In the sixties and seventies, a trip to Leo Castelli’s townhouse gallery on tree-lined East 77th Street was a regular pilgrimage for the art-world cognoscenti. But by the early eighties, uptown had lost most of its best dealers, Castelli included, to SoHo, and since then, the art market has moved to West Chelsea and the meatpacking district. Now, however, Castelli’s old space is getting a new tenant.
On April 13, Michael Werner, the country’s – if not the world’s – foremost dealer of German contemporary art, is moving his gallery from East 67th Street. Art-world old-timers climbing the stairs to the second floor may recognize the ratty red carpet that runs right up to the ceiling, installed in Castelli’s day to protect the walls from being battered by big paintings.
The first artist on view at the Michael Werner Gallery is Francis Picabia, who, it turns out, Castelli also chose for his own inaugural show in 1957. But that’s an unintentional coincidence. Werner considered doing a tribute to Castelli but dismissed the idea as being “a little bit phony.” Like Castelli’s, Werner’s instincts are thoroughly modern – and unsentimental. And like Castelli’s, those instincts have led him to some of the great artists of his generation: Baselitz, Kiefer, and Polke were all cultivated by Werner at his other gallery in Cologne.
Werner, now 60, is tall and gracious, hiding a dry wit behind his slightly stiff demeanor. He is so well mannered that he still dines every Sunday, when he’s in town, with his high-profile art-dealing ex-wife, Mary Boone. Their union in the eighties, which made them the most commercially powerful couple on the international art circuit, was characterized by some as more merger than marriage. “We’re on the very best of terms,” Boone says.
Moving farther uptown just when everyone else has decamped for Chelsea is consistent with Werner’s perverse refusal to follow the herd. He says he doesn’t enjoy going to museums because there’s nothing for sale – though he has also been known not to sell to someone he doesn’t like. “He can remember every inch of every painting he’s seen for the last 30 years, but he can’t remember the name of the collector who bought a million dollars’ worth of art from him two weeks ago,” says Gordon VeneKlasen, director of his New York gallery.
“Werner’s also different than an American dealer,” says artist Eric Fischl, “in that he doesn’t hesitate to tell an artist what he thinks in blunt terms. He’ll tell you you’re making a mistake, that this is the best, this isn’t any good.” “One of the greatest things that can happen to you as an artist is to have him as a dealer,” concurs Interview editor-in-chief and former Artforum editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy. “Because this guy never, never gives up – even way after you’re dead.”