Even if you’re armed with a precise address and step-by-step directions, it’s hard to know for sure whether you’ve in fact arrived at Yvon Lambert’s home in Avignon, France. The tall iron gate in front of the traditional Provençal house is not marked, and there’s no buzzer in sight. From my car, I call Lambert’s cell phone, and he says he’ll let me in, but when the gate eventually opens, I’m not sure if it’s for me or because another car happens to be on its way out. It’s only when I reach the end of the tree-lined driveway and catch sight of the 80-year-old owner, in white Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, that I’m certain I’ve come to the right place.
To the art world insiders who know Lambert—a top Paris dealer who closed his gallery in 2014 after five decades in the business—it’s surprising that I’ve been allowed onto his property at all. At a time when even the most intellectually minded gallerists have given in to the pressures of salesmanship and self-promotion, Lambert is known for being secretive and shy, a fact that he’s quick to joke about. Within about 15 seconds of our first meeting, two days earlier, he had given me a wry look and said, “Okay, we’re done? You have enough, right? Thank you, goodbye!”
If Lambert agrees to a bit of hang time today, it’s only in light of a recent grand gesture: He has just unveiled a 40,000-square-foot space in the center of Avignon that will serve as the permanent home to his extraordinary contemporary art collection, which he has donated to France. The gift, comprising some 600 works, including important pieces by Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, and Adel Abdessemed, is valued at about $130 million.
A quick glance around the house’s exquisitely disheveled rooms—in the kitchen, a 19th-century ceramic bust sits atop a plastic coffeemaker, not far from a Douglas Gordon text piece painted directly onto a wall—hints at a few of Lambert’s complexities and contradictions. He is one of the most cultivated people you could ever meet, though he’s a high-school dropout. (His father, a small-town taxi driver, occasionally chauffeured Henri Matisse.) He’s a connoisseur of classical art and antiquities, but he made his name showcasing the avant-garde American artists of the 1960s and ’70s. He is reputed to be both stingy and generous, charming and cantankerous. Recently, in the newspaper Le Monde, an art critic observed that Lambert’s collection is very much like the man himself: “rich, strange, elusive.”
“Am I elusive? Yes,” he says. “Strange? Yes, maybe.” He laughs. “Rich? Well, a bit less now.” In a country where cultural institutions receive almost all of their funding from the state, philanthropic gifts like Lambert’s are once-in-a-century affairs; indeed, his is one of the largest since 1906, when Etienne Moreau-Nélaton gave his legendary stash of Manets and Delacroix to the Louvre. Lambert’s daughter and only heir, Eve, 50, who gave her blessing to the donation, admits it was a “complicated” decision for her to surrender most of her inheritance, since doing so affects the futures of her three children. But she knew that her father wanted two things above all: for the collection to remain intact and for it to be accessible to the public. “So of course I wasn’t going to ruin the work of my father’s life,” she says.
From the start of his career, Lambert says, he was more interested in the artworks he set aside than the ones he sold. “Often, the collection of an art dealer is mostly the pieces he wasn’t able to place,” he says. “But I chose these works from the beginning. It was very easy to say to a client, ‘That one’s already taken,’ without mentioning that it was sold to me.”
Not that there was always a long line of eager buyers at his door. Ever since he headed north from his hometown of Vence and opened his gallery in Paris in 1966, Lambert’s tastes have tended to skew a decade or so ahead of everyone else’s. By the mid-’60s, New York had supplanted Paris as the art world’s creative epicenter, but Ileana Sonnabend was the only dealer in Paris showing the work of Americans like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Nobody was paying attention to the young Minimalists and conceptualists—Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, Brice Marden—to whom Lambert was most drawn. He started taking trips to Manhattan, finagling introductions to those artists and offering them shows in Paris.
Meanwhile, he was slowly proving himself to the French art establishment, then a notoriously snooty clan of well-born, well-connected Parisians. “At the time, the idea of being an art dealer in Paris, it was often a social thing,” he says. “You know, wealthy wives who were bored and thought, Oh, I’m going to open a gallery!” The Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan, a friend of Lambert’s, says his success is all the more notable given his blue-collar origins. “The French are probably more class-conscious than anyone in the world, but Yvon has the kind of refinement you cannot learn—an immediate understanding of things,” she says. “In a way, he’s an artist himself, and I think it’s why he looks like a loner. Most art dealers are either very tough or very mannered. Yvon is neither—he is his own person.”
That’s fully apparent at the house in Avignon, which Lambert bought in 1995 (his main residence, which he shares with Eric Mézil, the director of the Collection Lambert, is in Paris’s Marais neighborhood). For many collectors with a stash of blue-chip art like Lambert’s, the typical strategy is to hire a top designer and turn the place into a pristine, gallerylike shrine. Lambert’s home, instead, is an exercise in haphazard harmony, where art and objects are arranged with the kind of insouciance that is the mark of a true aesthete. The more important the artwork, it seems, the more likely that Lambert has placed it near a bare radiator, or partly hidden it behind an antique African figurine he found at a flea market.
In the living room, two LeWitt cube drawings sit on the floor behind a pair of plain wooden stools; on the mantelpiece, there are small unframed paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly—gifts from the artists—mixed with Lambert’s “little curiosities,” such as a 17th-century figure of Saint Sebastian. Rows of antique Catholic reliquaries in bell jars fill one shelf, while on a corner table, near a stray electrical cord, a vase of peacock feathers towers over a cluster of disassembled body parts from a classical sculpture. Upstairs, on a wall above an unmade bed in a guest room, is Jonathan Horowitz’s 3-D take on the gay-pride flag, coated with glitter; a vintage Pierrot clown suit hangs on a closet door.
Abdessemed, the Algerian-born, London-based artist whose 2014 solo show was the Yvon Lambert gallery’s last, is among those close to Lambert who has never set foot in the Avignon house, even though he’s visited the city many times. “Yvon has invited me, but then at the last minute there always seems to be an issue with the plumbing, or some other problem that prevents me from staying there,” Abdessemed says, laughing. He compares Lambert to the 20th-century bibliophile and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, for his intellectual curiosity and ability to recite poems by heart, and also to a truffle pig. “Yvon quietly sniffs around, and then he starts digging to find the prizes nobody else sees.”
For all the house’s intimate charisma, it’s the Collection Lambert, in Avignon’s historic center, that fully showcases Lambert’s pioneering taste in contemporary art. As of 2000, works from the collection were already on display in an 18th-century town house here; the mansion next door was recently annexed, doubling the exhibition space. Budget disputes and political squabbling caused several delays, but these days Lambert pronounces himself completely satisfied, and critics have hailed how the new venue—designed by brothers Cyrille and Laurent Berger—fuses the buildings’ historical details with clean, spacious volumes in marble and white concrete.
As he walks me through the galleries on the day of the opening, Lambert recalls that in the early days, the now iconic Minimalists were so underappreciated that the offer of a free trip to Paris was sometimes enough to convince them to show with him. The Weiner works on the walls are the ones Lambert snagged in the early 1970s, during a studio visit in New York. “There were five that I really liked, and they were all scattered on the floor,” Lambert says. “Luckily for these artists, there was interest in Europe. Eighty years before that, it was the reverse—the Impressionists were lucky to have Americans buy their work. Otherwise, they would have all died of hunger.”
Moving to another wall, Lambert singles out what is probably his favorite piece: a small, monochromatic Robert Ryman, with thick strokes of white paint on paper, which is attached by four strips of tape to a piece of fiberglass. “It’s like a miracle,” he says. “It’s the simplest, most authentic, strongest, and most moving use of paint that exists.” Lambert sometimes likes to sit with the painting on his knees. He tells me he bought it from Ryman in 1971, shortly after it was made, for $200.
In later decades, Lambert made a few prescient pivots away from Minimalism, embracing figurative-minded painters like Basquiat and Kiefer in the ’80s and, later, trailblazers such as Goldin and Douglas Gordon, whose work dealt with transgressive intimacies or explored uses of video and other media. “An art dealer’s job is to show the best of what’s new,” Lambert says. “I made some very big, violent leaps. But I needed to change. At 40 years old, I couldn’t just stay with the same kind of artists.” But it’s not only Lambert’s unique taste that ties the collection together—it’s also his deep personal connections: The dealer’s own image, or a version of it, even turns up in a few of the artworks. In 1972, when Twombly was at Lambert’s house in Paris, the artist decided to do a “portrait” of his gallerist. “I was standing next to a wall,” Lambert remembers. “And Cy said, ‘Okay, we’re going to measure this wall, and I’m going to do your portrait according to those measurements.’ ” The resulting image depicts Lambert as a very thin, vertical line—imposing yet intangible.
Of anyone in his stable, Lambert seems to have forged the tightest bond with Goldin, the American photographer whose diaristic explorations of addiction and sexuality have influenced generations of photographers. “We’ve had a relationship of love, of fusion, of anger, of everything,” Lambert says. “With lots of artists, there is devotion but there are also ruptures—because the artist always thinks he is right, and so does the dealer.”
Goldin was one of several artists noticeably absent from the opening party for the Collection in July. I ask Lambert why she wasn’t there, and he looks at the floor. “Because, because, because, I don’t know,” he says, then admits the rift is rooted in “a complicated situation with the gallery” but declines to elaborate. “She is very difficult. We’re not mad at each other, but we’re not friends anymore. Last year we saw each other at a dinner, and we hugged. Maybe it’s a love story that is now over. Anyway, it’s very sad.”
Lambert is blunt about his distaste for the ever growing dominance of big money and big hype in today’s art world. When he launched his career, not only were his artists on the margins of the culture, but so was contemporary art itself; now, with young talents Instagramming their way to fame and dealers leveraging every sale to finance another splashy statement at the next art fair, the closing of the Yvon Lambert gallery has been viewed as one more example of a principled, medium-size operation that was not suited for the reigning mega-gallery system. (In addition to his airy, glass-ceiling space in Paris, Lambert had a New York outpost, in Chelsea, from 2003 to 2011, and a London branch that opened in 2008 and closed the following year.) “Everyone in the world is interested in art, everyone is buying, everyone is speculating,” Lambert says. “That has allowed some artists to earn a lot of money—and some dealers also. I benefitted from that situation, and I’m not going to pretend other-wise. But I reached a moment when it didn’t interest me anymore.”
Now, Lambert prefers to focus on his boutique publishing business: For years he has been teaming with artists including Jenny Holzer and Glenn Ligon to create books that are essentially artworks, printed in small editions. Even though they tend to sell out quickly (rare-book dealers were offering Kiefer’s 2002 title, Die Ungeborenes, for $25,000 shortly after its release), the milieu remains one that Lambert finds pleasingly devoid of pushy art advisers, auction houses, and publicists. “Most book lovers are discreet people who like to read at home,” Lambert says. “Owning great books is not a mark of social or financial success.”
Looking back on a 50-year career, Lambert admits that he sometimes prioritized his gallery at the expense of his family—a tendency confirmed by Eve, who grew up partly in Milan with her mother, Françoise, an art dealer, and partly with Lambert in Paris. Eve says that when she was a child, Lambert’s collection was like his “second daughter,” for better and for worse. “Art is my father’s lifelong passion, so of course the attention was not always on me.” Still, it’s clear father and daughter are close. At the inauguration ceremony in the courtyard of Collection Lambert, after France’s minister of culture has spoken and it’s time for Lambert to give one of his rare—and, for him, dreaded—public speeches, he thanks his daughter above all. His voice is so faint that it’s hard to hear his words, and when he mentions Eve’s “courage and generosity” and starts to cry, it becomes even harder.
After I’ve been at Lambert’s house for less than 45 minutes, he begins playfully but pointedly nudging me about how much longer our interview will go on. “You’re asking me all these questions, for a story that I’m sure will be eight lines long!” he says. In fact, he tells me, he’s in a hurry because Adnan is coming over from nearby Aix-en-Provence, and he needs to get ready for her. Before I leave, he walks me around the front of the house to show me his favorite part of the garden, where a simple wooden bench is backed by an unmanicured but perfectly arranged cluster of hedges and poplar tress.
Adnan later tells me that she actually didn’t go to Lambert’s place that day. She has seen him a few times in recent months, but she still hasn’t been inside his house.
photography assistants: Victor Picon, Clement Vayssieres.