Featuring Werner’s first gallery job, dealings with the likes of Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, and his idiosyncratic thinking about the artworld, this conversation in two parts maps the career of the gallerist who brought German painting to the global stage.
Clément Dirié: Descriptions of you include ‘legendary dealer’ and ‘visionary gallerist’, with an emphasis on an attitude that is against the system, insolent. You even called yourself a ‘conservative anarchist’.
Michael Werner: Art saved my life. I started from a very modest background. I went to the gymnasium [high school] in Mülheim an der Ruhr, an industrial area, and I was slightly dyslexic. The only teacher who talked to me was the drawing teacher. He became my ‘mentor’. My mother was dead and my father, an engineer, didn’t talk to me because I didn’t finish school. When this teacher gave me a Swiss magazine called Du – a special issue about art dealers in Europe – I said to myself: ‘This is the world I imagine.’
I wrote a letter to all the gallerists featured, saying: ‘I want to become an art dealer, but I don’t know how to. Can you help me?’ Rudolf Springer wrote back: ‘If you happen to be in Berlin, call me.’ So I went off to Berlin and said I was there by accident. Springer was one of the most important dealers in Germany selling international art, British and French living artists. He came from a large scientific publishing family. He didn’t like the mainstream figures; he was into the underground. He didn’t deal with Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung, or Pierre Soulages, but rather showed ‘strange’ artists like Christian d’Orgeix [French painter, b. 1927] and Hans Bellmer. The same was true of Henry Moore: he favored Reg Butler [British sculptor, 1913-81].
You know, I had this strange capacity to entirely lose myself in the personality of an artist. This was my craziness: to let the artist totally open up and give their ‘non-knowledge’ and character to me. I would listen absolutely to them and believe something like: ‘This is the greatest artist in the world.’ This brought me a lot, because artists crouch in your soul. I’m not talking about being a blind believer but about constructing a real relationship.
Springer was an unusual character. He was extremely important for me and became sort of my surrogate father. After two and a half years, he fired me because I was becoming arrogant.
Springer introduced you to Baselitz.
One day two young men came into the gallery. Because I was the greatest art dealer of all time, I stuck their manifesto in the window. It was Eugen Schönebeck and Baselitz. For me, Baselitz totally ‘fit’. We were made for each other. We spent years together and I was very successful, thanks to that, in terms of strategies. For a long time I couldn’t sell. He was the engine, the kick-starter, who created the dynamics.
The case of German art is very funny, or sad. There was no German painting as such until the 20th century. Like everything, it had to be invented. Two people invented it: Hugo von Tschudi [1851-1911] and Julius Meier-Graefe [1867-1935] organized the ‘Jahrhundertausstellung deutscher Kunst’ (‘The Century Exhibition of German Painting’) in 1906 to establish German artistic heroes like Caspar David Friedrich.
Unfortunately, all of this is unknown in Germany now. There were 10 to 12 years of German modern art on eye level with the rest of the world before World War I. German artists were not yet seen in Europe as the ‘bad boys’ linked to terror, to the Holocaust. Today the Bauhaus is the ‘good’ German art and is reevaluated in an overinflated manner: its echo is a diluted idea of Modernism that fits into the feel-good ideologies we live with.