Of course, Werner is hardly the only person in the art world seeking solid ground beneath all the froth. At London’s always-on-trend Frieze fair in October, the new Masters section, where everything from antiquities to 20th-century works were being hawked side by side, stole much of the buzz from the main event. (Then again, a good amount of the excitement appeared to stem from how cheap the $48,000 ancient-Greek bronzes seemed when compared with the $1.3 million Paul McCarthys at the main fair.)
Werner doesn’t spend much time at fairs scouting for the next Baselitz. He leaves that to his longtime associate Gordon VeneKlasen, who bounces between the gallery’s branches in New York (designed by Annabelle Selldorf in Leo Castelli’s former headquarters on East 77th Street), London (which opened in Mayfair in September), and Cologne. There’s also an experimental project space in Berlin called VeneKlasen Werner, where screenings and performances alternate with exhibits by emerging or lesser known artists. VeneKlasen, who brought Peter Doig into the stable, says it’s important that the gallery keeps its original focus on painting and sculpture while also staying relevant to a younger generation. “I would like for us to take on more artists, but it’s often hard to find artists that fit,” he says. So you won’t see Werner at, say, the opening for the latest Olafur Elíasson mega-installation. (“For me, this Icelandic artist is a model for non-art,” he says.) And don’t look for him at traditional institutions like the Louvre, either. During a trip to Paris in July, Werner made the mistake of venturing into the landmark museum, which was packed with crowds. “I knew it would be terrible, but I didn’t know how terrible,” he says. “Everyone goes in shorts—they’re all sweating, taking pictures. They’re all following an audio guide or a folded pamphlet, and they visit every fucking artwork on the list. It’s ruinous—ruinous.”
Maybe it’s better for everybody that Werner is most content on his own property, in Germany, where he can curate and re-curate his surroundings exactly as he wishes. Even after the massive donation and loan to the Musée d’Art Moderne, there remains plenty of art left in his storage rooms. Recently Werner dug into the stash and noticed a 1984 Immendorff and a small early Paul Cézanne. Both paintings depict solitary figures in the woods at night. Struck by the compositional similarities, Werner framed them and hung them next to each other in one of his house’s unheated back rooms. For several weeks now, he has been standing in front of the paintings, studying them, comparing them, just looking.
“It’s amazing to me that these works are more than a hundred years apart and they have the same magic, the same light,” he says. “I saw the correspondence, and I thought, Gosh, how interesting.”