DOKOUPIL

Born in 1954 in Czechoslovakia, JIRI GEORG DOKOUPIL immigrated with his parents to Germany at the age of 14. In 1980 he founded the Mülheimer Freiheit group in Cologne, and as a prototypical postmodernist, he soon rose to become an international star of the art market. Dokoupil sold out shows at Paul Maenz in Cologne, and Mary Boone, Leo Castelli and Ilenoa Sonnabend in New York, all the while embracing an ever-shifting stylistic range, from Neo-Expressionist to Constructivist, Baroque to Pop. Still, it wasn’t until the art market crashed in 1990 that he really took off beyond the art heroes of the past decade. Widely unnoticed by the broader public, he reemerged as a true inventor. Dokoupil began to explore not only new styles and subjects, but also new techniques. He made candle paintings using soot and bound oil paints into soap bubbles, only to have them burst on his canvases. His deeply colorful lashings made him the don of action painting; he kept pictures painted with mother’s milk in the oven until the milk caramelized.

Dokoupil creating the Great Art Bubble and its eruption, October 2011

Dokoupil creating the Great Art Bubble and its eruption, October 2011

Dokoupil was mentioned several times in Maurizio Cattelan’s Charley magazine about forgotten heroes of the art market, but he doesn’t mind much. Having Bruno Bischofberger, Andy Warhol’s main dealer, as his collector and dealer for almost 15 years, Dokoupil knows one of the art market’s most powerful players is on his side. In this exclusive interview, Dokoupil looks back on his career ups and downs, his real estate successes, Basquiat’s infamous New Year’s Eve party, his relationship to the biggest collector in the world, and the sex addiction that finally made him a citizen of Rio de Janeiro.

JIRI GEORG DOKOUPIL: Whether in New York or Cologne, there was nothing sadder than the gallery openings in the late 70s. They were one of the reasons why I became an artist. Donald Judd hung up a few boxes in the Dia Foundation and it was seen as a highlight since they at least had some color. The visitors were elated, comparatively. But at many of the exhibition openings, barely three people showed up. It was total stagnation. People didn’t go to the museum to see an idea; they could read about that at home.

CORNELIUS TITTEL: They wanted to see paintings and were presented with empty rooms.

People go to museums and galleries for a form-color experience. This is, and remains, the essence of art. Producing a painting has to do with the artist’s encounter with the material, and this usually refuses to subordinate itself to some concept. In the 70s, not unlike today at many Biennales, it was just about concepts, about a kind of Marxist rejection of the art market. This conceptualism is in a way easier because it lacks a struggle with the material.

At the highpoint of conceptualism, you decided to become a painter. Even as a conceptual artist you managed to make it into the most important galleries in New York.

In 1979 I had an exhibition with Leo Castelli, Ilena Sonnabend, and Andre Emmerich. I installed mirrors on the roof across from the legendary gallery building at 420 West Broadway. They were the size of a beer coaster and I installed them on a water tank, facing the gallery. I aligned them at various angles so that at a certain time of day you could see the cone of light wander across the gallery rooms on the other side of the street. Then I printed invitations for exactly this time and the people came into Castelli’s to see my cones of light pass over a ground installation by Carl Andre, for example. I named the whole thing Sun in 420.

And Castelli and the others had no clue?

The only people who were supposed to know about it were those who had gone there because of me – that was maybe 30 people. I never told Castelli and Sonnabend about it, even years later when I had official exhibitions with them.

How did the hopeful conceptual artist Dokoupil become a star of the new Expressionism?

In the late 70s there was nothing dumber than painting. The painters were the dorks, especially for the so-called conceptual artists. Hans Haacke – who became the most important teacher for me – at that time, was not interested in the continuation of painting. But I’d come to realize that the conceptual artists had become liars. What they had promised us was salvation, art without form. I’d go into a gallery and there would be nothing to see, and it would be for a lot of money – that just couldn’t be it. Should I have done more invisible exhibitions? What we were doing in this situation was analogous to punk; they couldn’t play three notes, we couldn’t paint. But there was energy there, and it led the way back to painting.

And that’s what the early paintings of the Mühlheimer Freiheit look like.

I couldn’t paint at all, and representational even less. But you can learn it quickly if you start by making coarse pictures with broad brush strokes. Then you are not far from Baselitz, then you do what is called German Expressionism. And since we had focused on the dumbest of mediums, we also selected the dumbest of subjects – the dumber, the better.

Musikanten, 1980. Acrylic on canvas, 130 x 289 cm. Bischofberger Collection, Switzerland

Musikanten, 1980. Acrylic on canvas, 130 x 289 cm. Bischofberger Collection, Switzerland

Just how dumb exactly?

A naked woman with airplanes in place of teeth and, no idea, let’s say a whiskey bottle for a leg – real crap. I had planned to work on a new, dumber subject every day: miners, more radiant than the sun; the German postal service; microscopic examinations of green squares – it didn’t matter.

The whole thing was a joke.

It was a joke, at least at first, but it soon occurred to me that the dumbness, which was meant ironically, is actually the truth. Suddenly you realize that the thing you were making jokes about the whole time is actually the thing that occupies you the most. That should also be figurative and a metaphor for the world in which I move.

How did a joke turn into an international art market phenomenon?

That had to do with Paul Maenz, our art dealer. Walter Dahn, with whom I worked together a lot at the time, knew the gallery scene much better than I did, and he recognized that we needed a serious mantle for our nonsense. That was provided by Paul. This was a fortunate stroke of luck at that moment. Paul was one of the most austere art dealers ever. He had all the heroes of conceptual art, the driest of the dry: Joseph Kosuth, Hanne Darboven, Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Robert Barry, that kind of thing. That was exactly the protective mantle we needed.

You mean a good joke is not enough; the context has to be right.

The joke doesn’t even have to be good; it just has to be radical. I think a lot in art history begins as a joke. The pop people, or Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg and Gerhard Richter with their “capitalist realism” – that was a joke in the beginning too. When we had our show at Paul Maenz, all the right curators showed up. Christophe Amman was perhaps the most powerful man in the early 80s. Everyone who was successful back then came through his Kunsthalle Basel: the Italians like Enzo Cuchi and Francesco Clemente; or the Americans, Schnabel and Salle. When I showed there, I was made three offers from New York by Marian Goodman, Mary Boone, and Robert Miller.

Who did you negotiate with first?

Marian Goodman.

And?

I told her about my unbelievably great projects back then – that was in May ’82. I wanted to start a new Cubism. I called it “Theoretical Paintings.” The idea was that you could pick two objects and then you had to either make them thin or fat and they had to stand next to each other. Kippenberger picked that up then and even painted a few theoretical pictures, one with a very fat tooth pick. Marian Goodman simply fell asleep. I mean, just imagine, Gerhard Richter’s art dealer dozing off while you are telling her about your really brilliant, unbelievable ideas. Then came Mary Boone. She looked like a Latino call girl. She came into my studio in Cologne wearing big black sunglasses and wiggling her ass. Naturally, I told her that I was also negotiating with Marian Goodman. She just said, “Who is Marian Goodman? I am Mary Boone.”

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Boone was on the cover of New York magazine back then. Basquiat and Schnabel were her big stars, who soon switched over to Bischofberger.

She was of course the big shot at that time.

And working with her?

My exhibition was already sold out before the opening. I had made two series: one was really strange, surrealistic stuff, with titles like “The Scream of the Albinos”; the other series was the “Theoretical Paintings,” the ones that made Marian Goodman fall asleep. The best thing was that they were bought mostly by artists. Still today, that is the greatest thing for me, when an artist puts money on the table for one of my works and actually hangs it up at home.

It sounds like the exhibition was a total success.

It was. I used the money to buy my first New York apartment. As far as Mary Boone is concerned, a short time later she married Michael Werner …

… the art dealer of Baselitz, Immendorf, and Lüpertz.

Yeah, back then that was a little like the wedding of Caesar and Cleopatra. Werner probably told her that she should definitely not show that bungler Dokoupil from Cologne. It is actually totally normal that he would think his wife would be better off showing Baselitz. If I had been Werner, I would have done the same. In any case, I go to the gallery and she was like a totally different person. She wouldn’t even speak to me anymore. She is still the worst ever for me, a totally red rag, the biggest bitch I have ever encountered in the gallery business.

Did you have a Plan B for New York?

I did my next exhibition with Leo Castelli. Paul Maenz arranged that for me.

The man into whose gallery you projected your cone of lights undercover a few years earlier.

At Castelli’s I showed my children pictures. I could have sold twice as many if I hadn’t already started working on something completely different before the opening.

“No doubt I am a sex addict, but that is better than being addicted to alcohol or to eating. Being addicted to sex is actually pretty good. It is actually double good. When you have satisfied the addiction it is good, and when you haven’t, well, that is sometimes good too, at least for creativity.”

What was it like showing with the biggest New York art dealer of the post-war era?

It was incredibly funny dining out with him. He was cracking jokes the entire time and was a big womanizer. Back then, he was already pretty old. He was also having an affair with his secretary. We understood each other well on that level. But on the business side, our different roles were clear. He’d make you wait for an hour outside his office until he had finished talking on the phone with Roy, Robert, or Jasper – there were priorities. For him to make the same amount of money that he could earn with a small Johns or Liechtenstein piece, he had to sell the entire exhibition of my work. Castelli wanted to do a second exhibit with me but by then I had a totally different style going, which confused him a bit. I was supposed to show in his second gallery, in rooms where everyone knew he put pieces he didn’t value as much.

No doubt I am a sex-addict but that is better than being addicted to alcohol or to eating. Being addicted to sex is actually pretty good. It is actually doubly good. When you have satisfied the addiction it is good, and when you haven’t, well, that is sometimes good too, at least for the creativity.

So, like Mary Boone, Castelli was history for you too.

Yes. After that I showed with Ileana Sonnabend, Leo’s first wife. Ileana looked like an East-European Babushka. It was really amazing, when she came into your studio with her squeaky voice, you couldn’t believe that the old lady could add one plus one. You simply couldn’t believe that this was the woman who had collected Max Ernst and Dali in 1935 or that she had brought Pop Art to Europe. You just thought she doesn’t get it. But, of course, she was amazingly clever. The simpler your approach is to observing things, the better. That was Ileana. She just stood there and said, “Ah, red, interesting, great.” And that’s the way it is, right? It has to be red, then there has to be a line on it so it isn’t just monochrome, then there has to be something on it that frames the red and then it’s done. And then it suddenly becomes the life purpose of lots of Jewish collectors in New York. It just has to hit you in the stomach. Too much theory just gets in the way.

Madonnas in Ecstasy, 1985–1987. Cibachrome prints, 300 x 300 cm. Private Collection, Munich

Madonnas in Ecstasy, 1985–1987. Cibachrome prints, 300 x 300 cm. Private Collection, Munich

You showed religious pictures with Sonnabend, crucifixes and Buddhas. There is that passage in the last interview with Andy Warhol before he died, where Paul Taylor asks him whether he had seen the Dokoupil exhibition at Sonnabend’s. Do you remember what Warhol answered?

I think he hadn’t seen it yet.

Warhol said, “I’m going to see it on Saturday.” He died on Sunday. Did he get to see it?

No idea, but Ileana probably would have told me if Warhol was at my show the day before he died.

You only had one exhibition with Sonnabend, too. Did you slowly come to realize that the way you worked must have been a nightmare for gallery owners? Even back then your first museum exhibitions looked like group shows where the artists seem to have very little in common with each other. Just when an art dealer had sworn by one of your styles to his clients, you turned up with a new one.

Sometimes I even came with the style of a different artist. When Julian Schnabel wasn’t invited to the documenta in 1982 – which was totally incomprehensible – I simply showed a Schnabel painting so he could be there anyway.

A large mosaic made of nailed books with the title “God, show me your balls.”

Most of the visitors went home with the feeling they had seen a pretty good Schnabel. That same year there was the large “Zeitgeist” exhibition in Berlin, curated by Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides. The Berlin artists always made fun of us, saying we artists in Cologne couldn’t paint. So I thought, when I exhibit in Berlin, I’ll show them that I’m able to learn it pretty quickly. I had some time before the exhibition and I watched exactly how they did it: the line has to be like this and this, it has to drip here and here. And then I showed three paintings in the Martin-Gropius Bau in the style of Helmut Middendorf, who was very hip at the time. At the opening, Middendorf was distraught because he kept getting congratulated for my paintings.

When did you realize that you demanded too much of collectors and gallery owners?

I never thought about the question like that. I found myself yearning for someone who shared my visions, went every step of the way with me; someone like Bruno Bischofberger would be for me later. I always have to feel total enthusiasm for what I am doing and it lessens with repetition. When I have a new style or a new technique, I almost have a heart attack because it is so exciting. But it doesn’t usually last very long. It’s like that with sex; I can’t be together with a woman for more than three months either. It is totally unimaginable for me to be with a woman for ten years and still have sex with her. To apply that to my situation as an artist, it means I have no choice.

When and why was there a falling out between you and Paul Maenz? He stuck it out with you for a pretty long time.

That was in 1988, one year after the Sonnabend show. I did something there that I would strongly recommend to postconceptual artists today: I left the city. I left my apparatus behind, my assistants, and the people that were always around me, and I went to the Canary Islands. I bought a house there and created a kind of impressionist concentration camp, the horror vision of every conceptualist – an easel, oil paints, and into nature. And I always had three or four naked women that I was constantly sketching. I went a little bit crazy at the time. I was really absolutely obsessed with becoming an impressionist.

And Paul Maenz came to visit?

Yes. After everything he had seen of mine, after all those years and styles, he came into this house and saw me there with hundreds of pictures, one worse than the next, and the naked women around me. I still have some pictures from this period – landscapes, nudes – I cannot convey to you vividly enough how bad these pictures were. They were worse than any flea market. And of course I knew how bad they were. I said to Paul, look at this, hundreds of bad figure drawings and landscapes, that is what I have been doing for almost a year now and I am still not finished. That was too much, even for him. It is not quite clear who fired who, but it was definitely over.

Lightbulb Eruption, 2010. Acrylic and soap bubbles on canvas, 160 x 200 cm. Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich & Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich

Lightbulb Eruption, 2010. Acrylic and soap bubbles on canvas, 160 x 200 cm. Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich & Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich

Does an artist have to allow for bad art in order to move on?

He doesn’t have to, but sometimes it helps. It would help conceptual artists especially to tackle tasks at which they fail. If you have the means, and want to make a blue painting 10 by 20 meters, then there is no problem, you just do it. If you are Damien Hirst, then you can just pile up a hundred cows on top of each other. But then making art becomes too easy. Then you don’t have any limits and have to set your own. Hirst has done it.

Do you mean the new works where Hirst paints himself and grapples with Francis Bacon?

Exactly. People are now saying he’s finished, but that is totally ridiculous. What Damien is doing now is really good, or at least really good for him. Making yourself vulnerable to failure is a hundred times more productive than to keep on producing big inflated dogs. To take the more difficult path is more interesting.

What the Bacon paintings are to Hirst, the impressionist phase was for you?

I wanted to make something that I couldn’t do as a post-conceptual artist: to go into nature, to sit down and get closer to reality through painting.

And you failed.

I failed every day for a year, but it was productive anyway. All the non-paintings were created from the realization that I cannot become an impressionist – the candle paintings, the soap paintings, the mother’s milk paintings. Suddenly I knew that I cannot get close to reality as a painter, my reality can only be reached through detours. I can only do it by acquiring some medium or other where I am totally alone, lost in the universe – alone with a candle, where I try to imitate forms with its soot.

Even if you did fail as an impressionist, you can now say you are the best candle painter in the world.

I am also the best soap bubble painter in the world. I am pretty much alone with that.

How did you later make the huge photo-realistic candle paintings?

Right after my year on the Canaries, I was in Madrid, and I knew that I couldn’t continue as a normal painter. I still wanted to continue painting, but how? One afternoon I was in the studio of my friend Roberto Cabot, who at the time had been working very intensively with renaissance techniques. A small canvas he had primed with candle soot for oil painting hung on the wall. He explained to me that the soot makes the colors more uniform, but I wasn’t even listening anymore. I ran to my studio, hung a canvas beneath the ceiling and painted my first candle painting.

With a projector. In Berlin, for instance, I had a studio just for candle paintings. I had the ground floor and the basement, and I placed the projector in the basement and then had the floor to the ground level pulled out. The canvas was then hung in the ground-floor apartment beneath the ceiling.

Was the invention enough? Did you have to develop it further?

I think there are many things we could do better. Even Picasso could have improved his blue phase, don’t you think? But he had other things to do. You know, I see the history of art totally distorted. I can’t help it, but for me it is a materialistic history of many rational inventions – this one invented that style and that one this technique. Take Renoir, why did he become such a master?

Don’t know.

Because he used a completely new technique for painting. He was a trained porcelain painter in his youth. Back then everyone painted dark before light, except for Renoir. His foundation was light, so he painted on them dark, simply because he was used to it from porcelain. This method is pretty much his whole secret. Thanks to that, he became a kind of painter-machine and was able to realize his vision amazingly well. So, I see Renoir from this aspect. My father always dreamed of inventing something like the yo-yo that cost only a few pennies to develop but which every child in the world wants to have. He had 60 patents, but that is what he dreamed of. I am a lot like him in that respect. I dream of having a monopoly on something that everyone loves and wants to have.

“Damien Hirst is a good inventor-artist. It doesn’t matter how many spin or butterfly paintings he made, they are fantastic inventions. What I admire the most about him, however, is that he also runs a successful sub-label as Banksy.”

Your father was an inventor?

A very successful one. When I started earning money in the 80s, we were always comparing ourselves, the way immigrants do: How much did you earn this month? And my father earned easily fifty times what I earned. He had his own mechanical engineering company with 300 employees.

What was his best invention?

When I was ten, in ’64 or ’65, he invented a machine for the tannery industry that revolutionized leather processing. Where it used to take eight men to soften leather, he constructed a conveyor machine where the leather ran right through and was softened. Back then the machine cost 100,000 dollars, and it was exported all over the world. It was produced 5,000 times up through the 80s. Just think, 5,000 times 100,000 – how unbelievable rich he would have been. He received 30,000 crowns from the Czechoslovakian state for the invention, which was maybe around 1,000 German marks; under Communism, inventions, of course, belonged to the state.

When did your family immigrate?

In 1968, after the Prague Spring. My father suffered more the economic, not the ideological consequences. But with his invention we had the fortune of being accepted immediately. He got a job right away with an American company in Germany. We were given a house that was furnished and he started off earning 3 or 4,000 German marks a month, after taxes. That was an incredible amount of money.

You never told me that your father was an inventor, but you did say that he was addicted to sex. Are there other parallels?

I don’t know if he was really addicted to sex. But there were those days when he didn’t come home, sometimes two days in a row, where he simply disappeared. At the time my mother told us that our father occasionally had black outs, that he lost his orientation and couldn’t find his way home again – a kind of illness of the nerves that only surfaced now and then. Much later, when I was an adult, he told me the truth: that he had been at a brothel on those days and was unable to leave until he had had sex with every woman there. He said, “Georg, it is bad. I go into the place and can’t leave a single one out.”

Did you see yourself in that?

Not at all. I could never fool around with every woman in a brothel. I have a pretty clear sense of when she is too young or too old, and then I can’t do it.

Madonnas in Ecstasy, 1985–1987. Cibachrome prints, 300 x 300 cm. Private Collection, Munich

Madonnas in Ecstasy, 1985–1987. Cibachrome prints, 300 x 300 cm. Private Collection, Munich

Would you describe yourself as a sex addict?

No doubt I am a sex addict, but that is better than being addicted to alcohol or eating. Being addicted to sex is actually pretty good. It is actually doubly good. When you have satisfied the addiction, it is good. When you haven’t, well, that is sometimes good too, at least for the creativity. Sometimes I just wait and then some weird ideas come. It is probably like with monks. When they are horny, they pray or transform their horniness into visions. The only problem for a sex addict is the organization. You constantly have to organize the sex. That is a lot easier in a city like Rio than, say, Berlin.

Is that one of the reasons why you spend your winters in Rio?

One of the reasons, certainly. The city is, in this respect, fantastic. I think of the top 27 blow jobs I have ever had in my life, all of them were in Rio – my top 27 sexual experiences in general.

How does Madrid fair as your fourth principle place of residence after Berlin, Rio, and Prague?

Madrid is good, much better than Berlin, but not comparable to Rio. There it is really madness.

You once said that in your next life you would be a real estate broker. Why?

Because I would be good at it – instinctively. I have always bought property on a gut feeling. In New York, on many occasions, during a time or in an area where every expert advised me against buying, each time I sold the apartments for four times as much as I paid for them. The experts are the worst. In 1990, when the art market and the stock market were in very sorry shape, and everyone had the feeling that they would never recover, I came to my favorite building on the Lower East Side, a kind of Art Deco building with a doorman and marble lobby. The apartment was on the 10th floor, 120 square meters with a view of the Empire State Building. I called a few friends, who were real estate brokers, and asked them whether I should buy it for 150,000 dollars.

And?

They asked me if I was mad. “150,000 dollars? Much too much. And on the lower east Side?” They were really in an apocalyptic mood.

You bought it anyway.

Of course. A few years later the apartment was already worth 1.2 million.

Were there any bad purchases?

In Rio I made the mistake of only buying one apartment: 200 square meters, Copacabana, Jugendstil with a large terrace. Now, seven years later, it is worth ten times as much. I regret not buying more there.

Der grüne Leopard, 2002. Soot on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. Private collection

Der grüne Leopard, 2002. Soot on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. Private collection

Let’s go back to the inventions. Your father always wanted to invent something like a yo-yo. What would be the equivalent in the art world? Is there a very simple invention you are envious of?

Fontana’s slash. Fontana is one of my favorite art inventors. His slash is an unbelievable invention. There must be 5,000 of them. Experts will probably damn me now because there are maybe only 846, but they are all great. In the early 80s, I made these terrycloth paintings with hand-sewn buttons and zippers. That was my answer to him. Back then I thought I could heal him with my zippers. Fontana was also obsessed with sex.

Who is your favorite artist-inventor of the present?

Damien Hirst is a good inventor-artist. There should be a detailed count of everything he invented, or at least thought out to perfection. It is quite a lot. It doesn’t matter how many spin or butterfly paintings he’s made, they are fantastic inventions. What I admire the most about him, however, is that he also runs a successful sub-label as Banksy.

You are convinced that Hirst is Banksy?

Absolutely. Someone that I have known for decades and whom I trust one hundred percent, someone who really must know, told me that Banksy is Hirst’s invention. It would also explain why Banksy has kept his identity a secret until now – he doesn’t exist. That would be a dream of mine. Different sub-brands for different styles. Three or four sub-brands that each developed two or three styles and techniques. The whip paintings would have perhaps sold even better if they had officially come from an unbelievably good looking 32-year-old transsexual.

Are you worried about your earnings?

Not really.

I just ask because you are in a very privileged position, regardless of whether you are presenting major exhibitions are not. Bruno Bischofberger, one of the most powerful art dealers in the world, is a big collector of yours. I heard that he has 60 candle paintings of yours in just his private collection.

Sixty? Are you trying to diminish my creativity? Bruno has many, many more of my candle paintings.

I once visited Bischofberger at his factory grounds on lake Zurich where he has his showroom and also all the catacombs for his collection. In the showroom there were Warhols and Basquiats hanging worth hundreds of millions of euros. But even more impressive were the depot rooms of his collection, which are as big as a sports gym. I think I saw more important furniture of designer history there than exists in the MoMA collection – all the rooms for Scandinavian ceramics, Swiss folk art, his antique collection, to say nothing of all the rest. Since then I am convinced that Bruno Bischofberger is the biggest collector in the world.

Of course he is. Didn’t you know that? He has a positively physical craving to possess the things that he loves. Bruno is unbelievable. He can’t be stopped.

“I had planned to work on a new, dumber subject every day: miners, more radiant than the sun; the German postal service; microscopic examinations of green squares – it didn’t matter.”

It is said that he has always kept for himself the great masterpieces from all his artists, be it Basquiat or Warhol, and still has them.

I have also heard these rumors of him keeping the best for himself. I mean, he is an obsessive collector, but I really don’t know.

What does it mean to be one of Bruno Bischofberger’s artists?

Why do you think Bruno had the option to buy all of Warhol’s work until his death?

Because he paid?

Far more than that, it’s because the man is one hundred percent true to his word. The artists admired him and went to him because they knew he offered them total security – although, security is perhaps the wrong word. Most of the artists want to be left in peace, they just want to do their stuff and then have someone come and say he wants this and that, and not that and that. Bruno is clear with every artist. You can concentrate fully on your thing. The art world is full of people who don’t keep their word, who will tell you all sorts of things. Even the most famous gallery owners come into your studio and tell you they want to have the ten paintings they saw there and that you should definitely put them aside for them – and then nothing happens. With Bruno that won’t happen, with a thousand percent certainty, and Warhol knew that.

The way he is portrayed by Dennis Hopper in the film “Basquiat,” Bischofberger was mostly traveling around with very big bundles of cash.

He really wasn’t at all like he comes across in the film. In real life it was all done much more discreetly and elegantly. But the whole Bruno experience can of course be quite damaging for a young artist. If you are 25 or 30, all that can really confuse you. It was okay for me, although I was already showing with him in 1987. But ten years later when I went to him exclusively, I was old enough to know how to deal with it.

You mean the freedom far outweighs the lack of freedom?

Yes. I can set up a 1,200 square meter studio in Berlin today and in China tomorrow. That is a kind of freedom that most artists don’t have, regardless of whether they are currently on the cover of an art magazine.

How did you meet Bruno?

You didn’t have to meet Bruno. In the 80s he was everywhere something was happening. It didn’t matter if it was in New York or Cologne, if you went to visit a fellow artist and there was a limousine parked in front of the studio with a driver, then you could be sure that Bruno was there buying the entire contents of the studio. He was not interested in individual works. If he believed in something, then he wanted it all. Of course he was a provocation to other gallery owners. They all feared he was taking away all the best artists.

What was it like when he visited you the first time?

That was in Cologne, at the very beginning, and he was mostly buying members of the Mühlheimer Freiheit, except for me. That made me really sad. But he just didn’t understand what I was doing because I had a different style every day. Later he got it and understood it better than everyone else. He knew exactly what he would not get from me. It is the same today; he is just as enthusiastic as I am about the new things that I make. It is exactly the same with Andrea Caratsch, who used to work for Bruno, and who represents me together with Bruno.

Of Bruno’s superstar-troop of the 80s, who do you like the best?

I love Julian Schnabel. He is so full of himself. He gives you the impression that he is the greatest painter of all time. And the crazy thing is, he is not so off the mark with that.

Why does hardly anyone besides himself recognize this today?

He has such a large ego that many people don’t like it. But I am sure one day the time will come when everybody is going to love his work again.

How did you find Basquiat, about whom Schnabel made his best film?

The same as with Bruno, he is not like Schnabel presented him in the film. I always thought he had something calculating about him. He was brilliant but also really ass-kissing. At exhibition openings, he always knew exactly where he should position himself and to whom he had to speak. If someone entered who might be important to his career, he always ran right up to them.

Doesn’t sound like you two became friends.

My assistant Reiner Opoku was close to him, and they were really nuts about each other. I went with Reiner to the legendary New Year’s party at Jean-Michel’s home in 1984.

Why was it legendary?

Jean-Michel walked around with a bag full of at least a kilo of cocaine. It was totally absurd.

Peitschen Bild – Weiss auf Schwarz, 2003. Acrylic on canvas, 92 x 285 cm. Private Collection, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich

Peitschen Bild – Weiss auf Schwarz, 2003. Acrylic on canvas, 92 x 285 cm. Private Collection, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich

Did you at least help him a bit?

Of course. I think people back then thought that was kind of refreshing. We hardly thought about it. I recall how I realized a few years later that it was not only refreshing.

What happened?

I was with Reiner and my friend Donald Baechler at the famous nightclub Area, and since we didn’t want to lay any lines there, I had to put the bag of coke in front of me in the dark and just stick my nose into it. The next thing I knew was that I had apparently taken way too much. Anyway, a little while later I am sitting with Donald in a taxi on the way to another club and I am really not feeling too well. I ask Donald whether it is dangerous if you sniff too much, and he just asks whether I never read the paper, and tells me that in the last few months three top athletes had died of an overdose.

Very sensitive of him.

I got out of the taxi right away and poured a bottle of water into my nose. I wanted to rinse it out, somehow snort it out so that my heart would finally stop fluttering, but that didn’t help the matter. I was awake for two days after that and thought every moment I was going to die. I wanted to go to a hospital but the whole time I had this vision that at the very moment I entered the hospital I would have a heart attack.

And?

I was so glad that I survived, that I have never touched drugs since.

It would have been a shame for this interview.

And for the years in between.

Thank you for this conversation.

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A mug-shot of the artist in Prague, October 2011