French Connection – An interview with Almine Rech

by Christopher Moore

Almine Rech is one of the leading gallerists in Paris and Brussels. A long time advocate of conceptual and minimal art, Almine presented James Turrell’s first commercial show in Europe. Since then Almine Rech Gallery has held important solo shows of John McCracken, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and now Liu Wei. Last year the gallery expanded to Brussels and this year it opened a new exhibition space in Paris. As part of randian’s 燃点 ongoing interview series with gallerists, Chris Moore met Almine Rech at her gallery in Paris prior to the new space opening.

Chris Moore: What was your first introduction to art?

Almine Rech: As a child, I was always interested in art. I was always doing portraits of the family — of my sisters, of my mother, of the cat! My father especially was very interested in art and often he would take me to visit galleries.

CM: Your father was a fashion designer [the couturier, Georges Rech].

Almine’s great-grandfather in 1919 — Maï Trung Cat, Regent of Vietnam.
(Courtesy Almine Rech)

AR: Yes, and he was a “Sunday painter,” it was his hobby. My mother is half-Vietnamese, so I have some Asian blood — a little bit! It is a very ancient family, a long line of calligraphers. Especially my great-grandfather, Mai Trung-Cat, was a renowned calligrapher at the beginning of the 20th Century. Following the Confucian system, stones commemorating the visit of an emperor were inscribed following my grandfather’s calligraphy.

You can still see them today in the region of Haiphong, in northern Vietnam, where the family house and ancestors’ home is. Also the brother of my grandfather was Mai-Trung Thu and he was also a painter. So this probably gave me my interest for the graphic and how you can express yourself in art.

CM: What led you to open a gallery?

AR: I thought of being an artist at a certain point, but after studying at art school [ESAG Penninghen, Paris] very quickly I noticed that an art career — at the level of my ambition — was a lifetime job, and I was not going to be able to give 100% of my time to be an artist and [be prepared] to be very lonely at certain points. So then I stopped. I decided to stay in the art field though, but on the other side of the fence, not being an artist but dealing with artists and the people who love art. I studied art history and later I worked as an intern at Drouot auction house.

I opened my first gallery in partnership with a friend in November 1989, Galerie Froment-Putman, in rue Charlot. “Froment” was the name of my husband at the time and my partner, Cyrille, is the son of Andrée Putman [the architect and interior designer, recently deceased]. Our first exhibition was Jim [James] Turrell. It was the first time one of his light-pieces was shown in a commercial gallery in Europe — there had been two or three shown in museums. Everyone told me “you’re crazy, you’re going to be bankrupt the next day” — because it’s not like a painting that you can hang on a wall. But when you’re young and you like it, you take the risk. We didn’t expect to sell it, but we did. The Centro Televizo Mexico’s museum bought it.(1) Its director, Bob Littman, saw we were going to show James’s work and traveled to Paris to buy it. He saved us! (2)

[James Turrell: A Retrospective” at LACMA, Los Angeles, May 26, 2013–April 6, 2014 in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.]

CM: How did you meet James?

AR: I saw an exhibition at the museum in Nîmes. (3) Bob Calle was director of the Carré d’Art — father of Sophie [Calle, the artist]. I went to the show because I loved his work. That was at the end of 1988. I met James there. At the time I did not have a gallery but I said to him I had plans to open a gallery in Paris. This was summer ‘89. And he was so happy that a young, new gallery was interested in his work, and that was how it started. But you need a dose of unconsciousness when you start. Jim is always a risk because it’s so involved to make one of his pieces. But he was always very encouraging. He was already 40-something, not young like we were. So he was encouraging in a paternal way.

CM: So how did the gallery develop from there?

AR: Well on my side I was very much into conceptual and minimalist art, so then I suggested to my partner that we show another Californian artist, John McCracken. And from there we met Ugo Rondinone, and some other artists. I met Ugo in ‘91 and showed him in ’93. Jim and Ugo are still with me — John unfortunately died in 2011. I am opening my new space in Paris with Ugo.

After five years I decided that I had to do it on my own. I opened the new gallery in April 1997 at Rue Louis Weiss, in the 13th arrondissement. So I had a whole year to rebuild the gallery before opening this space.

On Conceptual and Minimal Art

What I love with conceptual and minimal artists is that they are very engaged. They believed in what they were doing and they wouldn’t make any compromises. They would fight for their ideas and the idea that art is like philosophy and science. There was a sense that you go forward and maybe people don’t believe you, like Galileo, but they just stuck to their way of thinking, creating a new vocabulary for looking at the world.

I completely accept that art can be close to something decorative; in fact it becomes decorative once it’s accepted. Nowadays, even Joseph Kosuth’s work can be decorative. This is not a problem. If someone brings it home — even for a decorative reason — and it works, then it works by itself. Whatever reason a work is acquired, it is good. If it’s a strong work, a radical work, it will do its job. If from the beginning it’s a compromised work, only decorative right from the beginning, if there is no deep thinking, it will do nothing, it will be like an armchair.

Jeff Koons at Almine Rech Gallery, 2012, Brussels, Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery. © Photo: Marc Domage

On Jeff Koons

AR: Jeff is as important for me as James. I loved the work of Jeff and I knew him before but didn’t have the opportunity to do a show [with him]. He does few shows, maybe sometimes paintings, but not sculptures, because he produces [artworks] so slowly.

I met him a long time ago at the Venice Biennale — his “Made in Heaven” series — but then I did not really know him, I just met him and I could not acquire his art anyway — it was already too late! Later on, I had more opportunities. The relationship grew — we had this plan [for an exhibition], and finally I got this space in Brussels, which is quite an amazing space. I found it in 2007, and it was ready [by the] end of 2009. So then I did a group show with him in 2009, in a temporary space, and then we did this solo show. It took a long time to organize but it was a good opportunity, because some of the sculptures were in Europe for the Beyeler show and Frankfurt. (4)

Almine & Karen Kandiyoti with Jeff Koons in front of “Cat on a Clothesline,” 1994-2001, by Jeff Koons at Almine Rech Gallery Brussels. (Picture taken during the opening of Jeff Koons’ first solo exhibition in Brussels on October 6th 2012.) Jeff Koons, “Cat on a Clothesline,” rotationally molded polyethylene, 312.42 x 279.4 x 127 cm, 123 x 110 x 50 inches, 1994-2001 [Courtesy the artist & Almine Rech Gallery; © Photo: Constance Le Hardy de Beaulieu]

On Picasso and the foundation

CM: You are also a part of a famous art family, married to Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the grandson of Picasso.

AR: We met, Bernard and I, in 1997. We met at a Fiac Dinner given by Galerie Gmurzynska. By some strange coincidence she [Antonina Gmurzynska] sat us one next to the other, and we immediately got along well, and then met again in the following days.

CM: You also set up a foundation. [la Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte qui soutient l’art contemporain]

AR: Yes, in 2002. Of course Bernard owns an important collection from his grandfather, who died in 1973, but his father also died two years later. The estate cataloging was not even started when his father died. It was finished in 1982. (5) At the same time, we have also built up a collection of contemporary art. So the foundation is a way to manage the Picasso collection, including making loans of works, and to also manage the contemporary collection and conduct research. And we have a lot of archives, from Olga Khokhlova [Bernard’s grandmother] — all the letters, thousands of photos — and for contemporary artists, from the time I started working with them. And of course we conduct research about Picasso and Olga and Paul’s archive [Bernard’s father]. Some is in Russian and the translation is not completed yet because the collection is huge.

CM: Is there a potential conflict between being a gallerist and running a foundation?

AR: No, no, no! The Foundation is absolutely non-commercial. It was really the only way that people would make a difference [between the gallery and the collection]. And in any case, Bernard does not work with me in the gallery. But things were becoming so busy, with all the shows he’s organizing, with how the art world developed in the last 15 years, he could not continue to handle this alone with one assistant, so he had to establish a structure for Picasso.

CM: What are the artists you collect yourselves.

AR: I collect with Bernard. We continued with Judd, McCracken, Carl Andre, also conceptual art, like Lawrence Wiener, Franz West or Kosuth – which is the base of what I like, of historical art — also Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Ugo Rondinone. I collect also Rosemarie Trockel, Rudolf Stingel, and young artists, like Erik Lindman, Mark Hagen and Liu Wei.

On Liu Wei and China

AR: I went to China in 2011 to meet Liu Wei, and I heard that he had this big show at the Minsheng Art Museum.

CM: Which is where we met.

AR: And in the same trip, I went to Beijing to visit some studios and mostly to visit Liu Wei.

CM: And you had the first show for Liu Wei last year. How was it received in Paris?

AR: We’d already shown him at FIAC, and it takes a bit of time but he has some very good collectors now.

On reading

AR: I am quite irregular but when I see an article about an artist that interests me, I read it. I like interviews with artists, learning about how they think. And I like the lives of dealers. Kahnweiler’s autobiography was very interesting. Unfortunately they often erase the bad things and keep only the good! Beyeler and Bergruen both wrote wonderful memoirs but I think maybe they left some things out. I read many different art writers. I like the critics in the New York Times very much, like Carol Vogel. Americans keep a close eye on the art market and on artworks. I also like reading Nicolas Trembley and Éric Troncy. (6) John Richardson is fantastic. He is the most important witness of modern art. I introduced him to Ugo Rondinone and he wrote a little catalog [essay] about his clowns. (7)

On progress and difficulties in the art world

CM: What do you see as the major positive development in the past 15 years?

AR: There are more museums now, more galleries. And many people now understand that contemporary art is a major field of research, thinking, progress for civilization, for how people communicate, for freedom!

CM: And the negative?

AR: Over the last five to six years the tendency for people to become crazy for new artists has intensified. And sometimes they forget to follow up [on] the artists they loved two years ago, to keep following artists even though they may not be fashionable anymore. Of course, it was always like this — these shooting starts — but now it’s a bit frightening. Of course a good artist has to have a lot of qualities. He has to be very intelligent, very strategic; he has to know when to say no, not to over-produce when he’s asked, so it’s also the artist who has to be dealing with this.

CM: How would you change it?

AR: It wont change, but younger artists will be more aware of this phenomenon. If a guy is 25, you’ll only know if he’s really good by the time he’s 50. It’s still the same as ever, it’s not because there is more money, more people, more visitors.

April 2013, Paris

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