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Jeanette Bonnier. Photo: Peter Jönsson

You are not one of the Hirst’s phenomena followers?

No. I think that his “Dot Paintings” are quite ridiculous. The other day I was in a meeting in one of our offices and there was a curtain hanging by the entrance… it was exactly like Damien Hirst. Exactly! (laughs) And I thought – this is ridiculous! Many, many years ago, however, I went to the Venice Biennale and at that time there was this enormous building where all the young people were showing. It was called “Aperto”. It was there that I saw this artwork of a cow and a baby calf facing each other. You had to walk between them – the mother and the child. I cannot forget it because that was really gripping. It was something beyond words. And I didn’t know who the artist was. At that time I had a gallery in New York and I said to my partner – “Oh, we have to find out who this guy is. This is tremendous.” Well, that was Damien Hirst. But after that, I think, he has become very commercial and it’s no longer very interesting. For me that’s not art.

Which artists are you drawn to?

People do ask me: “Who would you say is the best artist?” And then I always say: “Well, I think that Michelangelo was a good artist.” It’s a question that you can’t answer. “Who is the best artist?” is a ridiculous question. But of course there are always some artists that talk to you more than others. For me those would be Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer. Those are the two names that I know I love very much. I think they are great artists. They mean something. But different coloured dots on a white canvas don’t mean anything to me. It doesn’t talk to me.

You had an art gallery in New York. Why didn’t you open a commercial gallery in Stockholm?

I hated the gallery work. It wasn’t for me. It didn’t suit my temperament at all. I had a partner and he was very skilled at selling but it wasn’t my thing. This was in the beginning of the 1980’s in SoHo. It was not the right time for two Swedish people to open an art gallery because everybody in New York had opened up. There were Mary Boone and Leo Castelli. And Tony Shafrazi was just opening a space. These people already had connections with artists. Kieth Herring, for an example, was already talking to Shafrazi. We were able to show some small things of Kieth’s because Tony was building his art gallery and it was not ready yet. So here we were and everybody already had a contract with a gallery. We didn’t have the gallery for long. It existed for 2 or 3 years. It was quite fun while it lasted but there was nothing that I would devote my life to.

But when you decided to move back to Stockholm and start a business here you had all the contacts but you still decided against opening a commercial gallery here.

I hated to stand there and sell. I hated that! I remember one person came in and, although I can’t remember what we were showing at that time, I said to him: “You know, there is a much better exhibition next door.” (laughs) Leo Castelli had a big space beside us. So, no, I can’t sell. No. I hate it.

You spoke about New York and Venice Biennale. How visible is Scandinavian art scene on the international level?

10 to 15 years ago you couldn’t see a Swedish artist in New York. In the beginning of the 1980’s there were very few European contemporary artists that interested Americans. And then came a group of Italian and German artists. They were Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, A.R. Penck, Jörg Immendorff and Helmut Middendorf. They broke through. They came to New York and they stayed, and lived there. Today, however, quite a few of the artists we have awarded are showing in New York and are picked up by American collectors and museums.

So you think that the break through for these other European artists paved way for Scandinavian art?

Yes, but I also think that the whole art scene has become international. Today everyone is looking all over the world for artists and new people. There is this hype of art that has made galleries very eager to find new artists all the time. It can be hurtful to art. The pressure of having to show new things all the time can result in less quality. We should look back at the old days when you had a few artists in your gallery and you worked with them and for them. Now I have a feeling that there is a pressure of having to show new things all the time.

I read that you bought your first artwork when you were 12 years old. How has your collection developed?

To curate an interesting collection you have to be consistent, you have to be very focused and you have to know exactly what you want to collect. You can choose a period or you can choose one or two artists that will be your focus point. I never did that. It might be stupid of me but I didn’t do that. If I saw a painting and if I loved it, I bought it. I never thought: “Oh, wow! I am starting to build a collection.” It didn’t function like that at all. They were just things that I liked. Of course, you can say that I started early. I bought Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana for absolutely nothing. I became friends with Fontana. I remember that I went to his studio in Milano. I had seen a picture of his paintings with stones. I wanted to buy a piece just like that. So I went to his studio but he said: “I am sorry. I’m not going to sell. I only have five of them left. But buy this painting.” He pointed at the stand and there was this red painting with diagonal slashes. He said: “Buy this because I don’t know how I mixed this red colour.” I had also never seen that colour. I had seen red of course but not like that. So I bought it. And what did it cost? It wasn’t even a thousand dollars. This was in the sixties.

Of course this has happened for many people throughout art history. But I think this period has passed. It won’t happen again. I don’t think so. It’s because now the business world has gone into the art scene. Now everybody has a contract with somebody. It is another world.

The prices for contemporary artworks are very high. Even for emerging artists.

Exactly!

A lot of the times it doesn’t make sense.

No, it doesn’t. But I usually say that I don’t have a collection. I have a few paintings that surround me in my home. Business thinking has moved into art world. And when you read articles about how much you have gained on a painting in comparison with stock, how much the art has gone up when compared with stock… something has happened, art has become something else.

In this case art is no longer a pleasure, it has become a form of investment.

Exactly. It has also become a social status to have a collection. People used to show off with their wives’ diamonds or something similar to that but today you must have a big house with a big art collection. Next step is to build your own museum. It’s an ego trip. Of course people can do that but I am a little afraid that the quality of works is going to be hurt by that. Everything happens so fast. How many artists can take it easy and think about what they are working on? You have to be out there and sell, sell, sell.

If art becomes a status symbol, then Hirst’s “Spot Paintings” gain a purpose. If you walk into a house and notice one of them hanging on the wall, immediately you make a chain of conclusions – that is Hirst, that costs hundreds of thousands, the person owning it must be wealthy, etc. You don’t have to be familiar with the contemporary art scene to recognise them.

Exactly.

It doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t good art, it symbolises the “I can afford this”. Maybe that is the meaning of “Spot Paintings”.

Absolutely. You are right. But that doesn’t interest me at all. And especially when I don’t think that it’s good art. I am sure that he doesn’t stand there and do these spots himself.

No. He has a team of people to do that.

That’s not for me. (Shakes her head in dismissal) It’s something else with Andy Warhol. He also had a team of people. But somehow what Any Warhol showed was the time he lived in - like the Campbell’s soup can. I don’t think that it was irony because he was not ironic as a person. Damien Hirst, however, is pretentious enough to say that this is art. And that’s what I think is very damaging.

In 1970’s you were involved in the exhibition “New York Collection for Stockholm” at the Moderna Museet, and worked closely with Andy Warhol.

Mostly I worked with Robert Rauschenberg. He was such a sweet man. He had a house at Lafayette street and there we had our office. And then there was Leo [Castelli]. Leo and I published some lithographs that we never could sell. (laughs) Everyone that we worked with for this collection made a lithograph. We put them into a very nice wooden box and they stood in Leo’s basement for years and years. (laughs) In the end I called him and said that we have to do something about it. “No, no, no.” he replied. “Just take it easy. You just wait. Time will work for us.” So it was Rob, and Leo… and Andy was involved. But main figures were really Rob and Leo.

Where are these lithographs now?

I don’t know what happened with Leo’s bunch. I think I gave some away. Some were sold many years ago. But I think I still have one box left. (laughs) 

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