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The Turn of the Screw: Insights into the Würth Collection, and a Night to Collect

(Berlin.) “Schrauben-Würth” (“Würth of Screws”), Mr. Reinhold Würth is a famed German businessman, his eponymous company the world market leader in screws and other hardware. During his lifetime, Mr. Würth has sold enough of them to amass the 14th biggest fortune in Germany, which translates to rank 201 in Forbes’ global list (as of 2015). One of Mr. Würth’s hobbies is buying art, and this autumn – perhaps in celebration of his 80th birthday earlier this year - he chose Martin-Gropius–Bau to show a selection of his treasures.

Having turned the little ironmongery his father Adolf established in 1945 (there was an awkward moment at the press conference to the show, when Würth company’s CEO declared, “unfortunately, Adolf died too errr, early, ...”) into the global giant it is today, Reinhold Würth is a self-made man who won’t let nobody decide in his stead what to buy, be it steel or paintings.

Personally, Mr Würth appears like the generous grandpa everybody wished to have, at least this was our impression at said press conference. It’s impressive, and really instructive, to observe somebody always finding an end to a phrase that unwillingly led him anywhere but what the beginning suggested. One question, however, remains open, and that is who owns all the art. Not factually, for sure, but technically. The ”Würth” in “Würth Collection” might refer to both, natural and juristic person. To make things more complicated, the Würth art network of 15+ show rooms/exhibition spaces spread all over Europe is managed by still another entity. How these three – company, art collection, and the man himself – that all attended the opening - cooperate, who knows. The company is officially owned by a Swiss foundation, but well, that’s mostly to turn away tax inspectors and other annoyances. If you should ever sell an artwork to Mr. Würth, we’d appreciate to learn who signs the cheque.

Please don’t think, we’re jeaoulus; or in fact, yes we are, but we are conscious that Mr Würth’s lifestyle has its downsides, too. Following an unpleasant event in the recent past (and here for once is no irony in our words), a bodyguard kept close to him all the time he spent in the exhibition. Some of the art necessitates even more protection, an entire police division escorted his 16th Century Holbein Madonna from the Southwest of Germany (the beautiful Hohenlohe region that you must never confound with nearby Swabia) to Berlin. Newspapers reported of a sales value of 50 million Euros for this masterpiece, on which Mr. Würth commented: “The figure is not wrong”. It is one of the highlights in this exhibition, one of four hundred works. A small extract from the 17,000 pieces in the whole collection. The good news is there’s enough art for everyone to find something to his taste, the bad news it’s just too much. For those of you who have visited Monsieur de Galbert’s The Wall in Paris, imagine the same in bigger, much bigger.

It’s a collection that tells nothing about the collector apart from the fact that he collects because he can. Or wait, that’s not completely true, we might draw some conclusions in the negative: Mr. Würth does not like conceptual art. It has to be visually appealing. Video is fine if it’s Tony Oursler. Op Art is perfect. Mr. Würth is basically a craftsman-come-vendor, not a university professor. The exhibition is named From Hockney to Holbein, and be assured there are many artists whose initials don't feature an “H”, although isn’t it great: start an artist’s name with the same letter that ends his collector’s – the serpent eats its tail in the circle of (art)life. There are old masters and new, impressionists, expressionists, cubists, and all types of other –ists, there’s the biggest collection of Austrian art in the world (including Austria), and another room for Mexican art alone. There are the middle ages, modernity and our own era. There’s installation, sculpture and silverware. There is Anselm Kiefer, Dieter Roth, Yves Klein and a 16th Century crucifixion scene all in the same room. There’s indeed few, Mr. Würth does not collect. Maybe it’s easy as that: He was a brilliant salesman in his days, and he sympathizes with everyone trying to sell him something. Anything. Collecting art can become an addiction. When we admired Edvard Munch’s Vampire, we could not help but thinking more of art milking a collector than of an evil capitalist sucking an artist’s soul.

Now don’t get us wrong, Mr. Würth has a great taste. Say what you might, but he does not buy trash, and that’s not true for every collector with a clearly defined collection. He insists, he does not do it for marketing reasons, which is quite interesting given not only the classic sociologists’ phrase: “You cannot not communicate”, but also the fact that there’s a room dedicated to Würth company at Martin-Gropius–Bau with information panels surrounding Tony Cragg’s Cauldron – likening the entrepreneur’s ascent to witchcraft?

Maybe you understand now, why we’ve called him everybody’s dream granddad: it’s like a house of toys. We don’t really want to see Mrs. Würth’s shoe cabinet/mansion. Again: are we jealous? Yes, definitely. But it might make you think about the character of a collector once again. Since art is no longer build-to-order (or only rarely), it becomes more and more complicated to define a collection. These works can – and will – be resold like hardware, without making a difference. The parts make no whole, but then: why should they? Let’s not begrudge Mr. Würth for the fun he has with art. He’s known to buy from art students, if only he likes what he sees. We’ve heard him complain about the big museums all over the world that “feel like Hilton Group", as they all share the same corporate identity defined by the same household artists, who sell at the same twenty-five galleries that actually do earn money. He’s not wrong about that.

There are many more anecdotes we’d love to tell you, completely unrelated to this exhibition, or art. For example that Würth company resides in the village of Künzelsau, which – according to pronunciation - may either mean “(Mr)Künzel’s meadows” or “(Mr)Künzel the pig”, and people of the middle ages, when that village and its name were established, definitely had no less cunning and humour than we today. But we trust this does not interest you in the least. No, let us tell you instead of another event focusing on that extraordinary creature that is a collector of artworks: On the last day of Berlin’s Art Week festival, we’ve visited the Proud Collector soirée. We don’t know – and certainly don’t care about - who of the initiators does participate in other collective manifestations of pride too; but in the plush surroundings of a luxury hotel off Alexanderplatz - almost vis-à-vis the Berlin branch of Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall (and the Oktoberfest opened on that same night!) -, several of them showed what they have. Everyone was free to enter (there was a doorman looking you up and down, and we honestly don’t envy him for the challenge to separate artist from bum – the shoes cannot possibly have been a valid criteria), there were not even entry frees; yet the prices at the bar... well let’s say at the end of the night there were assuredly no drunk artists (or critics) around. You could sit in deep sofas, even lie on comfy beds, talk, drink and observe humans and art.

On the collectors’ side there were “only” millionaires, no billionaires, which a hundred years ago still would have read: earls, no dukes. Each of them had his chest decorated with a red dot like a war medal (/bullet wound?). Some of them were truly open and approachable to artists, gallery owners, and curators who were all eager to make contact and prepare future sales. They had special business card printed with a dedicated @proudcollector mail address. Then, there were those less approachable, less inclined to mingle with the peasants, and deeming it indeed sufficient to bless the event with their appearance, in no way feeling inclined to demean themselves further.

We all know how important it is in art, or in the culture industry in general, to know whom you need know, more and more often the only difference between CEO and call centre is the address book. Sometimes, people outside these circles think the rules were different here, yet they assuredly belong among the most capitalist, most inhuman industries that are. Quite interestingly, the more the individual de facto gets devaluated and replaceable in the mass, be it in work or personal life, the more we desperately cling to the semblance of personal interaction (or its digital simulacra).

Reading the collectors’ names on a leaflet - printed below the artists, it has to be said -, we laughed out loud at the mention of an anonymous “Private Collection”. Then we realized the brilliance in this subversive conceptual performance, self ironically questioning everything the whole event was about, be it intentional or not. Show off, but don’t, drive a Ferrari, but only if it’s black, wear designer fashion, but only at home, attend an orgy, but keep your clothes on; thesis and antithesis indistinguishably tangled in one dissolvable paradox, a metaphor for the schizophrenic character of – yes, whom, what, when etc.? Psychology, your turn. It surely gave rise to many a speculation (Film star? Sportsperson? Politician? High nobility? Turkish pimp? Russian Mafia?). Maybe it was one of those persons sitting at the one and only “VIP”-marked table that attracted much curiosity.

The list of artists was headed by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and other eminent painters (what else...?), and continued with some lesser-bodies. The former were hanging under the watchful eyes of a security guard in a room accessible via a separate stairs, and only without you beer bottle/drink of choice. The main chambers were reserved to the party and less expensive works. All in all, it was an interesting experience, in which we certainly made a fool of ourselves, not accustomed to the presence of those blessed ones that may buy all the art, cars, watches, villas, islands, politicians, hitmen, jets and spaceships we can only dream about.

From Hockney to Holbein, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 11 September 2015-10 January 2016

Proud Collector 3, The Grand, 19 September 2015



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