Apollo Magazine (UK)
Gian Enzo Sperone made his reputation as a dealer working with cutting-edge contemporary artists. When it comes to collecting art himself, he explains to Apollo, his tastes are far more catholic
My collection is everywhere and nowhere,’ Gian Enzo Sperone tells me when I first contact him about the possibility of seeing part of his famously vast and wide-ranging art collection. Of his scattering of homes in Italy and beyond, the house in the Engadin Valley in the Swiss Alps, he declares, would be the best place to visit; this article was not to be a bravura list of trophies – this is a collector who has no interest in trophy-hunting – but rather an illustration of how he chooses to live with art.
Even in the deep twilight of the station platform, Sperone is unmistakable – and not simply for being the only man not carrying skis; stylishly swathed in a scarf and wearing a soft alpaca coat, hair and beard immaculately trimmed, he could only be an Italian. After a warm welcome, and a short drive, we arrive at the Chasa dal Guvernatur, built in the early 18th century. Its long Italianate vaulted entrance hall offers a taste of what is to come.
Antique Roman portrait heads set into 16th-century marble or alabaster busts stand among portraits by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Baptiste Wicar, works by the contemporary artists Francesco Clemente and Not Vital and a 17th-century Boulle clock and cabinet. Further along, a wax mask of Napoleon as Medusa is placed on a micro-mosaic table next to Nicola Bolla’s Skull (2009) made out of Ramino playing cards. All over the house, chairs of various periods and styles can be found piled high with books and catalogues. Here, the rustic and the grand are equal partners, unified by the near-synchronised chiming of the antique clocks in every room.
There are also earthy, site-specific commissions, such as Richard Long’s vast, six-metre-wide Mud Hand Circles, which was imprinted on the wall of the huge dining room in 2007 (Fig. 3), and The Thinking Spot (2009) by Wolfgang Laib, a meditative space made by the artist coating one of the early basement vaults in a thick, glowing layer of beeswax. Everything else, however, is portable – even the huge canvases by Sperone’s closest artist friend Julian Schnabel and the large sculptures by his neighbour Not Vital, which, like bibelots, frequently find themselves moved to different rooms and given new companions.
Those who have not seen the 593-page, 3.6kg tome Gian Enzo Sperone Dealer/Collector: From 350BC to Last Week, published last year by Umberto Allemandi, will no doubt be surprised to discover so much historic art here. For Sperone is associated not just with the new, but the avant-garde. In 1965, as a young dealer in Turin, he staged the first exhibition in Europe of the work of Andy Warhol. Two years before, at the age of just 23, he had mounted the first show in Italy devoted to Roy Lichtenstein, and managed to sell paintings that Leo Castelli, the king of contemporary art dealers, had not sold in New York and that Castelli’s hardly less illustrious ex-wife Ileana Sonnabend could not sell in Paris.
He introduced not only American Pop art into Italy but also minimalism and conceptual art, while remaining a champion of Italian Arte Povera and promoting the European avant-garde in the United States. This enfant prodige, as he refers to his younger self, may also be credited for introducing the concept of the ‘megalomaniac gallerist’ who opens multiple spaces to prove that he can
sell anywhere, and is constantly travelling between them. At one point, Sperone had galleries in Turin, Milan, Rome and New York, where he was in partnership with Konrad Fischer and Angela Westwater; the latter runs the imposing nine-storey building designed by Foster + Partners in the Bowery. This high-tech glass temple of contemporary art could hardly be a greater contrast to that first, brutalist space in a run-down industrial building in Turin, which Sperone found himself sharing with the revolutionary organisation Lotta Continua.
Sperone did two things with the money raised by that first exhibition in his own, rather than someone else’s, gallery: the Warhol show of 1965, where the most expensive work in the Disaster series cost $1,000. First of all, he bought several unsold works for himself – unlike Ileana Sonnabend who would always keep the best; secondly he bought a French Empire lit bateau. That, effectively, has been the pattern of his collecting life. Except that Sperone is not a collector, he insists, but a serial hoarder.
The Allemandi book represents the tip of the iceberg; in fact he is not quite sure how many pieces of fine and decorative arts he owns. His partner, the artist Tania Pistone, has spent the last 15 years working on an inventory. It is the story of Penelope, he explains: she makes no progress because as soon as she finishes cataloguing something, something else arrives the same day. Over the decades he has established a rhythm whereby he purchases two or three things every week, and every day is spent in pursuit of the next acquisition, always in contact with a fleet of dealers. ‘This passion for art is a great joy but it is also a nightmare,’ he declares. ‘It is like love – you have to pursue it – but you also have to buy it. It is a sickness.’ Gian Enzo Sperone seems to be thriving on it.
This collection may not amount to a universal or encyclopaedic museum, but is something akin to one. Sperone is omnivorous, but selective – and it is the selection and its presentation that intrigue me. The artists and the kinds of objects and materials that he likes he has always bought in depth. Some of these are obvious. For one, we are surrounded by portraits and self-portraits.
Nowhere is the experience more extraordinary than in the intimate family dining room. A row of busts, arranged two deep and running along an entire wall, stand cheek by jowl (Fig. 4); these are terracottas and plasters dating from the 17th to early 19th centuries, some polychromed or patinated, Italian or French; some of them anonymous, others not. These magistrates, lawyers, bankers, sculptors, politicians and philosophers are joined, for the time being at least, by a Roman emperor from the 2nd century. They are a noisy lot. Appearing at head height to anyone sitting around the table, it seems they are part of the conversation. No less immediate or compelling an image is the self-portrait in red chalk, echoing the terracottas below, executed by Carlo Maratti in Rome in 1681–82.
This tour de force of a drawing is testimony to one of the few collections that have been abandoned. Sperone has always felt an affinity with works on paper, often asking the artists he represented to make him a hundred drawings. ‘They looked at me as if I were mad,’ he says. He also bought Old Master drawings and particularly prints. ‘I probably bought 500 Old Master prints between 1980 and 1985 but I gave up collecting them after the Duke of
Devonshire sold part of his fabulous collections. The dealers responded by doubling their prices for things that were very definitely not masterpieces, so I stopped buying.’
Upstairs hang a few mementoes from that period of intense activity, by Rembrandt – ‘Who can afford a Rembrandt painting?’ Sperone exclaims – Goya and Tiepolo. Indian miniatures were another short-lived obsession, while the silver on both dining tables attest to another forsaken enthusiasm – this time because antique silver became so inexpensive that people mostly stopped selling it. Instead came antique Italian frames, glass and fragments of Roman antiquities – legs, torsos, columns, capitals.
Sperone’s collecting of Old Master and 19th-century paintings has continued apace, no doubt in part because prices have not risen for anything other than the very best. ‘The first thing I look at is the quality of composition, second, the state of preservation. The third requirement is that the work screams “Buy me!”’ Here are gold-ground panels from the 14th century, works of the Italian Renaissance and the baroque, and of the northern Caravaggisti. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the French and Italian prevail, as they continue to do in the modern art collection. To a visitor, the array is simply bewildering.
Where did this overwhelming desire for art come from? ‘It is a question I have asked myself for decades,’ Sperone replies. ‘I think it is in my DNA. It certainly did not come from my immediate family.’ He describes himself as a provincial working-class boy whose parents had left school when they were 12 and who were so hard up that there was not always enough for the family to eat.
Although Turin was only 20km away, his first visit to the city was when he was 20. His parents did, however, understand that education was key.
The young Sperone was a poet and saw literature as his future, until he read the Italian translations of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and despaired of ever writing anything as good. He began a degree at Turin University, where he was taught by Umberto Eco, but abandoned his studies because of the financial struggle. Taking a job as a salesman at Olivetti, he left it to work in an art gallery, which sounded interesting and promised, but did not deliver, a higher salary. ‘I did not learn very much, but I saw wonderful things.’ There he met Giacometti, standing cover for him in the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderno in Turin when the artist pulled out a crayon to finish off a portrait of Annette Arm on loan from the G. David Thompson Collection. He also met Michelangelo Pistoletto, with whom he went to Paris for a fateful meeting with Ileana Sonnabend.
‘Music, literature, visual art, they are all different faces of the same thing, which is the mystery of art,’ says Sperone by way of glossing over his change of direction. Yet, as my most affable host explains, this disappointment over his lost literary future had a profound effect. ‘I realised at that time that there was something wrong, that I was a depressive. If you are conscious of this, then you may be able to do something to help yourself. If not, you are in trouble. Contemporary art I always found optimistic and energising, and I have always kept myself very, very busy.’ He adds: ‘I always find ways of dreaming and of
creating difficulties in my life – including the financial difficulties that arise from buying so much – to prevent any real problem from getting to me.’
Part of the appeal of the clocks – aside from their sound, which he loves – is that they are demanding. The first thing he does every morning, in whichever home he is in, is walk around every room and make sure each one is telling the correct time. A lapse of two minutes a day is tolerated. He is perhaps proudest of the rare ‘Equation of Time’ longcase regulator of 1737 by royal clockmaker Julian Le Roy.
The book that changed Sperone’s life was Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre. Written in 1790 when the young officer was placed under house arrest in his room after a duel, it is a fantasy travelogue in which every object is seen as if encountered on a journey to a strange land. ‘I read it as a young man and it revealed to me how you can live through your mind and imagination. With these works of art, I am not so much collecting as travelling.’
As for his penchant for the old and the new: ‘Every depressive person is a kind of schizophrenic. I have always been for both revolution and preservation, for the classical and the Romantic.’ While in his prime as a contemporary art dealer he was also restoring the rural medieval castle that he bought off Cy Twombly, an ally and inspiration in the collecting of antiquities and much else besides, when the artist needed money. This advocate of the cutting edge has never wavered in his belief in the canon of Western art – the body of rules, principles or standards long accepted as axiomatic and universally binding. ‘As soon as you break the canon, as artists did in the 20th century, there is nothing left.’ He was never attracted to the great heroes of Abstract Expressionism – ‘How can they touch me when they don’t tell me anything?’ Pop art was a revolution, and a revelation. Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein and Warhol had returned to the canon.
‘Every single work of art of every medium has a different music but you have to be prepared to listen to it,’ he continues. ‘In fact, you have to use all of your senses. I remember an old antiques dealer once telling me that you have to close your eyes and touch a piece of furniture as that will tell you exactly what it is and why it needs you.’
The collection is nourishment but also autobiography. ‘Every object here is related to a moment, a context or a person,’ he explains, looking to see what is nearby to illustrate the point (Fig. 2). ‘In the case of that roughly made south Italian table of around 1740, which is very much in the taste of Balthus and Twombly, it reminded me of what I saw when I stayed with those two guys. The table is beautiful but it also has its original patina, which is important to me. Every time I see the sculpture of Adonis by Giovan Pietro Lasagna, it reminds me of Milan Cathedral, where he worked. It is a miracle to find something untouched and signed. The signed and dated 18th-century ivory there is a little masterpiece; it couldn’t be any better.
‘In fact,’ he says, ‘I would gladly sign that wall as a portrait, for it tells me a lot about myself, about my aspirations and my life. David with the Head of Goliath by the Cavaliere d’Arpino and Portrait of a Young Man by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio represent the triumph of Renaissance optimism, which is very helpful. Every time I look at them I feel better. The rest are dreaming about something that does not exist any more.’ Propped up on a chair is I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going by McDermott & McGough (the American Gilbert & George), which is dated 1936 but was painted in 2004.
His placing of works of art is instinctive. ‘I may not understand it immediately, but there usually is a hidden link between the objects,’ he explains, as few arrangements are as obviously eloquent as his table of busts, a stairwell of marble reliefs, or the line-up of 20th-century Italians – Fontana, De Chirico, Morandi, Mimmo Rotella and Manzoni. ‘It is a wall of anxiety,’ says Sperone, shaking his head. Another wall in another room offers the likes of the thoughtful contrast of a conceptual map piece by Richard Long marking a walk along a shore with Claude Joseph Vernet’s experience of the great falls at Tivoli in 1756. Opposite, past a Russian gilt-bronze and jasper Empire table, he brings together an 18th-century terracotta –Jean-Jacques Caffieri’s compelling portrait of Corneille van Cleve and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s plaster Cupid with Mars’ Sword (c. 1810), with a painting by Picasso of Dora Maar and a panel by Otto Freundlich in crayon and plastic of 1934 (Fig. 1). Julian Schnabel’s Monjas De Calle Japon (1993) is set beside an dazzlingly polychromed anonymous 15thcentury relief of the Pietà (Fig. 5). And so it goes on, in this and his other homes.
‘The problem about contemporary art that no one wants to consider is that perhaps 90 to 95 per cent of it will be forgotten, if not immediately then in a few decades,’ Sperone says emphatically. ‘The works of art that have already stood the test of time, the result of centuries of discussions and dreams, will remain forever. They are the future.’ Ⓐ