The interview with the distinguished art dealer and philanthropist Anthony d’Offay takes place in his elegant first floor office on London’s Dering Street, an historic wood-panelled room where he works with his young assistant. Downstairs is Postcard Teas, a shop selling exquisite rare varieties of teas, which is run by Anthony’s son Timothy and his Japanese wife Asako. At Anthony’s request a pot of delicious caffeine free Chinese tea is bought up for us to drink during the interview.
How did you become a legend in the world of art?
I was very lucky. I opened a small gallery in 1965 and moved here to Dering Street in 1968. For two to three years at the end of the 70s we began to plan a very large new international gallery. Anne Seymour and I got married in 1977. Anne was one of the curators of the modern collection at the Tate, and she made it her ambition to change me into a modern person. So there were three of us – myself, my wife Anne and Marie-Louise Laband, who joined in 1976 and ran the operation faultlessly for the next four decades. Our first exhibition when we opened in 1980 was Joseph Beuys. The new gallery had eight rooms, some of them really large.
Because you wanted to show big works of art?
We had the idea that if we could have a big gallery, like the New York Soho galleries of the time, we could invite the world’s greatest living artists to show here, and that this new programme would help to make London a destination for the international art world. We imagined that people would come to London to see those shows and it would have a great impact, and I think that really worked. Beuys’s ‘Stripes from the House of the Shaman’ was the opening exhibition and this was Anne’s idea.
What happened to that sculpture?
We sold it to James Mollison, the brilliant director of the National Gallery in Canberra, Australia. I really admired James, and when I rang him and said we had a Beuys sculpture which I thought would be perfect for Canberra he said to me, “If you really, really, really think it’s true I shall buy it sight unseen. If it’s not true I shall murder you next time I see you!” James had previously bought one of the most famous works of art of the 20th century (which is in London at the moment), and that is the great painting called ‘Blue Poles’ by Jackson Pollock. He had also bought two sculptures of ‘Bird in Space’ by Brâncuși. That’s ambition for you!
In 1970 you began to represent Lucian Freud?
A wonderful experience. Such an extraordinary person, a great artist and friend. He was the best man at our wedding.
And later he was represented elsewhere?
Yes, which was great for his career. It happened in an interesting way. In 1988 we showed an Australian performance artist called Leigh Bowery. Freud saw him, became fascinated by him, and started to make unusually large nude paintings of him. This became a great international breakthrough for Lucian and changed his career. The New York dealer, Bill Acquavella, started to show Lucian’s pictures, and this led to an important retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Was Freud a fascinating presence?
Absolutely. A young lady, a client of ours, said that one of the greatest experiences of her life was walking past Lucian in Kensington Church Street. After 30 yards, she stopped and looked back and it was so thrilling, because he had also stopped and was looking back at her. She said this was the Number One romantic moment in her life. There’s a marvellous film which was shown on the BBC after his death, a documentary called ‘Lucian Freud: A Painted Life’, which includes footage of him as a child with his grandfather Sigmund, and ends with him painting in his studio at the end of his life. In the film there’s a meeting between Lucian and Bill Acquavella. They shake hands on working together, and then Lucian says, “Would you be kind enough to look after the money I owe my bookmaker?” And Bill says, “Oh yes.”
How much did he owe?
2.7 million pounds. And Acquavella paid! Acquavella made an entirely new market for Lucian and achieved prices in millions of dollars. A decade before, we had a problem selling Lucian’s pictures for over £50,000. Bill Acquavella was able to say, “This is the greatest living painter,” and charge accordingly.
Your artists were British and international?
Yes. They included from Europe: Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz and Jannis Kounellis. From America: Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Vija Celmins, Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Bill Viola and Jeff Koons. From the UK: Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long, Gilbert & George and Ron Mueck. We tried to think of who were the world’s most interesting artists.
Did you enjoy working with Willem de Kooning?
One of the most wonderful experiences of my life was representing Willem de Kooning. His dealer was Xavier Fourcade, who became a great friend, and we had two fantastic exhibitions, the first one of paintings and sculpture from the 70s and 80s and the second of paintings from the early 80s. de Kooning, coming like Erasmus from Rotterdam, was a poor immigrant to America, becoming a great painter in the late 40s. As a young man in the early 50s he made these magnificent abstract expressionist paintings. Then came the extraordinary women paintings in the mid-50s, against a background of other artists telling him that he was a traitor to do figurative painting.
And you worked with Andy Warhol?
Yes, I worked very closely with Andy Warhol and I commissioned the Fright Wig Self-Portrait paintings of 1986. We bought the whole show in advance. At that time people didn’t have very good things to say about Warhol’s work, and the accepted view was that much of the work of the 70s and early 80s was disappointing. “Mao was the last great image,” people liked to say at the time. In 1986 our Self-Portrait exhibition was a colossal success, and we sold important paintings immediately to great international museums. The auction houses today call these works, “Warhol’s last masterpiece.”
It was soon after this that he died?
I was working with him on a portrait of Samuel Beckett when he died. He called me before going to hospital and said he’d be out on Tuesday and would then go to Paris to see Beckett. He told me, “Beckett is very keen on this project and I’m going to make you an exhibition in really pretty colors.” Sadly Andy died in hospital. I remain proud that we achieved one big project with Warhol in London and that it had such an extraordinary success.
You have also shown Jeff Koons?
I said to Anselm Kiefer we were going to show Jeff Koons. He said, “Well, I hate his work but I think it’s a very good idea for the gallery.” We had several Koons shows, all of them a success.
Damien Hirst worked for us as a technician in the gallery before becoming a famous artist. He painted the walls for exhibitions, and was thrilled to meet great artists, such as Gerhard Richter.
Did he show with you later?
No, but we bought very beautiful works of his for the ARTIST ROOMS collection.
Who is another very significant artist for you?
Richard Long, the great British sculptor, was always a very important artist for us, achieving international fame in the late 60s when he was barely out of art school. Also, Ron Mueck, who was included in Charles Saatchi’s iconic exhibition “Sensation” at the Royal Academy in London in 1997. His sculpture ‘Dead Dad’ became the star of the exhibition. Here was an unknown artist who made a sculpture that became famous immediately the world over.
What about your relationship with Francis Bacon?
He became a good friend. As a child in Leicester my mother used to take me to the museum while she went shopping. She left me, a boy of 8, in the care of the doorman at the museum, and I had the fantastic experience of being alone with wonderful works of art. When I was a teenager the museum was given a painting by Francis Bacon by the Contemporary Art Society. It was a totally astonishing thing for me to see this mysterious and powerful work of art and to be able to spend a considerable time looking at the picture. I remember thinking, the colours are wrong, the drawing is clumsy, I don’t know if it represents a man or a woman…. but I felt incredibly excited and moved by the painting. When I left Edinburgh University, where I studied art, and came to London in 1963, my first thought was how thrilling it was to be in the city where Francis Bacon and Henry Moore showed their work. When I was in my 30s and we represented Lucian Freud, I saw a lot of Francis, because Lucian and he were dear friends.
Who else stands out for you?
We showed Maurizio Cattelan. An extraordinary artist, an art world trickster – think about ‘Him’, the sculpture showing Hitler kneeling – it’s impossible to forget that image.
Then you suddenly closed your gallery, with the last show by Bill Viola?
Yes, we had extraordinary reviews for the Viola show and almost 100,000 visitors. Then we closed.
We had run the gallery for 21 years and felt we had completed what we had set out to do. I did not want the gallery to become tired or repetitive and the only way to close was to do so suddenly at the beginning of the new season, in September 2001.
How do you close a gallery?
Normally galleries go into decline well before they actually close and we wanted to avoid that. We also felt there was an opportunity to have another adventure, to make a collection which would travel to cities all over the UK.
How long did it take you to make the collection?
Seven years. We gave about 100 works by Andy Warhol, a great collection of drawings by Joseph Beuys and have loaned ‘Blitzschlag’, ( ‘Lightning with Stag in Its Glare’), the only sculptural installation at Tate Modern which has been there since the museum opened in 2000. We also gave significant works by Gerhard Richter, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jenny Holzer, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Vija Celmins, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Therrien, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, works by artists who we thought it would be really important that young people saw. If you are aged 8-12, a teenager or a student, what might change your life?
You call the collection ARTIST ROOMS. Who does the collection belong to now?
The collection belongs to two museums, Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland on behalf of the Nation.
Are you the curator?
Ceri Lewis is the managing curator, and there is a team of seven or eight people working full time. The ARTIST ROOMS collection is for the UK, and allows regional museums to have exhibitions by artists they would never normally be able to show.
What is your role?
Having worked with the artists closely, I like to help curate the exhibitions. It is important that the artists are shown in the way they had taught me to install their work.
Is the collection still growing?
Yes. Since the donation of 2008, we have added the great international artist Louise Bourgeois, whose work is currently on display in the new ARTIST ROOMS Gallery at Tate Modern. We have also added works by Dan Flavin, Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz, Don McCullin, Martin Creed and Douglas Gordon.
Do you still work as a dealer?
I work with Hauser & Wirth to look after Ron Mueck. Hauser & Wirth are on Savile Row in London and Durslade Farm in Somerset. They also have large galleries in Zürich, New York and Los Angeles.
What is the current status of London in the world of contemporary art?
I would say that London is the second city in the world for contemporary art, but the range of galleries in London now rivals even New York. Look at the colossal attendance in the first five or six months at Tate Modern with its new wing.
Was New York important for you?
In the 80s it was very important to be in New York once or twice a month to teach myself to think like an American, to make great friends with the museums, to try to do everything to the highest possible standards.
Are the most important collectors in America?
Not any more. We dealt with museums and the world’s greatest collectors. I felt our job was to put on iconic exhibitions for the public in London and then to sell as much as possible to the most important international museums.
Do you think Brexit will ruin this?
I think we have to wait and see, but I have no impression of that. Everybody loves London. You have to ask yourself, which cities would you want to live in? For me, these would include London, New York, San Francisco, Kyoto and Sydney.
Who are the new artists of today?
For us to have shown Jeff Koons was exciting, and we were proud to have put ‘Puppy’ outside Guggenheim Bilbao. We included in ARTIST ROOMS a few of the younger artists like Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed and Ellen Gallagher, and we have really beautiful works of theirs.
How do you spend your time these days?
Working with sixty ARTIST ROOMS takes all my time! For me, getting young people to think creatively is what ARTIST ROOMS is all about. Looking at art is not about being schooled in art history. It is about asking questions, and getting young people to think in a new, creative way. And this is crucial for the future.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.
Every effort has been made to contact image rights holders. With great thanks to the Anthony d’Offay Gallery and other copyrightholders of images used in this interview.