turned him into a laughingstock. This is the model for perceiving and describing art in Germany: brilliance is disliked.

Surely in the Springer Gallery the lie of the land was different. What happened there?

I was thrown out of Springer after two years, because I had become too arrogant. I told Springer that I thought his exhibition of Uwe Lausen was complete nonsense. In that period, I got to know Franz Dahlem, who had contacts with the most off-beat people but also with high rollers. He sent a few of them round to the gallery, so that they could spend a few hundred German marks on a work of art from the young artist.

Once again, my boss was away and one day Harald Quandt, the industrialist, came in. I said to him, “You don’t need to bother looking at Lausen, it is all rubbish.” He did not buy anything. Shortly afterwards, Rudolf Augstein arrived; the procedure repeated itself and he too purchased nothing. When my boss came back, he thought it was time for us to part ways.

Then, in 1963, you opened your own gallery together with Benjamin Katz -- a gallery which had a rather spectacular beginning.

Benjamin Katz wanted to open a gallery but did not know how to do it; I did. He was under the guardianship of a rich uncle and was always surrounded by strange characters who sponged off him. We opened our gallery diagonally opposite Springer on the Kurfürstendamm. After the Baselitz opening I was sitting with Martin Buttig in a bar. Lots of beer and schnapps was drunk and at some point, Buttig said: “No artist has ever become famous without a scandal; we need a scandal.” I asked him how he intended to do it; it was, apparently, quite easy. He went off to make a telephone call, came back and said: “We are on the front page!” I did not understand what he meant and at midnight I went home.

At five o’clock in the morning, Buttig called to ask if I had already read the newspaper. I told him I had just gone to sleep and asked him whether he had gone mad. But sure enough, in the morning I read in the Berlin newspaper: “Scandal: pornography in a Kurfürstendamm gallery -- the public prosecutor’s office confiscates two paintings.” He had made it all up. So, off I went to the gallery only to find that the public prosecutor was already there! He dutifully took two paintings, one of which was Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain).

So it was all staged?

Yes, the public prosecutor only came because of the article. But it was a real scandal, and even went to court. Baselitz himself knew nothing about it, until it all turned rather nasty and we had to hire a lawyer. Baselitz freaked out and removed his name from his front door. I was so nervous, but as a fatalist, I told myself that I must be able to cope with this, which is better than nothing at all. We rearranged the exhibition and hundreds of curiosity seekers came. However, I was only able to sell one single picture -- to my ex-boss Rudolf Springer, of all people.

After a few months -- we hadn’t yet paid for getting the gallery set up -- I could not gain access anymore because the uncle and my partner had changed the locks.

Your second gallery was called Orthodox Salon; you founded it as a battle cry against the idea of the avant-garde, preferring informal and conceptual art. You then moved from Berlin to the Rhineland -- Cologne, the center of German art trade.

The name of the gallery and the art that I exhibited were meant as a provocation. It went completely against the grain of the art world that an artist, Baselitz, painted in horrible dark tones as if from the 19th century, and, to top it, that he showed his subjects’ sexual organs. I left Berlin in 1968 because I could not earn money there. Through Christos Joachimides I heard about a Cologne gallery that was half broke. I travelled there and told the owner: “In three months you will be profitable.”

At that point, I had 50 marks, 12 Baselitz pictures, ten from Penck and six from Lüpertz. I slept in the gallery’s cellar and showered in the Agrippa swimming pool. I knew no one, was completely on my own and for a few months I had to go through with the existing program of the Hake Gallery, which also included objects from Mauricio Kagel’s wife. It had nothing to do with me or my tastes or instincts; I just had to suffer through it. I asked Lüpertz, for whom I had found a nice studio, to come to Cologne. But that did not go smoothly for long, because I had a thing with his wife and he wanted to kill me. He returned to Berlin and I lost him for a few years to another gallery. At this time, Baselitz was also under contract with another gallery, Heiner Friedrich. But we needed money -- everything revolved around making money. Money for exhibitions, for acquisitions, for artists. And Heiner Friedrich had money.

What did you do specifically in order to promote your artists?

It was a long process. In the 1960s and '70s there was lots of money made in the Rhineland art scene above all with ZERO art. The artists that I surrounded myself with were hardly wanted by anyone -- in this art scene, they were considered to be assholes. I employed totally naïve methods in order to integrate them in the scene. For instance, I showed Baselitz’s pictures in a ZERO group exhibition. My illusion was that if I were friends with Gunther Uecker, then Baselitz would automatically be in.

When I organized conceptual art exhibitions -- with Daniel Buren and Niele Toroni -- Baselitz was extremely unhappy. For years he had been the only one, together with Lüpertz, Penck and Antonius Höckelmann. Now he saw that I was working with a string of artists. Conceptual art was a pure aberration for him. I actually wanted to promote his art; I also did not find it interesting if one only shifted triangles.

I always fought against the fact that people scorned me and my artists. In response, I used the method of constant assertion, constant repetition and constant exhibits. If, for instance, someone suggested that someone, say, Fred Thieler, was really great, then I would respond, “That may be -- but Baselitz is even greater.”

With time, it became apparent who was going to be a famous artist. But I did not want to wait ten years for something to happen. Only things that I initiated brought results. I did not want others’ hierarchies -- I wanted my own. In those days, I was the only dealer in Germany who aggressively promoted his artists as world class. These days, everyone makes their own artists -- but this is pointless because the market is segmented and there are hundreds of galleries and thousands of significant artists, known by no one. The system is twisted and only exists to support itself. In those days, though, my role models were the truly extraordinary German art historians Hugo von Tschudi and Julius Meier-Graefe, who organized “The Great Art Exhibition” in Berlin in 1906. They strategically tried to enthrone German artistic heroes, like the forgotten Caspar David Friedrich or Karl Blechen, against Kaiser Wilhelm’s preference, which tended towards all the Kaulbachs and the historical painters. They created a whole new mindset, from which their contemporaries could also benefit, for example Hans von Mareés, who in the interim has sadly disappeared once again.

Most recently, your methods of insistent assertion were fruitful at the beginning of the 1980s and you started to systematically widen your radius of recognition, even extending into international terrain.

It became clear to me that I needed to achieve fame abroad in order to be a success in my own country. All my artists, with the exception of Penck, were considered to be reactionary in Germany and I could only sell a few works, which created an excruciating situation.

To start with, I had contacts in Switzerland, mainly with Johannes Gachnang, an old friend from my Berlin days. He was a nomadic artist, architectural draughtsman with Scharoun, a curator and a publisher. He had houses in Paris, Turkey and Amsterdam. He was my link to Holland and to Rudi Fuchs, who became very important to me. I had exhibitions with both of them. The contacts became more and more international; it was a very dynamic process, one with many lucky breaks, needless to say. Kasper König joined us and I organized a Penck exhibition in the U.S. Then, Documenta from 1982 triggered the "America-Boom" and also brought with it a breakthrough for new German painting. At this time there were other essentially important exhibitions which introduced Neo-Expressionist figuration -- “A New Spirit in Painting,” for example, which was held in 1981 at the Royal Academy in London.

You positioned your artists selectively in the American art market. How did this work during the period before you set up your own gallery in New York, in 1990?

Baselitz, Lüpertz, Penck and Immendorff already had their major galleries in the U.S. In American galleries, it works as follows: the artist is hailed as a genius in the first exhibition and everything is sold. The second exhibition shows that the artist is still interesting and about half the works are sold. Interest has been lost by the time a third exhibition runs. I did not want that for my artists. I got to know my wife Mary Boone through the artist Sigmar Polke. He arranged for me to be in a taxi alone with her after the opening of the “Zeitgeist” exhibition in Berlin.

Then I worked with her gallery. All New York dealers were informed that all my artists were to be represented by the Mary Boone Gallery, effective immediately. It was a strategic decision, which I had to make clear to my artists. I was with them on the brink of something and I wanted to be in control.

What is your experience of the American art business, or more specifically, the New York art business, which has dominated the market through today?

The art market of the 1950s and 1960s -- with Paris as the dominating factor -- was, in comparison to the American market, quite naïve. For Americans, the only thing that counts in art is novelty. Content is not interesting. An artist’s personality is also a factor, but what principally counts is success. Success means sales, the generation of as much money as possible. I have always been critical of this, but nonetheless, the art world has developed in this materialistic direction. Many Americans are likeable, and there are connoisseurs among the collectors.

That said, though, there is very little interactive communication and people just do not listen. If a slump hits, then they auction off their collection for as little as half its value. I have always believed in putting my collectors under pressure and stipulating that they should not bring my artists under the hammer; if they did that, then they would not receive another picture from me. Some have given their artworks to museums -- and I have nothing against that, of course.

Captain Beefheart, a rock legend, recently died. Your gallery represented him as a painter under his real name, Don van Vliet. How did you discover him?

I owe Penck for Beefheart. In East Germany, there was a lively black market for LPs, and Beefheart’s records were the most expensive of all. Penck was a huge fan of Beefheart as a musician, and revealed to me one day that Beefheart was also a painter; so I got in touch with him. He had stopped playing music because he hated the music market, and although as a painter he was totally authentic, no one really took him seriously. The most unbelievable freaks -- rock fans -- came to his exhibitions; occasionally a few pictures would be sold.

However, I was not able to position him, and so far there has been only one museum exhibition of his work, in San Francisco. I visited him a few times in California. He lived in a wooden house, and I could always find him sitting on the veranda and looking out to sea. Once I asked him what he saw. He replied: “Seals. Seals. Sometimes it looks like a seal, but it’s a surfer. And then a shark gets him.”

You were the focus of several debates that also had political consequences, for example Documenta 6, from 1977, where official artists of East Germany were shown for the first time.

All my artists, including Penck, were invited to Documenta 6. A loan contract had been signed for a modest ten-piece picture that he wanted to show -- but at the last minute the commissioner, Evelyn Weiss, showed up and advised us that unfortunately no more space had been allocated. You see, Penck was a dissenter, and the East German regime was against him. We yelled at each other and then I proposed to hang the picture just under the ceiling so that the officials would not see it -- but she said even that was not possible.

Manfred Schneckenburger and Evelyn Weiss allowed themselves to be swayed by political pressure; they later contested this. As a consequence, I spoke with all my artists and all of them withdrew their works. This meant that there was no Baselitz, no Immendorff, no Penck -- instead, there was a big hullabaloo. Gerhard Richter also stayed away, as he came from East Germany and was outraged by this incident.

In the 1980s, you organized a series of large retrospective exhibitions, beginning with “Westkunst” and ending with “Bilderstreit.” Even before the opening of the Cologne exhibition “Bilderstreit,” a heated debate took place, in which you were accused of exerting your power in order to influence the exhibition.

“Bilderstreit” was an unconventional exhibition, which showed the corresponding provocation of art of the time through a subjective lens. These sorts of exhibitions no longer exist. It was organized by Johannes Gachnang and Siegfried Gohr, the inaugural director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Peter Ludwig put Gohr under a lot of pressure, because he wanted East German artists, whose works he collected, to be shown in the museum named after him. But Gohr declared in a newspaper interview that “as long as I am director, no East German art will be shown.”

Peter Ludwig was furious. He specifically used the press walk-around at “Bilderstreit,” to get rid of Siegfried Gohr, and commented on what he saw: “Many pictures came from Michael Werner,” he said, and Gohr was on the payroll of my gallery. The press snapped this up immediately and a great hubbub arose among all my Cologne colleagues -- first and foremost by Rudolf Zwirner. Letters of protest were signed against me and against the exhibition.

Of course there were works on loan from me -- as there were from other galleries. Why procure works of art from somewhere or another, when one could source them from right there and save money? Nonetheless, Gohr was a sensitive man and he was unable to fend off this scandal. He later worked as a professor at Karlsruhe and Düsseldorf Academy of Arts. He would not have landed another museum job, I think, were it not for our collaboration in later years on several fabulous exhibitions.

Over the past 20 years, you have concentrated your art trade very much on German classics of the modern age, artists like Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Kurt Schwitters, Max Beckmann and Hans Arp. On the other hand, you have relatively few young artists in your stable -- why is this?

I have searched my whole life, and I am still searching -- but lately I have not found very much young art that impresses me. In Germany there are many artists produced each year who are not taught anything. Markus Lüpertz battled for 20 years with politicos for the autonomy of the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. He introduced a life drawing course into the curriculum and his students had to take part. He was concerned about tradition, and the ability to draw is not punishable. He is no longer there, the academy has been turned into a university and drawing is passé.

My last acquisition for the gallery was Per Kirkeby; I would have liked to have had more artists as it makes life easier, but I was never able to make up my mind. Furthermore, I wanted to represent the artists exclusively and in the course of time that became more difficult. I am an art lover, but today there is mainly only photo based art. Peter Doig is influential -- apart from that I do not see any art that is traditionally based. These are also consequences of what I call the “system.”

How should we understand that -- what do you mean by “system”?

I made all my decisions with one aim in mind: to create a “German position” in art. Although German artists are very successful, there is still no “German position.” The reason for this is that all German entities have associated themselves with the “system.” It is difficult to explain; when I started out, the art associations and the museums, with their more or less educated directors, were still powerful. It was possible to speak with one another, to discuss, to maintain an exchange.

These days, no one has any influence -- neither the individual institutions, nor the artist, nor the dealer: everything has become a system and everyone adapts themselves to it. The artists also operate within this power structure, in this networked system, which does not allow itself to be revolutionized and within which no artistic exceptions are tolerated. If an artist serves the system, he becomes a part of it. If not, he gets the chop. It’s that simple. Today, the curators are the ultimate artists: they serve the system and make sure that it works. I do not have a single good word to say about anybody.

Let’s turn to the subject of art and value. Nearly 50 years ago you sold Baselitz’ first pictures for 3,000 marks. Can you explain the curve that has led from the costs of the past to the high prices of today?

Today, a famous artist is an expensive artist and money is the synonym for success. That is the same everywhere. There is no more to say on the matter.

From the point of view of your gallery -- which, for once, disregards the drawn-out process required to achieve institutional acclaim -- there is certainly something more to say on this matter.

An art dealer must buy low and sell high -- that is the quintessence of art dealing. In the interim period, one must work hard and aim for recognition, which leads to an appreciation in value. It is a prerequisite that a gallery has its own stock of art works. Art dealing can only be successful if it is legally enabled to do so -- but the laws in Germany are such that a stock of art works is fiscally penalized. Due to this, the majority of galleries work on a commission basis, which makes no sense.

I always bought lots of works directly from artists and sold a huge amount. As one constantly needs money for the gallery, it is not possible to hold on to too many works. I would be a millionaire today with the pictures I took with me to Cologne back then. But I do not have any of them anymore, because it was opportune to sell certain pictures to certain people. For example, I tried for years to persuade the collector Friedrich Flick to purchase Baselitz. Then I made a breakthrough with a picture from the Heroes Group, which he acquired. However, it made little difference -- he did not come over to my side, I was not able to win him as a collector. I sacrificed the picture, so to say.

As a renowned art dealer, you cooperate with large international museums. What changes have you perceived in the museum world from your insider view?

Museums have a purchasing budget of only a few thousand Euros. This is utter nonsense -- one might as well close them down immediately and auction off all of the stock. With museum nights and similar events, they are giving in more and more to pressure to move in the direction of event culture. But the beginning of the end is art displayed in a factory. Even my friend, Nicolas Serota, expanded the Tate Gallery with a factory: a complete mistake -- and all under the guise that the art in this factory has something to say.

Now one enters the space through the back entrance, where in the old days coal was delivered. Pointless installations and objects are shipped into museums, all of which will disappear sometime. The insanely popular success of art does not mean that people have any idea what it is actually about. Here a hay cart with bucket of water will be admired, there a bucket of water with a bowling ball on a table. It is incredible that no questions are asked.

Museum staff is less and less qualified, as well -- few of them are trained as art historians, although art historians rarely have a real relationship to art, anyway.

The director of the Berlin National Gallery is self-taught -- which is not bad -- but he has a very narrow biography. How can he possibly be in a position to do anything worthwhile for the National Gallery? For years he was in charge of the Art Club in Cologne; I represented the elite of German art and not once did he come to my gallery. But he is allowed to be ignorant, it is effectively required. He caged up live moose in the Hamburger Bahnhof and for a fee, people were able to overnight there -- it is just not possible to comment on this.

My biggest complaint is that there is no longer any artist-related theory; this is a catastrophe for art history. There is, of course, lots of literature, encyclopedias full of general interpretations of things -- but there is nothing about German art over the last decades, nothing substantial with an intellectual bent. Not even a good book or a biography written -- except about Gerhard Richter. Just sociological, whimsical, terribly boring stuff.

In your view under what culturally political background will the art landscape develop?

I am not a prophet; I have given up thinking about it. Nothing is feasible any more, only reduction is taking place. A reversal of the situation would be necessary, but you could not sell that to anyone. The art market has split itself on the one hand into that which I call “the system” and its event structure. Bread and circuses that thrill politicians and keep culture managers busy. University courses for culture management should really be banned, as they make no sense. These people want smoke screens, light flickering on facades and artificial waterfalls. The press also wants this -- journalists take this nonsense seriously and write about the waterfalls; I just cannot read it anymore. I am probably not the right person to be talking to about such things.

On the other hand, art based in tradition is somehow still produced in a limited number of places. Certain types will always be there, and what is rare will be traded expensively. This is also a question of the elite: when a social elite no longer exists, then there will be no more art.
As a politician, I would look specifically for intelligent people who have an idea about what is necessary today for our visual arts culture. If things are going to continue, then lessons must be learned from the past; we must recognize that while the principle of a popular vote might function well in many areas, it might not function in others, at all.

 

BIRGIT MARIA STURM is the general manager of the Association of German Galleries (Berlin) and was the spokesperson for the German Arts Council. This article first appeared in the German Arts Councils’ May-June 2011 edition of “Politics and Culture,” Berlin.


 



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