During the spring of 1962, in Berlin’s tiny circle of contemporary art collectors, word began spreading about a young assistant at the prestigious Rudolf Springer gallery who was saying outrageous things. The gallery was then showing the work of the emerging painter Uwe Lausen, and when an important magazine editor stopped in to make a purchase, the assistant talked him out of it. “Don’t look at this shit,” he advised. Soon after, when the megarich German industrialist Harald Quandt went to see the exhibit, he too received an earful about why the work was terrible and not worth his money.
The young assistant, 23-year-old Michael Werner, was fired for his insolence. But time has shown—in this case and in many others—that Werner was onto something. When he opened his own gallery the following year, he gave an art student named Georg Baselitz his first solo show. Today, as Werner marks his 50th year as a dealer, Lausen is essentially forgotten, while Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Sigmar Polke, Jörg Immendorff, and other artists Werner nurtured for decades—often during long periods when their work was completely out of favor—are among the most important figures in the pantheon of contemporary art. Meanwhile, Werner, who has cannily capitalized on his dual role as dealer and collector, is in possession of a remarkable stash of artworks. An exhibit of 876 paintings, sculptures, and drawings from his collection, on view until March 3 at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, has been thrilling connoisseurs and critics since it opened in October.
Praise from the establishment is not, however, something Werner generally seeks, or admits to seeking. “It’s a bit boring,” he tells me at the dinner following the opening in Paris, as guests such as Tate director Nicholas Serota and the painter Peter Doig (currently the youngest star at Werner’s gallery) greet him with congratulations. Then again, nobody ever minds being proved right, and it’s clear that right now, Werner is savoring a vindication of sorts. What is also clear is that success has not softened his penchant for making blunt and controversial statements. In today’s art world, where hype and high prices tend to drive the conversation, Werner is an unlikely troublemaker—a 73-year-old scalawag firing spitballs from the back of the class. Well...okay, from an 18th-century sofa in his impeccably restored 50-acre estate, Schloss Märkisch Wilmersdorf, 25 miles south of Berlin.
When I arrive there on a sunny October morning a few days after the Paris opening, Werner is waiting for me at the train station in a small black Citroën. Dressed in a tweed blazer and yellow slacks, he’s as composed and courteous as any country gentleman, though once we pass through the gates of his property, he suddenly veers the car off the driveway to take a shortcut over the lawn. When we go inside the main residence, a late-19th-century take on a medieval castle, Werner, who is walking with a crutch, having hurt his leg in a recent fall, retreats into the kitchen and returns carrying a tray of drinks. His pugnacious side comes out only when he takes a seat and begins talking about the state of the art world.