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Michael Werner: ‘I never accepted the fact that people scorned my artists’
Art Basel
Clément Dirié
24 July 2018

The legendary German gallerist revisits his humble beginnings in postwar Germany and reveals how he carved out his place in the artworld.

Featuring Werner’s first gallery job, dealings with the likes of Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, and his idiosyncratic thinking about the artworld, this conversation in two parts maps the career of the gallerist who brought German painting to the global stage.

Clément Dirié: Descriptions of you include ‘legendary dealer’ and ‘visionary gallerist’, with an emphasis on an attitude that is against the system, insolent. You even called yourself a ‘conservative anarchist’.

Michael Werner: Art saved my life. I started from a very modest background. I went to the gymnasium [high school] in Mülheim an der Ruhr, an industrial area, and I was slightly dyslexic. The only teacher who talked to me was the drawing teacher. He became my ‘mentor’. My mother was dead and my father, an engineer, didn’t talk to me because I didn’t finish school. When this teacher gave me a Swiss magazine called Du – a special issue about art dealers in Europe – I said to myself: ‘This is the world I imagine.’

I wrote a letter to all the gallerists featured, saying: ‘I want to become an art dealer, but I don’t know how to. Can you help me?’ Rudolf Springer wrote back: ‘If you happen to be in Berlin, call me.’ So I went off to Berlin and said I was there by accident. Springer was one of the most important dealers in Germany selling international art, British and French living artists. He came from a large scientific publishing family. He didn’t like the mainstream figures; he was into the underground. He didn’t deal with  Serge Poliakoff,  Hans Hartung, or  Pierre Soulages, but rather showed ‘strange’ artists like Christian d’Orgeix [French painter, b. 1927] and  Hans Bellmer. The same was true of Henry Moore: he favored Reg Butler [British sculptor, 1913-81].

You know, I had this strange capacity to entirely lose myself in the personality of an artist. This was my craziness: to let the artist totally open up and give their ‘non-knowledge’ and character to me. I would listen absolutely to them and believe something like: ‘This is the greatest artist in the world.’ This brought me a lot, because artists crouch in your soul. I’m not talking about being a blind believer but about constructing a real relationship.

Springer was an unusual character. He was extremely important for me and became sort of my surrogate father. After two and a half years, he fired me because I was becoming arrogant.

Springer introduced you to Baselitz.

One day two young men came into the gallery. Because I was the greatest art dealer of all time, I stuck their manifesto in the window. It was Eugen Schönebeck and Baselitz. For me, Baselitz totally ‘fit’. We were made for each other. We spent years together and I was very successful, thanks to that, in terms of strategies. For a long time I couldn’t sell. He was the engine, the kick-starter, who created the dynamics.

The case of German art is very funny, or sad. There was no German painting as such until the 20th century. Like everything, it had to be invented. Two people invented it: Hugo von Tschudi [1851-1911] and Julius Meier-Graefe [1867-1935] organized the ‘Jahrhundertausstellung deutscher Kunst’ (‘The Century Exhibition of German Painting’) in 1906 to establish German artistic heroes like Caspar David Friedrich.

Unfortunately, all of this is unknown in Germany now. There were 10 to 12 years of German modern art on eye level with the rest of the world before World War I. German artists were not yet seen in Europe as the ‘bad boys’ linked to terror, to the Holocaust. Today the Bauhaus is the ‘good’ German art and is reevaluated in an overinflated manner: its echo is a diluted idea of Modernism that fits into the feel-good ideologies we live with.

Let’s go back to Berlin in the 1960s, when Springer fired you.

I was not well connected. Berlin was the only city where clubs were open at night, and all the rich people from the West had apartments there for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. My friend Franz Dahlem, who sort of put  Joseph Beuys on the table in Germany, had connections with them. Baselitz kept telling me: ‘You have to have your own gallery and look for artists.’ I mostly did what he told me. I was willful, I had learned a great deal, but I couldn’t structure things yet. It was always clear I would become an art dealer, but first I wanted to be influential. That was more important than being a dealer. I wanted to be a dealer through being influential.

Your story is closely linked to Baselitz and the first show you did together, the scandalous one with the painting depicting a boy masturbating.

Georg proposed a partnership with Benjamin Katz. When we started Werner & Katz Gallery in 1963, people were always trying to profit from his money. I was one of them of course. We triggered the so-called scandal because of my friend Martin Buttig, an alcoholic ex-art critic. After the opening we got drunk in the pub. His theory was that a young artist who doesn’t have a scandal has no chance of starting a career. Buttig found out that his newspaper colleagues had nothing for the front page. At 5am he called me, saying: ‘We are on the front page!’ That was electrifying! I went to the kiosk and saw: ‘Scandal: pornography in a Kurfurstendamm gallery – the public prosecutor’s office confiscates two paintings’. At 10am the authorities took them away; it even went to court. As a fatalist, I told myself that I must be able to cope with this. We rehung the exhibition, and hundreds of curiosity-seekers came.

Did anybody buy the paintings?

A long time afterward. Springer bought one. Then a drawing sold for DM 300. That was all for the next three years. After Katz changed the locks on the gallery, I took my typewriter and went to Baselitz, asking: ‘What can I do?’ He said: ‘Open your own gallery.’ We started with Baselitz’s ‘Oberon’show. During our third show – ‘New Editions’, a series of 12 prints by Baselitz – Johannes Gachnang, a Swiss guy who had English shoes and a three-piece suit, came in and said: ‘I’ll buy the whole group.’ He didn’t even discuss the price. This was the international art business I had dreamed about! We became friends, and one day he sent me a postcard from Amsterdam saying: ‘What do you think about doing exhibitions here?’ So we did shows there with my artists.

This was part of a strategy I had developed to get my material out of Germany from 1968 onward. I started with German-speaking countries like Switzerland, then we went to Holland. Suddenly we had Dutch collectors. After WWII the German artworld was still isolated and there were few collectors for contemporary painting. Progressively contacts became more international; it was a dynamic process, with many lucky breaks. Kasper König joined us, and I organized a Penck exhibition in Halifax in 1973. Then the Venice Biennale in 1982 triggered the ‘American boom’ and a breakthrough for new German painting. At this time there were other essentially important exhibitions that reintroduced painting – ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ held in 1981 at the Royal Academy in London is one example of this.

Moving to Cologne in 1969 was important because that city quickly became the artworld center thanks to you and other gallerists.

I told the owner of a Cologne gallery that was half-broke: ‘In three months you will be profitable.’ I had DM 50, 12 Baselitz paintings, 10 by Penck, and six by Lüpertz. I slept in the gallery’s cellar and showered at the public bath. I had a thing with Lüpertz’s wife, who I married later, and he wanted to kill me.

Cologne developed in a strange way. My wife was a genius of communication. I loved her irresponsibility. I said: ‘I don’t know how to pay the rent – the gallery will benefit from your brilliance.’ So I moved it to her place. Weeks later I found a beautiful castle, a half-ruin. I renovated it, borrowing tons of money. My wife threw the first big party and then it started to roll. Franz Meyer came from Basel with collectors from Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. From then on, I became successful.

Cologne was also the opportunity to test things. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of money was made in the Rhineland art scene with Zero art. The artists I surrounded myself with were hardly wanted – they were renegades. I employed naive methods to integrate them into the scene. I showed Baselitz in a Zero group exhibition and a show with Daniel Buren and Niele Toroni. Baselitz was unhappy with this. Conceptual art was a pure aberration for him. It was naive because my artists’ work was figurative, and there was this brutal battle between abstract/conceptual and figurative.

I couldn’t sell anything. Baselitz and Lüpertz would show paintings and people would laugh. But I never accepted the fact that people scorned my artists. Instead I used the method of constant assertion, constant repetition, and constant exhibitions. If someone suggested that an artist was great, then I would respond: ‘Baselitz is even greater.’ I was the only dealer in Germany who aggressively promoted his artists as world class.

Does that mean you didn’t like what Buren, Toroni, and Marcel Broodthaers were doing even though you exhibited them?

I was not neutral. I didn’t like Constructivism, and Buren was doing stripes. I prefer traditional painting. I know now that I like drawings as well – I have a big collection. At the time I was much more flexible. I started exhibiting Broodthaers around 1971. He was unorthodox, a conceptual artist. I asked him about the fact that he could not paint; it was a very open discussion. He called me his ‘court drawing dealer’. We had a great relationship and kind of used each other.

For me, there is a very big misunderstanding about art. Everything you call Modernism is a time frame that corresponds to the last 100-150 years, with the last 50 years being highly repetitive. Modernism is about invention, deconstruction; you get rid of something and do something new. I see it as a period when it was important to destroy traditional painting and sculpture. But now you can continue to reconstruct and invest thoughts in painting and sculpture as a discipline.

You collect 18th-century paintings, drawings, and furniture as well as African art.

I like old things, sculptures, votive pieces. I just bought my first little Renaissance bronze.

Do you manage the galleries in New York and London from here?

Yes. I mostly stay here [in Märkisch Wilmersdorf]. I talk a lot with Gordon VeneKlasen, with whom I opened the galleries. Gallery shows are pretty easy. I don’t want to fly – if I go to Paris, I stop in Cologne, sleep there, then take another train to Paris, as I did yesterday to buy some 1940s Jean Fautrier sketches at auction.

We have a lot of consulting business. We just worked with the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris on an Auguste Rodin retrospective. For the Penck show at the Maeght Foundation in the South of France, I contributed to the catalogue; same for a Lüpertz exhibition at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig.

I try to produce an idea, how to present the art. If you do a show of an artist who isn’t ‘hot’, nobody will notice, because the critics, the public, the collectors, and the institutional world all have their own agenda. In the institutional world, they are terrified of losing their jobs. This world is only looking to notice things that are ‘in’ because people expect to see what they already know. That is not for me. [Laughs] Consensus is not my favorite word.