I WANTED MY OWN HIERARCHY

By: aarenbrowns | Posted: 22nd September 2011

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.



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Tags: distaste, equilibrium, disagreements