The Mixologist

At home in Brussels, gallerist Almine Rech combines Picassos with contemporary works to intoxicating effect. Christopher Bagley takes it all in.

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Rech, at home in Brussels, 2012, wearing her own Miu Miu dress, standing in front of Jeff Koons’s Seal Walrus Trashcans, 2003.

The Mixologist

At home in Brussels, gallerist Almine Rech combines Picassos with contemporary works to intoxicating effect. Christopher Bagley takes it all in.

It’s not often you’ll hear someone describe an original artwork by Pablo Picasso as “very cute,” but Almine Rech, the French art dealer, has a soft spot for a chalk drawing that hangs in an inconspicuous corner of her Brussels house. It’s a sketch that Picasso made in 1963 for his grandson Bernard, who is now Rech’s husband. At the time, Bernard was about 4, preparing for his first day of kindergarten, and he proudly showed Grandpapa his school supplies, including a new miniature blackboard. Picasso, taking the board in his hands, couldn’t help himself: With a few quick strokes of chalk, he drew a seagull. Then he wrote Bernard’s name at the top, signed his own at the bottom, and sprayed the board with a fixative so it could never be erased. At this, young Bernard burst into tears.

“It was a big drama,” Rech says. “He’d thought this blackboard was so fabulous, and Pablo ruined it.”

Today, at 53, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso is far more appreciative of the sketch, and of the many Picasso paintings, sculptures, and drawings he inherited after the death of his father, Paulo, Pablo’s only legitimate son. In the home Bernard, Almine, and their children share, the walls are duly adorned with a rotating assortment of masterworks. But the place is far more than a shrine to the man many consider to be the greatest artist of the 20th century. Rech is known for her astute eye for the contemporary and also for a certain kind of elegant restraint; not surprisingly, the house’s interiors, which she and Bernard put together without the help of a decorator, show the couple’s unique flair for combining the understated with the dramatic. Mixed in among the Picassos are a Russian Suprematist drawing, Martin Szekely coffee tables, a small James Turrell light piece, and a half-ton Jeff Koons sculpture of inflatable pool toys in trash cans from the “Popeye” series.

“It’s interesting to see how the contemporary works mesh with Picasso,” says Rech, who on this November day is seated in her living room wearing slim gray jeans, a Gucci top, and black Louboutin heels. Pointing to the unusual synchronicity between the Koons sculpture and Picasso’s 1932 painting Le Sauvetage, which depicts the Minotaur saving a young girl at sea, she says, “There are often surprises.”

Few things, in fact, are predictable in the world of Rech, who was born into a privileged Parisian milieu where women weren’t expected to work—unless they wanted to, which Rech always did. Her father was the designer Georges Rech, founder of one of France’s first ready-to-wear companies, and her mother was descended from a Vietnamese mandarin family who’d fled to France in the ’50s, after her own father (a Paris-trained engineer and unrepentant capitalist) was captured by Ho Chi Minh. Georges Rech was what Almine calls a “Sunday painter”—one who eventually dropped the hobby when his business took off but who nonetheless encouraged his daughter’s artistic leanings, as well as her entrepreneurial ones. As a teen, Almine began accepting commissions as a portraitist after family friends saw her minimalistic paintings of her mother. While at boarding school in Switzerland, she contemplated a career as an artist but came to the conclusion that “it was very lonely work, with such high personal requirements,” she says. “So I thought, I am not able to sacrifice everything, but I will remain in the art world.” Back in Paris, after a six-year marriage to businessman Xavier de Froment, she met Cyrille Putman, son of design legend Andrée Putman; the two would later marry but started as business partners, opening a gallery in the not yet fancy Marais district in 1990.

Their first exhibition made a statement that was both bold and understated: It consisted of just one piece, by the light artist James Turrell, who was not at that time represented by a dealer in Europe. “Everyone said, ‘Almine, you don’t start with a light piece—it costs so much to produce, and you will go bankrupt,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I hope not.’ ” Turrell, who has remained with Rech’s gallery ever since—and is the subject of a major traveling retrospective this spring—believes that the show, despite whatever financial risk it entailed, was a canny move for a young dealer eager to make her mark. “It was a way of establishing herself as someone who really goes out there and does things for artists,” he says.

By 1997, Rech and Putman had divorced and Rech had opened her own space, bringing along Ugo Rondinone, Joseph Kosuth, and other artists whose minimalist and conceptual leanings jibed with her own. It was that year, at a dinner in Paris during the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC), that Rech found herself seated next to Bernard, the press-shy Picasso scion about whom little was publicly known, beyond the fact that he wrote poetry and looked a lot like his famous grandfather. “The connection was instant,” Rech recalls, although the two playfully sparred over their “totally opposite” tastes in art. “Bernard was much more into painting than I was—and more figurative works,” she says, noting wryly that “he did seem very open to my point of view, maybe because he was interested in me as a woman.” When he asked for her phone number, Rech demurred but told him he was welcome to stop by her new gallery. The next day, he was at her booth at FIAC. “Bernard is a very discreet person, but he is also very determined,” she says.

Many describe Rech in the same terms. Not only has she steadily raised her gallery’s profile, she’s also broadened its range, with a stable that includes Koons, Anselm Reyle, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. In Paris, where—unlike in New York—very few top dealers are women, the chic, reed-thin, and deceptively delicate Rech remains an intriguing anomaly; observers say she never makes an issue of her gender but that her light, particularly feminine kind of grace serves her extremely well. “Almine looks like she’s flying over things without touching them” says the artist Francesco Vezzoli, comparing her to a Koons metal balloon sculpture, whose featherweight appearance belies its heft. Erik Lindman, a 28-year-old artist Rech signed in 2012, says, “Almine is always quiet, always polite, never pushy. But I think she is very good at getting what she wants.”

Rech and Bernard moved to Brussels in 2006 as they embarked on two major construction projects: one in the massive truck garage that became Rech’s gallery space, and the other in their three-story brick villa, which was designed in the ’30s by Adrien Blomme. The house’s sleek art deco interiors had deteriorated over the years, particularly during a period when it served as the European headquarters of Tupperware. “It was like reviving an old car that had been sitting in the garage for too long,” says the soft-spoken Bernard of the renovation, whose main goal was to undo previous makeovers and to restore the original open volumes and period fixtures. To furnish the place, they brought in several pieces with only-an-expert-would-notice pedigrees: the Jean-Michel Frank sofas in the living room, for example, are not the usual reproductions but estate-authorized versions made by her former mother-in-law Andrée Putman from Frank’s original drawings.

The art in their home shows how the couple’s previously conflicting tastes have converged over the years. Before long, Bernard found that he had a thing for Donald Judd, and Rech became increasingly responsive to the “hand-made” qualities in both Picassos and contemporary pieces. As Bernard explains it, “I discovered that if I’m not paying attention to what artists are doing now, I can’t have a real feel for other periods in art history.” Among the works on display that they’ve collected together: an Ed Ruscha 1974 word painting (“actress” is spelled out on moiré silk) and one of Franz West’s 2007 portable sculptures, known as adaptives.

The artworks share space with some extraordinary personal objects, including a toy horse Picasso built from the metal legs of a TV table and gave to Bernard when he was a toddler. “I remember riding it, or trying to,” Bernard says. And if the embroidered chair in the library looks familiar, that’s because it’s featured in Portrait of Olga in an Armchair, the best-known painting of Bernard’s grandmother and Picasso’s first wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova. (Khokhlova embroidered the chair herself, using a floral pattern Picasso had designed for her.) In November at Rech’s Brussels gallery, Vezzoli showed a new series inspired by Khokhlova’s previously unseen photo archive; the artworks explored the complex history of the woman who gave up her career with the Ballets Russes to marry Picasso, only to see him betray her with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter.

During a dinner for 50 at Almine and Bernard’s home on the night of the Vezzoli opening, several guests casually plunked themselves down in the famous chair as waiters circulated with champagne. Miuccia Prada subtly eyed a wooden relief from Frank Stella’s “Polish Villages” series on the dining room wall, and the couple’s 11-year-old twins, Georges and Olga, wearing bathrobes and slippers, as bedtime was approaching, rushed around with place cards, helping the grown-ups find their seats. Friends say this mixture of high living and informal ease is typical of the Rech-Picasso household. “There’s absolutely no snobbery there,” says John Richardson, the art historian and Picasso biographer. He adds that Bernard’s marriage to Almine has brought him “a whole new life.” Rech, with her business savvy, “has given Bernard an enormous boost in living up to his task as head of the Picasso family. And Bernard is enormously helpful to Almine—obviously with his name, but also with his knowledge and feeling for art, which is inherited.”

Compared with Bernard, Rech can seem extroverted, though now and then, without raising her voice, she does reveal hints of a sort of Gallic steeliness: A few hours before the dinner, while meeting with an assistant to review the seating chart, she made clear her displeasure at seeing that a certain collector had been imprudently placed next to a certain artist. “C’est ridicule!” she exclaimed.

Like most top dealers, she wrestles with the mixed blessings of skyrocketing prices and the resulting pressures they place on artists, particularly young artists. “Of course there is speculation, and it can be very damaging,” Rech says. “But what do you do? Keep selling at $20,000 when something similar just went for $150,000 at auction? The big change is that in the past, auction houses were selling works that were created 10 or 20 years earlier. Now they sell whatever works they can get, including some that are six months old.”

Ever since 1990, when she stumbled onto a small target-shaped painting by the then unknown artist Ugo Rondinone and offered him a solo show, Rech has made it a priority to seek out young talents. One of her newest finds is Lindman, a Yale graduate, whom she first visited in New York last May after seeing his work at a gallery in Geneva. For Lindman, who makes paintings reassembled from other previously discarded paintings, the first surprise was when Rech showed up at his small Harlem studio in a chauffeured car, wearing what he calls a “very nice Chanel pantsuit or something.” The second surprise was when she offered to help him lift his heaviest artworks as he moved them around the studio. Within days the two were planning Lindman’s September show at Rech’s Paris space.

Lindman notes that many dealers at Rech’s level send their deputies to meet with young artists but that Rech likes to go herself—presumably not only to look at the work but also to extend her feelers in other potentially useful ways. “When you go and see a young artist’s studio, you get to see who their friends are, who they like, who they are looking at,” Lindman explains. Rech, for her part, says the main quality she seeks in emerging artists is the same as it’s always been—an unwavering engagement in the work: “I always hope to find people who want to be very radical.”

Picasso’s legacy, inevitably, looms large. Long before Rech married into the family, Bernard had weathered the prolonged inheritance dispute that began when the artist died in 1973, leaving behind thousands of artworks, many ex-lovers, several offspring—and no will. Since Khokhlova was the only wife of Picasso’s to have children and French law heavily favors legally recognized heirs, Bernard and his half-sister Marina ended up with the biggest stakes after their father died only two years later. “The greatest collection of Picasso’s work belonged to Picasso—he was a huge collector of his own work,” Richardson says. “And Bernard, as legitimate heir, got a rather large slice of the cake.”

There are some pieces Picasso probably kept for sentimental reasons (including several portraits of his last wife, Jacqueline Roque) and others that were never sold because they weren’t yet appreciated by collectors, such as the late-period works that Bernard loaned out for the acclaimed 2009 “Mosqueteros” exhibition at Gagosian in New York.

Managing a collection like this one, which necessitates covering the costs of conservation, insurance, and security, requires vast amounts of time and money. (In 2002 the couple established the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso Para el Arte [FABA], a Madrid-based entity devoted to the study and preservation of Picasso’s works.) “Really, this is almost a full-time job for Bernard,” Rech says. Pieces are sold from time to time—quietly, of course. “You have to sell,” she admits. “At least at the beginning. Because how else can you build the storage spaces and pay the people every month to take care of the work?” With a laugh she adds, “You can’t have only art; you need to also have some cash.”

The couple seems to have no shortage of either. In addition to their contemporary art collection and the Brussels house, they own a sprawling apartment in the 16th arrondissement in Paris and recently bought a downtown New York pied-à-terre that will be designed with the architect Peter Marino. This spring, Rech will relocate her gallery’s Paris branch to a large and airy space on the Rue de Turenne. Outside Paris is the storied chateau that Bernard inherited, Boisgeloup, where Picasso had his sculpture studio and where Olga lived for long periods after they separated in 1937. For Bernard, Almine, and their children (in addition to the twins, there are two older sons, one from each of Almine’s previous marriages), Boisgeloup is now a weekend retreat, one that Rech says comes with “an incredible charisma,” thanks to such trappings as Picasso’s car collection. “There’s a huge white Lincoln Continental with suicide doors [so called because they have hinges at the back, not the front]—a present from an American collector, who had it shipped it over.”

Vezzoli, who visited Boisgeloup while researching his new works, says the chateau, much like the house in Brussels, epitomizes Almine and Bernard’s uniquely multifaceted appeal. “So many art-world people are only able to speak about their collection, or their artists, or who is hot or not. But Almine and Bernard are real people with wide interests, and they’ve had lives with so many layers. Of course, there is the Picasso archive, but also Almine’s gallery is doing shows with all these young artists, like Alex Israel. Then you go to Boisgeloup and you see a hint of the ’30s and traces from the ’50s and decor by Garouste et Bonetti, whom Bernard hired in the ’80s. There are all these interesting things, inspired by their lives and their history, and all mixed up together.”

Every now and then, Rech still picks up a brush or a pencil and paints or sketches one of her children. Thinking back to her teenage portraits of her mother, she is not as dismissive as one might expect; she describes them as pared down yet hyper-realistic, and maybe kind of interesting. “They are the beginning of something that I never continued,” she says. You won’t see them hanging on the walls in Brussels, alongside, say, Picasso’s portrait of Bernard’s father as a Harlequin, but Rech has not gotten rid of them. “They are around,” she says. “I’m not sure where. Somewhere.”

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