“The Michael Werner Collection,” on display through Mar. 3, 2013, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, comprises over 800 pieces by 37 artists that contextualize German art dealer Michael Werner’s recent donation of 130 works, some of which are included in the show. The museum’s director, Fabrice Hergott, who selected the Werner gift, describes the donation as the most significant to the museum—which was established in 1937 and opened to the public in 1961—since a 1951 bequest from Maurice Girardin.
Many of the gifted works are by artists who were featured in Werner’s gallery, which has venues in New York and London and two in Germany. Werner, who opened his first gallery in Berlin in 1963, helped to bring postwar German artists such as Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke to international notice. His collection devotes particular attention to painter-sculptors such as Baselitz, André Derain, Jean Fautrier and Markus Lüpertz. Art in America spoke to Werner about the donation.
BRIAN BOUCHER It’s unusual for dealers to make gifts like this to museums. How did this come about?
MICHAEL WERNER Fabrice Hergott was very clever at getting me to donate. No one had ever asked me. It stuck in my head. He wanted to enlarge the collection, because it’s a young museum.
BOUCHER How large is your collection overall?
WERNER My personal collection? I have no idea. I’ve never counted.
BOUCHER Are there works that might surprise viewers?
WERNER There is a group of heads and masks by André Derain, an artist who sort of disappeared. His late work, for me, contains signals for the future. For decades Jannis Kounellis worked in steel and iron, but I think of myself principally as a collector of drawings. Some of my Kounellis watercolors and drawings seem at first to have nothing to do with his work, but they contain his soul and presence in a different way.
BOUCHER How did you come to collect? Dealers aren’t always collectors.
WERNER I became a collector because I worked as a dealer for 15 years with almost no success. Since I had to take care of my artists, I bought a lot of work for almost no money.
BOUCHER Your gallery eventually became profitable. What made you successful?
WERNER I always tried to be an old-fashioned art dealer: you buy art if you like it. You don’t work entirely on consignment, as galleries do now. If you have work on consignment you don’t have to believe in it. I was probably more naïve.
BOUCHER You describe yourself as a “conservative anarchist.” Is that spirit shared by the artists you collect?
WERNER In the beginning, the artists and I certainly shared interests. We hated our circumstances viciously. We wanted out of Germany, which was very provincial in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The dream was always to be at the center. For Germany it came out quite well over the past 50 years.
BOUCHER What has it been like to watch that?
WERNER For me, there’s a certain satisfaction. My ideas partly became real. But then, it’s nothing to admire. It was just my life.