The Artist Whisperer

As he celebrates his 50th anniversary as a gallerist— and rabble-rouser—Michael Werner is still firing spitballs from the back of the class. Christopher Bagley visits the legendary art dealer in his castle outside Berlin.

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Michael Werner at his schloss outside Berlin, 2012, seated in front of Per Kirkeby’s Untitled, 1981.

The Artist Whisperer

As he celebrates his 50th anniversary as a gallerist— and rabble-rouser—Michael Werner is still firing spitballs from the back of the class. Christopher Bagley visits the legendary art dealer in his castle outside Berlin.

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.

michael werner art dealer

With Mary Boone, their son Max and Kirkeby (in stripes), 1982.

History, he contends, is now considered essentially irrelevant by most of the people who buy, sell, produce, and exhibit art. “I think it has happened because history is about the old, and anything old is taboo,” he says. Another problem: the emergence of today’s supposedly wide-open, digitally connected culture, which is thought to transcend geography. “The whole idea of globalization is bullshit,” Werner says. “Art is not global, and it’s not even national. It’s regional. If you come from area X, it totally forms you.”

That’s certainly true for Werner and his core group of artists, who came of age in divided postwar Germany. Werner was 6 years old in 1945 when his family headed west from Berlin, fleeing the Russians and taking refuge 225 miles away, in Bad Oeynhausen. The town was still under heavy bombardment by the Allies, and Werner remembers walking outside after the raids to examine severed arms and legs and to watch heads roll, literally. (Only later, when Werner tried LSD in his 20s, did he recall other key details from those days, such as his mother’s affair with a tall Polish officer named Marian. “Suddenly I remembered everything, down to the guy’s smell,” he says.)

By the 1960s, after he’d gotten the job at Springer’s gallery in West Berlin, he found himself drawn to artists like Baselitz, who’d grown up in East Germany and was hauling around his own historical baggage. Baselitz reviled the German Democratic Republic, Werner says, yet he also “desperately hated everything in West Berlin.” In those days, the art scene in Berlin and the Western world was increasingly enthralled by the minimalism and conceptualism of Josef Beuys, who was teaching in Düsseldorf. So while just about everyone else—including Immendorff and other artists Werner represented—flocked to performance pieces involving poured honey and live turtles, Werner, ever the contrarian, developed a keen interest in painting, a medium then regarded as boring at best, reactionary at worst.

He recalls spending much of the ’60s and early ’70s “pretending to be a dealer.” His gallery space at one point was his tiny Berlin bedroom, and his clients were practically nonexistent. “You cannot imagine how it was,” Werner says. “All these artists had no success. And I was slowly disintegrating as a person. I would live at night and sleep during the day, to escape from it all.” In the Berlin underground of that time, there was no shortage of dubious characters with whom he could commiserate, among them one well-known figure who, Werner divulges, trafficked in stolen Giacomettis. “He tempted me for sure,” Werner says, smiling.

michael werner art dealer

With Marcel Broodthaers at Werner’s gallery in Cologne, 1971.

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.

michael werner art dealer

Werner in Berlin with Georg Baselitz’s Oberon, 1964.

But it’s telling that even with the late Sigmar Polke, who was famously mild-mannered and averse to conflict, Werner had numerous dramatic ruptures. One occurred in the 1970s, after Werner pushed Polke’s friend Achim Duchow down a stairway during an argument about whether Polke’s canvases should be shown with or without frames. (“Was that really necessary?” Polke had asked.) Such is Werner’s imposing stature in the art world that people meeting him for the first time often gird themselves for a tyrant but are surprised by his playful wit and self-mocking, distinctly un-Teutonic brand of humor. (Explaining why he’s more skilled at verbal arguments than physical fights, he says, “I could punch somebody in the middle of the face and nothing would happen.”) He projects a certain old-world gentility that’s consistent with his old-school approach to dealing, one that’s in many ways reminiscent of tastemaker and talent-nurturer Leo Castelli, with an emphasis on the long-term development of his artists’ careers instead of the hard sell.

It’s a style that met with some reality checks when Werner lived in New York in the 1980s and was married to the dealer Mary Boone, who then ruled over the money-mad SoHo scene, making stars out of American figurative painters like Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl. “Michael arrived just at the point where the art world was becoming the art market,” recalls Fischl, who knew the couple well and calls Werner “a wonderfully eccentric character, with very strong and confident opinions.” Werner’s “European” approach to dealing and collecting, he notes, contrasted with Boone’s more “mercantile” strategy. At the time, Fischl says, “Mary’s business model was all about developing waiting lists and telling clients they had five minutes to decide or the artwork was going to the next person on the list. For her, the way to help an artist is to sell the work. For Michael, the way to help an artist is to buy the work and possibly hold onto it for years.”

The two merged their businesses and began mounting shows by artists ranging from Polke to Francis Picabia, which helped Boone to, as she puts it, “see things from two perspectives. Werner, asked how he profited from the arrangement, jokes that he was able get into any hot restaurant in Manhattan without a reservation. (“Mary was the glamour queen, that’s for sure,” he says.) But he undeniably benefited from Boone’s instinct for buzz and her network of wealthy American collectors. “A whole new body of people started buying Michael’s artists,” says Boone, citing Eli Broad as an example. “I mean, Michael might not have realized how significant they were, but they were really good collectors.”

Boone and Werner disagreed “a lot,” says Fischl. “Their arguments were mostly about art and the art world—they always seemed to happen during dinner, at fancy restaurants.” He remembers one afternoon with the couple in eastern France, during a long, wine-drenched lunch at the gastronomic temple Auberge de L’Ill, when Werner opined that many of Boone’s American artists, particularly David Salle, were decadent and uninteresting. “Michael did this knowing full well that David is Mary’s favorite artist and also a good friend of mine whose work I much admire,” says Fischl. “So he was lighting a fuse. And it went off.” An “absolute screaming match” ensued, and the group was asked to leave. Fischl tells the story as a way to illustrate the “intense authentic passion” for their artists that the two dealers had in common. “It seemed like their relationship was based on a kind of shared sense of how to make the art world interesting and responsive.”

Werner has a son with Boone (Max, 24) and another (Julius, 34) with Jule Kewenig, the ex-wife of Markus Lüpertz, one of Werner’s artists and close friends. Although Boone describes Werner as “a great parent,” Werner himself is not so sure. “One thing I’ve learned is that kids who grow up with artist parents have it bad,” he says. Many certainly have their reasons. Kewenig and Werner got together in 1969, when she left Lüpertz while three months pregnant with Lüpertz’s child. Lüpertz later tried to attack Werner with a rock during a garden party. But Werner’s love life has mellowed considerably since then. For the past 15 years he has lived with his partner, Maki, a painter and former student of Immendorff’s. And Lüpertz eventually got over their rivalry regarding Kewenig; he’s still with Werner’s gallery and came to Paris in October to help install his monumental Daphne sculpture at the entrance to the museum exhibit.

When Werner walks me through the show, his competing instincts as a dealer and a collector are very much in evidence—in fact, Werner is permanently donating 60 of the exhibited works to the museum, plus an additional 67. There’s a Beuys sculpture, Double Aggregate, whose price Werner always kept artificially high so he could hold onto it for himself. There are pieces he’s bought and sold at least five times. It’s an intensely personal collection, with surprise appearances by semi-neglected artists like French nouveau réaliste Francis Gruber. “I hate those typical ‘masterpiece’ collections, where you have, you know, one fantastic Picasso from each period,” Werner says. He’s particularly excited by works in a series and is likely to be more interested in the 20 drawings that show the development of an idea for a painting than he is in the final painting itself.

Every artwork in the exhibit comes with a story or, more likely, several of them. Werner points out two later paintings of Immendorff’s, produced using a computer program and with the help of 10 assistants, after the artist had become paralyzed by the progressive neurodegenerative Lou Gehrig’s disease. “It’s really interesting to see an old artist do the job of a young artist: inventing a totally new technique for painting,” he tells me. ­Immendorff, Werner adds, “was, of all my artists, the closest to being a mental case. He really had a lot of schizophrenia, this man. But he was so fucking gifted.”

If Werner’s collection offers a window into Werner’s mind, his estate in Germany provides a complete map of it. The property is like a mini village, centered around a main house that began as a baroque mansion and was fashioned into a neo-Gothic castle by a plant taxonomist called Count Fritz von Schwerin. After the count died, in the 1930s, the house sat empty while the English gardens turned into a kind of Mittel-European jungle—one that Werner has been gradually taming over the past 10 years. In one meadow looms a magnificent 88-foot Penck totem pole, and nearby, behind a barn, is an area Werner calls his “cemetery,” where dozens of other sculptures are clustered together forlornly while he searches for the right place for them. Werner is, of course, extremely picky about these things, and a conventional spot—say, in a shrubbery-framed corner—won’t do. “It’s very complicated to put a sculpture in a wooded landscape so that it looks good,” he says. “I have 50 acres, and I can’t find a place for a sculpture.” The outbuildings include a three-story former forgery that now ­contains offices, a library, and a by-appointment-only gallery; an orangery Werner built from scratch around a set of antique glass doors he found at a Paris flea market; and two massive storage depots for his thousands of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

Yet none of the main house’s airy salons are crammed with art. Instead, Werner has on view a rotating assortment of paintings, Empire furniture, Murano lamps, and African antiques he has assembled from dealers, auctions, and markets. Several ground-floor rooms, deliberately unfinished and constantly evolving, serve as Werner’s aesthetic audition spaces, where he can quietly contemplate and compare artworks. Hergott views the property as Werner’s <em.gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art—a fully realized ­expression of his vision. “For Michael,” Hergott says, “the park, the trees, the sculptures, the furniture, even every detail in the kitchen, have to be as perfect as possible, in terms of quality and aesthetics.”

It can also be seen as the house that Werner’s arguments built. Looking at the remarkable property, one is more inclined to view the dealer’s zeal for conflict as part of a larger philosophy that values competition and disagreement in the creative process. Open antagonism, Werner believes, is absolutely necessary for art; he thinks it’s been too long since young artists had passionate supporters and fervent detractors. Today, with many immature artists gaining instant fame, thanks to their high prices, and then continuing their careers inside well-financed, PR-protected bubbles, perhaps it’s no surprise that the results are underwhelming. “Nobody wants to compete anymore,” Werner says resignedly. “And nobody wants to compare.”

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.”

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