Nina Siegal 2017-11-29 11:37:32
With five galleries—in Salzburg, Paris and now London—Thaddaeus Ropac explains how his art empire is built on the need to challenge, provoke and compel. The course of Thaddaeus Ropac’s life was forever altered on a school trip to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna when he was still a teenager. He and his classmates from the south of Austria ambled through an exhibition of works by the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, while their professor informed them that it was all “a lot of rubbish.” Ropac, who is today one of the world’s leading contemporary art dealers, with galleries in Salzburg, Paris and London, recalls that he also found the show “incredibly irritating. It was between anger and disbelief,” he says, “but I felt strongly attracted to it also.” He adds, “I really wanted to understand. I didn’t just want to let it go.” He still hasn’t let it go. In a way, ever since that introduction to Beuys almost four decades ago, Ropac has been engaged with art that irritates, enervates and forces him to reflect on the world in new ways. The artists he represents, such as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Raqib Shaw, Alex Katz and Sylvie Fleury, tend to push those kinds of buttons. His galleries are built into former mansions and industrial spaces, and he lives just outside of Salzburg in an early-17th-century Austrian chalet on a country estate where Mozart once performed. Ropac is also boldly optimistic about the art world—as evidenced by his (post-Brexit vote) opening of a 16,000-square-foot gallery at Ely House, in the Mayfair district of London, at a time when many art-world observers felt the U.K. art scene was at best unsteady. But Ropac’s career has not followed a predictable path. Not long after the Vienna museum trip with his class, he went to Dusseldorf, Germany, and knocked on the door of Beuys’s studio. Ropac secured a kind of internship, “schlepping materials,” as he describes it, but he made enough of an impression to obtain a personal note of introduction to Andy Warhol. “Dear Andy,” Beuys wrote. “Please meet this talented young man. Joseph.” “This was my ticket to America,” Ropac says. “I had everything I needed.” It was the early 1980s, and Ropac met not only Warhol but also Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean- Michel Basquiat, among others. At 23, he returned to Salzburg and set up his first gallery, quickly securing a show of Warhol drawings; he also presented what he calls “a modest exhibition of drawings” by Beuys, which helped attract other top artists to his roster. Since then, Ropac has built a gallery empire, with two spaces in Salzburg (the Villa Kast, a 19th-century townhouse in Mirabell Garden, and an industrial venue near the city center) and two in Paris (one that now spans four floors in the Marais district and another in the Pantin area, near the new Paris Philharmonie), as well as the new London space. German installation artist Wolfgang Laib, who was busy this fall installing an exhibition in the Marais gallery, recalls a day when he and Ropac enjoyed a surprise luncheon in the garden of the Villa Emslieb with Queen Sofia of Spain: “I have my studio in southern India, and I love a very simple Indian life, I love Gandhi, and when I come to Salzburg, it’s grandeur and this European world from the 19th or even 18th century, and he always invites me to the opera there, and I have to admit that’s not easy for me; it’s a world that’s very difficult for me.” But Laib adds that their bond is “a beautiful and intense and personal relationship that’s very unique.” “He has such respect for artists and the art, with an intensity that no one else has,” Laib says of Ropac. “That was true from the very modest beginning until now—it always stayed the same. He does everything for the artist; he does everything for the art.” It is this kind of relationship with artists that drives Ropac’s success. In addition to working with living artists, he represents the estates of Beuys, Warhol and Mapplethorpe and is one of three international galleries entrusted to sell work by the American postwar giant Robert Rauschenberg, who passed away in 2008. The contemporary artist Erwin Wurm, who has been represented by Ropac for about a decade, describes him as “an art lover absolutely. I know other dealers who only really talk about money or how things sell,” he says. “If you have a gallery, of course you need to sell, but you never have the feeling that it’s the main target for him.” Art advisers also report that they find Ropac very easy to do business with. “He’s just pleasant to work with,” says American art adviser Lisa Schiff. “To be a mega-gallery and to balance that with connoisseurship and making sure that your artists are happy is really an unbelievable achievement.” The Austrian collector behind the art foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, Francesca von Habsburg, describes Ropac in an email as “a true Austrian gentleman with a great flair for the bigger picture.” As for Ropac, he shifts the focus to Joseph Beuys, whose aesthetic, he says, is at the heart of everything he’s done as a gallerist: “When I didn’t know anything about art, he was the one who brought me through the art world. I went through all of these phases of misunderstandings, until I was able to embrace it. And it finally unfolded before my eyes and I started to understand what the universe of an artist is. This was life-changing.” Ropac adds that he is still fascinated by work that angers him. “It’s this moment of irritation I find that’s still very important,” he says. “When I see an exhibition or an artist who I don’t really understand, out of experience I approach it in a different way, more analytical, and question the authority of the work. And sometimes it’s good because it reminds me that you have to start in every situation at zero.”
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