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Leons Zilbers. Publicity photo

Art projects energy upon me 0

An interview with Leons Zilbers, a passionate art-lover

Daiga Rudzāte

The large-scale exhibition “Elective Affinities” is currently going on (through 21 August) at the Latvian National Art Museum’s “Arsenāls” exhibition space; indeed, this impressive showing of relatively recent German art is one of the most significant cultural events to take place in Riga in the last few years. And seemingly, the most expensive art project to have ever been hosted by Riga. In today’s context, the artists featured are undoubtedly the biggest names on the art scene of the moment, and many have already entered the art history lexicon as permanent members. It is truly the first time that such a concentrated array of works by world-class artists has bee put on exhibit in Riga. Mark Gisborne, the curator of the exhibition, selected 77 works by 53 artists, with all of the works having been created between the late 1960s to the current day; the works have been loaned out by 45 different collections, both public and private. The opening of “Elective Affinities” created quite the uproar, and apparently, even people for whom art is not a daily necessity have been coming here in droves.

Bringing such an exhibition to Riga was the brainchild of the company Forte Medical, which is owned by Guntis Rāvis and Leons Zilbers. requested an interview with Zilbers, a passionate art-lover. As it turns out, if you happen to Google his name, you won’t find anything; that’s because, as Zilbers reiterates several times during our conversation on a warm July afternoon, he doesn’t like publicity: “I’m not a public persona.” 

Günther Uecker. Dialog (Koran). 2002. Canvas on board, white latex, graphite, nails. 200 x 160 x 18 cm

Why was it important to you to bring “Elective Affinities” – a very expensive exhibition where the value of the artworks alone tops 100 million – to Riga?

Of course, it could have been a simpler exhibition, one that would have been cheaper to put together; we could have done an excellent show featuring younger German artists instead. However...during the process, new ideas appear and the appetite grows. And so, step by step...Overall, I am a perfectionist – regardless of what I’m doing. I try to do everything as well as I can, and to the best of my abilities.

I could draw parallels with gift buying. If you want to bring joy to someone that you love and honor, you buy this person a gift. You spend a long time selecting it, and when you finally give it, in that moment when you see the joy in the receiver’s eyes, you have also given yourself joy. I’d be even willing to admit that, in truth, we’re giving the gifts to ourselves. Together with Guntis Rāvis, we’ve founded a company that deals in modular construction – we build hotels, hospitals, domestic buildings. We wanted to put out the message that our Forte Medical exists. Of course, we could have done it with banal simplicity: invite a lot of people and provide lots of food and drinks. Everyone would throng about for a while, and then leave. And another boring event would have taken place. We decided to do it another way – a way that would bring people joy, and that would also have meaning. And the public would find out about Forte Medical, about its philosophy. They’d begin wondering why we’re doing something like that. Different associations form – with something beautiful, with something intellectual and intelligent. You can’t achieve something like that by just holding a cocktail evening in a venue where Forte Medical has been printed on the walls. That’s our reason for doing this. We’ve already become more recognizable, and it’s simpler for us to communicate who we are when we can just say – we’re the ones who brought “that” exhibition to Riga. 

So, you could say that you’ve already seen a return on your investment…


But why have you focused specifically on German art?

I think the answer is quite simple. Germany is the unrivaled leader of Europe.

And you’re saying this as a Jew. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

You know, I will never forget what Germany did to the Jews. Practically my whole family was killed. However, I realize that it was an equally horrendous tragedy for both of us – the Jews, and the Germans themselves. And, in my opinion, today’s Germany is doing everything in its power to compensate for its guilt. When I was at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, I met some German soldiers there; I asked them what they were doing there. They answered that their educational program includes a visit to this museum.

I live by the principle that what happened then – is one thing. That which is happening today, is something completely different. And I don’t link the present with the past. One can’t blame today’s Germany for what others did back then. In addition, I certainly don’t collect art according to nationality. I just really like German artists, and I have a lot of German art in my private collection as well.

Donald Judd. Untitled (Swiss Bix Progression). 1987. 29,8 x 209,6 cm

How would you describe yourself as a collector? What do you focus on?

In truth – I probably wouldn’t even call myself a collector. I simply… buy what I like. Of course, I try to follow along with art processes and what’s going on. And, the more I learn, the more I realize that I truly know little. However, I have many friends who are very knowledgeable about art, and talking to them is very interesting. For instance, every hour that I’ve spent together with Mark Gisbourne, the curator of this exhibition, has been invaluable to me; I’m enriching myself. And interestingly, I pass on what I’ve learned; for example, to my friends. And they want to understand why that interests me. Some of them have even become passionate about art in this way.

Art is my hobby. Everyone has something else. I like golf and art. I’d even get on a plane just to go see an exhibition. And the first thing I do when I arrive in a new city – I found out where the local golf course is, and what exhibitions are going on at the moment.

What do you look for in art?

It could be aesthetics. I really love and am passionate about architecture. I like to learn about this subject, and to look at beautiful buildings. It is important to me that my house gives me aesthetic pleasure. I haven’t used the services of an interior designer for any of my homes or apartments. I’ve always done all the decorating myself. I kind of implant my hobby into my real life. I do this only for myself – because I simply like to do it. And not, for instance, to invite a lot of people over for a fancy party and surprise them with my surroundings. I’m not an especially public person, and frankly, I don’t really like public events with lots of people.

Leons Zilbers' collection 

Regardless – what do you buy, and what sort of art do you like?

I buy contemporary art. I can’t say precisely how many units I have. Quite a lot. Mostly paintings. 

What do you call contemporary art?

I call contemporary art that, which is made by my contemporaries. When I walk through Riga, I enjoy the Art Nouveau architecture and that of Old Town. But the House of the Blackheads is kitsch – because it’s a copy. We are 21st-century people, and we have to build 21st-century buildings. Those who will come after us will have their own, very different architecture. And this is the only way to see how a city has developed. The same holds for art. Impressionism was a revolutionary phenomenon in its day. Some liked it, some thought it horrible. Today it is regarded as classic. However, if someone tried to copy that style today, I’d regard that person as someone who lives in the past, and not in today’s world. After all, we have a completely different rhythm, we dress differently than then, we live in different kinds of houses, and art is different, too. I have no wish to sit in a Louis-style chair. For this period in which we live, I believe that Mies van der Rohe is more appropriate. 

Do you live with your artworks, or do you keep them in storage?

They are dispersed among my houses. I don’t have any part of my collection stored away. Everything is hanging on the walls. It’s important for me to see art that I really like. I never buy anything that doesn’t excite me; I don’t buy on the advice of others. What I do is read a lot of books and show interest. Sometimes that which I didn’t like yesterday, I suddenly like today. And then I ask gallerists whom I know to help me find one work or another. Usually I am quite sure of what I want, and I put forth all effort necessary to get it. Either through auctions or galleries.

Which artists’ works do you have in your homes?

Anselm Kiefer, Richard Prince, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra…

Jonathan Meese. Dr. Gnaeus-Saalys. 2004. Oil on canvas. 210 x 420 cm

Is it important to you who the artist is behind a piece of art, or is it the artwork itself that speaks to you first and foremost?

I’ll answer with an example. In this exhibition going on at the “Arsenāls”, there are two paintings by Jonathan Meese. Compared to the other artists in this exhibition, his works aren’t all that expensive, and I didn’t know anything about him. But at some exhibition, I suddenly spotted one of these paintings. It was one of the first artworks that I bought. Completely by intuition, knowing nothing of the artist. I look at the painting, and I feel that it gives me joy. With its colors, its aesthetic. Painting is like music. One person listens to a concert and imagines waterfalls; another keeps remembering that his wife has left him. Each person has a different impression. For instance, I used to be completely indifferent to Christopher Wool at first. And then I suddenly discovered him. I saw him as if I had gotten different eyes. I asked my gallerist friend, Volker Diehl, to help me find his works. And now I own two of Wool’s works; actually – they are some of my favorite works in my collection.

However, if I am in a city where there are three exhibitions going on, one of which is, for example, Calder, and the other two I don’t recognize, then of course I’ll go see the Calder show because it’s a guaranteed pleasure. I won’t play the lottery simply because I’m loathe to waste a day. If I end up not liking the other two, if they don’t impress me...Whatever the case may be, names and last names influence us. Because they’re not random. You know… the selecting has already been done, and by people who are smarter than me in this field. 

How does Calder ensure that you’ll be pleased?

A minute ago you asked me what do I like…It’s like this...I love simplicity; I don’t like it if there are a lot of flowers around...I like mechanisms, I get a kick out of, for instance, the crushed-up car sculptures of John Chamberlain. That’s also probably why I like Calder. That’s the reason why I’m so very taken with the artists’ group Zero. It’s like macho art. That’s also why I’m so very fond of the art of Richard Prince. There’s always either a cowboy or a woman. When one buys art, you’re not thinking of that. But when you look at the whole that you own, you realize that there is something that links it all together.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled. 1984. Oil on canvas, acrylic, paper collage. 168,3 x 152,4 cm

You occasionally get calls from the Gagosian Gallery with offers to sell specific pieces from your collection. Do you take advantage of this to make money?

Everyone does this – they call each other if they know who owns what. They don’t call me that often anymore because they now know that I won’t sell anything. I just buy. I have yet to sell anything.

The relationship between art and money is quite vulgar and crass nowadays. What is your opinion on the relationship between art and the prices it fetches?

I’m not going to say that I don’t know anything about this and that I don’t understand it. Nevertheless, it’s not my field. I buy for myself. If an artwork that I really like is expensive, I can’t say that I’d be willing to pay any price for it. I do understand how this market has been built, and according to what principles. The financial side of the art world does not interest me. Some people may be happy knowing that they have money in the bank. I’m happy if I can use this money to buy a work of art that gives me pleasure. Of course, it’s nice to know that by doing this, I’m not losing any money, per se. So that makes it twice as nice.

However, there’s something I’ve noticed [chuckles] – while I have yet to show any interest in a particular artist, his art is relatively inexpensive to buy. But as soon as I begin to show interest in it, the price goes up. That can’t be coincidental.

Read in the Archive: An interview with art collectors Andrew and Christine Hall

In his interview with, Andrew Hall said that for him, art fulfills a function much like the television does for others – when he comes home from work, he looks at art. I have an acquaintance, an art theoretician, who can look at one painting for hours on end. How much time can you spend with one painting?

I simply stop and look at it from time to time. It’s not as if I note how long I look. I’ve never measured the time, but every time I look, I spot something different in it. Of course, sometimes I view a painting with intent. But by being in my house, it – in a sense – becomes a part of me, a part of my world.

Frank Stella. (Fst/M1) Rakoff I. 1971. Oil on canvas. 225 x 275 cm

Do you believe in the energy of art?

Undoubtedly. I was once in the studio of Frank Stella. His latest sculptures leave an impression of absolute spontaneity. As if Stella had simply taken something and chaotically bent it. I saw how he did it. First there’s a small model of it, which is then processed by a computer and modified with a 3D program. I understood that his “directed chaos” is absolutely calculated. He is such a great artist that, with the aid of calculated chaos, he influences me so much that I can only see a spontaneous explosion. He has put his energy inside of it, and then passes it on. Through this extremely work-intensive process, he projects energy onto me. Actually – it’s hard for me to explain it. It is truly very private for me, and it’s hard to find the appropriate descriptors. These days it’s important to speak well, to speak clearly, but perhaps it is something that I am not able to say with words.

Nevertheless, as I said before, I look at each artwork in a different way. One thing may leave a very powerful impression on me, while another leaves me completely indifferent.

Is it important for you to know an artist personally?

No. I met Frank Stella totally inadvertently, and he left an indelible impression on me. I realize that I am only one of many who go see him. Stella’s studio is located about 100 km from New York City, and he offered to take me back to the city. On the way, we got carried away with our conversation; we stopped along the roadside and he began to tell me the history of New York. We had a deep conversation on something other than art. And I think we became fond of one another. It was very interesting.

Is there anything that you’d love to have in your possession as an art collector, but you haven’t acquired it?

There are things that I like very much, but which I can’t afford. There are many works that I could have bought once, but I didn’t because I didn’t pay enough attention to them. But today I like them very much.

Before you set out to acquire a piece, do you set a financial limit that you will never cross?

You know, it’s a spontaneous decision. Sometimes I make such limits, but once I see the artworks, all of my determination disappears. In addition to art, I’m just as passionate about, for example, mid-20th-century Scandinavian furniture. For instance, pieces by Hans Wegner and Poul Kjaerholm. I can spend hours browsing through shops in Stockholm that specialize in mid-century interior furnishings. I like to even just window-shop. It is so exciting.

Everything you have mentioned so far fits into the period of contemporary classics. Are you interested in any artists that are not part of this canon?

Yes, of course. I follow them, and I’ve bought some pieces and given them to my children.

Is the new generation of artists different?

Generations are always changing and they always differ from one another. I think that (even though I am completely satisfied with my holdings) – if I were to find myself at the beginning of my collecting career today, I would want to collect the absolutely craziest examples of contemporary art.

Would you buy a Tino Seghal performance?

I might draw the line there. I represent a different generation...I have my own contemporary art [laughs]. 

Does the success of “Elective Affinities” spur you towards thinking about future activities?

I’ve seen that these sorts of projects can be successful, and I already have some plans for the future. I simply want to be part of the cultural processes here, which I think are very essential for Latvia, and that bring Latvia closer to Europe. Because Europe is not just a geographical location.