(Paris.) La Maison Rouge, as we all know, is the pastime of choice for supermarket heir Antoine de Galbert. His foundation either commissions projects from freelance curators, or allows fellow art collectors to show their possessions in a suitable setting. Once in a while, he offers the public a glimpse into his own treasure room.
Today, celebrating La Maison Rouge’s 10th anniversary, we may admire everything from de Galbert’s collection that fits onto a wall: paintings, drawings, photos, 917 works from 458 artists in total. According to an introductory text, each work reminds its owner of a moment, a personal encounter or anecdote. This special relationship, we're told, is the main difference to public collections, where decisions are made purely for “scientific” reasons. One could object here, that every single museum curator will experience comparable feelings, even if he’s in charge only for a limited period of time, and acting as part of a hierarchy. In both cases the circumstances surrounding a collector’s acquisition might overshadow even the artwork’s aesthetics and meaning (that, together with art historical relevance are supposed to solely matter for public museums at least).
With Le Mur, Antoine de Galbert tries his skills as a revolutionary, and challenges some conventions of contemporary art: The exhibition follows no elaborate concept; there’s no plan nor leitmotiv. Each work is just another brick in the wall, selected for its having a hook on the backside. Their placement has been “decided” by a software fed with technical data, mathematics defined the “optimal” use of space.
Could this mean, an otherwise unemployed art collector suddenly longs for the rationalized mechanics of business (ok, art is a business, but say: of other industries)? In absence of a curator, no name diverts from his glory. Neither are there labels next to the works, the artists only appear on computer screens in the middle of the room. It’s all about one most important person: the collector, Monsieur de G.
Sadly, the result resembles a mass grave.
The emptiness of non-art is replaced by the emptiness of “too much”. Every meaning and visual impact is lost, art degenerates to a background noise, a chaotic pattern of hanged trophies. It’s almost impossible to focus, single out and understand one piece in a cacophony of unrelated impressions. The only chance to appreciate is to approach closely and try to blend out the surroundings. It’s not just the mass – we actually love photos of early 20th century collector’s apartments with impressionist paintings all over the place, as opposed to the sterile white cube with one 10”x10” frame per 20m2 so in fashion today. But the haphazard mixture of styles and techniques proves devastative to the overall appearance, it prevents the eye to settle and process what it perceives. The parts won’t add up to a whole, the experiment results in meaningless disharmony. No doubt it’s possible to cover a whole wall with art and create something new, something brilliant. But to punch all of a piano’s keys at the same time does not equal a composition. There has to be rational guidance involved – speaking of human, not computer, rationality. Somebody needs to assume responsibility and take decisions, to discover parallels and create dialogues.
Thus, in the end, what seemed to be the ultimate display of a collector’s vanity (the rich kid showing off his toys), turns out to prove just how important curating is. We trust Antoine de Galbert is much too intelligent a man not to be aware of this. He must have intended it, in a genius gesture of modesty. The only way this exhibition could make any sense at all, is the intention to postulate a paradox, and to show, that personal choice and preference are not enough. It would explain why La Maison Rouge first insists on personality, and then lets dead software handle the details. A collection big and broad like this cannot simply be thrown at a wall. Isn’t it great: there’s a need for art historians after all; mathematics can’t beat brains.
Now, put aside its unfortunate presentation, does the collection tell anything about the collector?
Medieval commissioners of art liked to appear personally, to lend their face to a sculpture on a cathedral’s wall or a personage in a sacral painting. They wished to immortalize themselves and their personality (the way they wanted to be remembered). Today, it’s no longer fashionable to meddle in the creative process. Art is sold after the creative act not commissioned before, and the sponsor may only manifest his personality in the plurality, in the choices he makes. Hence the question: Would it be possible to draw a psychological profile of Monsieur de Galbert after a visit to La Maison Rouge?
We cannot – and neither would we want to – make a statistical analysis of Le Mur, but here are some general observations:
Most works show (parts of) human bodies, and other recognisable forms. Abstract, non-figurative works are in the minority, yet not completely absent. Some three-dimensional paintings/collages stick out from the rest. Few works have political meaning. French artists prevail. Mono- and multichrome works are about equally present. There’s no overt preference for a distinct style or subject. Just like a supermarket: a bit of everything.
It’s great, to see a collection not only consisting of trademark names, they are here, but we also discover artist that we’ve never heard of before. It seems safe to say, Antoine de Galbert does not only buy in ever the same three galleries, a fact that lowers the impact of a salesperson’s professional talent on the composition of his collection. Neither banker nor art advisor decides for him. Maybe – and we assume this without any intimate knowledge of his habits – de Galbert is a spontaneous person. Could it be that all it needs to convince him is a "coup de foudre", the heat of the moment; is he an impulsive (and perhaps even compulsive) buyer of art? It could all be about little love affairs, trophies that soon after their purchase are retired in his warehouse, castle, or wherever the collection stays. It would be nice to visit his living room once, and see what the walls look like. After all, he seems a nice guy.
Le Mur, La Maison Rouge – Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Paris, 14 June-21 September 2014