A high school dropout from a working-class family, Werner quickly honed his eye. The key to his progress, beyond his photographic memory, was his unusually close relationship with artists, a bond that had drifted into codependency by the time he moved to Cologne, Germany, in 1969. Finding cracked pen-and-ink drawings under Polke’s sofa, Werner would buy them because Polke needed money to eat. He would spend hours with Baselitz watching movies and analyzing the difference between the reddish tints of classic Russian films and the yellows of Technicolor. With Penck, who until 1980 lived in East Germany, on the other side of the wall, there were furtive meetings in parks to pick up canvases and smuggle them across the border. Though the artists were working in different styles, they were collectively bringing a new vigor and complexity to figurative painting. (The label “neo-Expressionists” came later.) And in the beginning, says Fabrice Hergott, director of the Musée d’Art Moderne and the driving force behind the Werner exhibit, “Michael was often the only person these artists had to speak with about art.”
Those conversations were not always pep talks. Werner is the rare dealer who’ll frankly tell an artist when he thinks a new painting or sculpture isn’t any good, and his bluntness has in some cases caused lasting damage. Among the people notably absent at the Paris opening were Baselitz, whom Werner hasn’t spoken to in 15 years, and Anselm Kiefer, who left the gallery in a huff in 1979. “At the time, Michael always wanted to control things,” says Werner’s friend Rudi Fuchs, the former director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, who was curating a Kiefer exhibit in Eindhoven the same year. Werner contends that Kiefer never told him why he left and that he doesn’t understand Baselitz’s departure either. But when asked if he sometimes went too far in criticizing his artists, Werner replies, “I always went too far. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
He calls Baselitz his greatest influence, speaking of him as a kind of absentee best friend. “Probably he needed to separate his life from mine,” Werner says, gazing toward the ceiling. “We were very close, and he sort of emancipated himself.” He adds, “This guy and I did a lot for each other, you know?” When I express interest in calling Baselitz, Werner unhesitatingly offers up his phone number. Baselitz, however, turns down my request for an interview via his assistant. But he does make a surprise visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne in mid-October to see the Werner exhibit, which includes eight of his own pieces. Hergott—who knows both men well and insists that he’s never heard one bad-mouth the other—says Baselitz remarked on being “extremely impressed” by the depth and uniqueness of Werner’s vision.