Stories behind private art collections electrify audiences. Whether big or small, national or thematic, they are always steeped in rich history, fascinating anecdotes and most importantly, the owner’s passion and unique sensibility. Recently I had the chance to visit the Center of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń to admire its monumental exhibition “Painting Still Alive” that features pieces from Michael Haas’s collection. While some collectors prefer amassing their riches out of public sight (since they find their activity deeply personal), others are eager to lend their works for exhibits. There is also a commonplace practice of establishing museums and art galleries dedicated to a given collection…one of these galleries was founded by Michael Haas.
A captivating sense of romanticism permeates the German collector’s life story, a former artist of the 1970s generation who simply wished to remain in close vicinity to works of art. Like the vast majority of (also contemporary) artists, he used to work part-time. He spent almost all of his money on affordable yet obscure pieces. Then, the impossible happened. According to one of the most unbelievably exciting urban legends, a friend from New York approached Haas and coaxed him into procuring dozens of works by a despondent young artist who was always rejected by buyers. The name of this artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the following years, Basquiat and the rest of the artists, whose works were now owned by Michael Haas, gained recognition among the critics as well as private and public institutions of culture. As a result, the market value of the pieces (and Haas himself) skyrocketed. The American Dream came true in Europe. That’s the origin of Michael Hass’s staggering art collection – a discovery any budding art collector yearns for. What this story represents is the unpredictability of the art market, the fact that one’s expertise and intuition – the legendary “gut feeling” of an art collector – paves the way to success. But the story is far from over.
In 1976, Galerie Michael Hass was founded in Berlin. The gallery focuses on classic modernism, contemporary art, as well as post-1945 German and international art. For over forty years, it has staged the solo and group shows of such world-renowned artists as Georg Baselitz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Günther Brus, Giorgio de Chirico, Otto Dix, Jean Fautrier, Hans Hofmann, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, Per Kirkeby, Mimmo Paladino, A. R. Penck, Louis Soutter, Arnulf Rainer and Gerhard Richter. On more than one occasion, the gallery has exhibited its pieces in the world’s largest art fairs in Basel and Cologne.
The collector’s interest extends far beyond the classics. His collection (and gallery) boasts numerous works by young emerging artists including Nicole Bianchet, Marianna Gartner, Dirk Lange, Stefan Mannel and René Wirths. The presentation on the first floor puts side-by-side Jean Dubuffet’s “Laundry, Pharmacy (Urban Site with 6 Per.),” Georg Baselitz’s “Saxon Landscape” (1962) and the piece entitled “Window on the World #10” by Sławomir Elsner (2010). Keep going and you will stumble upon the works of Pinchas Burstein (alias Maryan), a forgotten Polish painter who emigrated abroad, as well as other emerging artists from Poland: Marcin Łukasiewicz, Karolina Zdunek, Wojtek Zasadni and Tomasz Kowalski.
The exhibition in Toruń showcases the most remarkable pieces from the collection, the scope of which makes it virtually impossible to unveil in its entirety. Nonetheless, one hundred seventy works by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century still manage to take your breath away. What all these artists from all parts of the globe have in common is their exploration of painterly material with the use of diverse techniques. They pour over the notions of form, colour, texture and other components of the medium of painting. Every room portrays the artists’ struggle with the representation of “an object” and “ human figure” – their desperate attempts at capturing “a phenomenon” they might have observed using an inherently simplistic, phantasmal and subjective mean of expression. This very struggle with form is the colour of the exhibition. An artist’s career is an endless journey. As years go by, its course is steered not only by social and political transformations, relations to nature, beliefs or corporeality, but also the artistic tradition cherished in one’s country of origin.
Why don’t you follow in Michael Hass’s footsteps and start compiling your own miniature art collection? Who knows? Perhaps one day you’ll also be the proud owner of some genuine artistic gems. Just remember to always go with your gut and indulge in an all-consuming passion for art and culture.
Painting Still Alive,
Curators: Marek Żydowicz, Michael Haas
Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń