Viennese pianist and conductor Michael Klaar has been fascinated by art from a very early age on. He bought his first artwork at the age of 13 and now his collection consists of about 500 works. We have talked with Michael about his first art advisors, sacrifices, favorite artworks and, of course, Vienna.
Kristina Kulakova: Let’s start from the beginning. How did your passion for collecting start?
Michael Klaar: I was 13 when I bought the first work of art, but it all started earlier when my parents made me go to some anthroposophic courses every Sunday, which was annoying and I really didn’t like it at all. I needed some sort of compensation and negotiated that I could go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum every Sunday after the lesson. I picked KHM by chance, I could have gone to the Natural History Museum as well as I did not know anything about art, neither I, nor my family were interested in art. So I went there and immediately became captured by the paintings, sculptures and collections.
Over the years, I learned the artworks by heart and began to compare the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum with those of other great Museums in the world, like the Louvre, the Uffizi, or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But then I came to a point where I thought that art could not have come to an end in the 1800s. So I started to explore what else had happened in art history and went to the Museum moderner Kunst, which then was housed at the Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna. Discovering the art of the 20th century was a tremendous revelation and fascination to me.
By chance, part of my family lives in Basel, Switzerland, and as a child and early teen I spent the summers there and basically did the same thing as I did in Vienna – I went to the museum. It was the Kunstmuseum Basel, with its marvelous collection. The first floor with the old masters looked quite familiar, but then I went to the second floor and was threatened and thrilled by the amount and the quality of works by Picasso, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Mondrian, Giacometti, etc. I was very impressed. The tour ended in a very special room, where they displayed works by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and, above all, Barnett Newman with his wonderful paintings ‘Day Before One’ and ‘White Fire’. I did not know anything about it, but it was an immediate encounter that touched and moved me right away. Another thing that struck me was that on almost every label beside the works one could find, among the usual information about the artist, the title of the work, etc., phrases like: donation Maja Sacher, bequest Raoul La Roche, donation Staehelin, gift of Emanuel Hoffmann and so on. So I realized that art does not fly into a museum like a bird, but that there is private commitment and passion behind it. I decided I would like to do the same: buy art and donate it to our Viennese museums, as they were not as brilliantly equipped as the ones in Basel, when it comes to art of the 20th century. I was driven by that strange and ambitious idea, but forgot that I was not an heir to a pharmaceutical- nor to a banking- or an oil fortune, which I was forced to find out very quickly.
So you bought your first artwork that summer in Basel? Tell me, how did that happen?
I did not know anything about art at that time, and still I do not know that much, but even back then I had the vague impression that Picasso, Jasper Johns or Barnett Newman would not be reachable for me anymore. But there was one painting in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel by the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, ‘Gris avec graphismes noirs’ from 1962, which I liked very much. I found out that he was represented by Galerie Beyeler, so I went there, being 13 years old, and asked the Beyelers, who were there themselves, if they would have available works by Tàpies. At the beginning they seemed to be quite surprised by my request but then they were very nice and showed me some paintings and works on paper. We went to a private room where I was allowed to examine the works with special gloves I had to wear. Well, that was a very particular moment for me! I asked for the price of a piece that interested me the most and Hildy Beyeler – I assume she was not that much concentrated – told me that it was 500 Swiss francs. When I heard the price I was quite upset, as it was a fortune for me! So I went away, but came back the next day after a sleepless night, to tell them that I would like to buy it. They apologized and told me that they were wrong and that the price was actually much higher. When they saw my frustration they asked how long I would stay in Basel and if I could come back the next day. My flight back to Vienna was scheduled for the next day. So I came by the gallery before the flight and, surprisingly, the artwork was packed and ready for me to pick it up. So they sold it to me for the initially indicated 500 Swiss francs.
That is how the collection started. It may sound like a fairytale, but that’s how it happened.
When did you buy the next piece?
A few days later. (laughs)
So you never stopped?
No, it is my passion. I love to be with art, love to think about it and to be confronted with it.
Who was your first art adviser?
Well, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hallen für neue Kunst Schaffhausen, the Kunstmuseum Basel. Those were my advisers. Always the best ones, you know.
How do you choose the artwork you buy? Is it intuitive or a conscious decision?
It is a mixture of many things. I started quite early and now, that I am forty, I have sort of a backpack of experience with me of what I love and what I respond to. It began with Tàpies, but he is absolutely not representative of my collection. Even though the piece is very beautiful, it seems to be a little bit like an alien within the given context, and what the collection might stand for. But I would never sell it, and now I look at it not only as a work of art, but also as an important piece of my own history.
Relatively rapidly after the first acquisition I was very much into works by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager as well as Lawrence Weiner. Probably influenced by Newman and the experiences at the Kunstmuseum Basel. Unfortunately I am unable to continue to collect those artists, as their prices soared to a stellar level over the last decades. But at the end of the 80s or early 90s, so called minimalist or conceptual art did not receive that much attention and some people where asking themselves why to spend money for a few letters written on a wall. But, basically, those artists established the nucleus of the collection and constitute the background, which always influences my decision when I buy a work of art.
What role does collecting play in your day-to-day life?
Collecting is not a hobby, not a pastime, but an integral part of my life. Being with art or thinking about art and looking at art is not a casual thing. It is an existential necessity.
Did you have to sacrifice anything in order to be able to collect art?
Well, I do not see it as a sacrifice.
How do you see it?
I see it as a source of infinite joy and happiness.
Do you have any word of advice to an artist?
I am not in the position to advise anybody. I think one of the most important things is authenticity. Sometimes hard to achieve but in my opinion very important. Quite often I have the impression, when I go to fairs or whatsoever, that there is not that much authenticity around.
How do you perceive your role in the art scene of Vienna?
No role at all.
Well, that is not true!
That is absolutely true. There is no role. I do what I think I have to do. I am on my own.
How would you describe your collection in one sentence to someone who does not know you?
The thing about collecting is that you simply cannot describe it in one sentence. The impenetrability of the works and the constant efforts towards an exegesis of them, by recognizing the failure of these attempts is one of the main reasons why I collect. Questions occur all the time, with one work or with the interaction between works, or the dialog of the works with the collector or the viewer. That is, for me, one of the essences of collecting and therefore it would be wrong to describe a thing, which is very complex in one sentence. I think the richness of the relations between the works and the viewer makes up the sense of it and not the reduction.
How many pieces do you have in your collection?
I guess, between 450 to 500 works.
What are you planning on doing with your collection in the future?
I think it would be very pretentious to talk about these kinds of things in my personal status at the moment. I mean I am quite old, but I am not 80, I am only half of it.
It would be important for me to continue collecting in a very concentrated way but I am also thinking of sharing things, which are of utter importance to me, with other people.
Is the relation with artists important for you? Do you have to know the artist?
Relation with people is one of the core themes of our lives and I am very fortunate, happy and grateful that artists are among these relationships. But to appreciate an artwork, knowing the artist personally is not a conditio sine qua non.
Do you have to like the artist’s personality to buy his works?
I think one should distinguish between the artist and the man. I do not think that a great artist has to be a good human being. It would be nice if there is a match between those two components, but not necessarily. Think of Caravaggio, Richard Wagner or Gesualdo da Venosa, the great composer. Not that likeable, but fantastic artists.
You have never sold an artwork. But have you considered selling one piece from your collection in order to be able to buy another ten or hundred new works?
No, but I have talked to other collectors, and they have always told me that the collection has to be financed from the collection.
So why do you not sell?
There is a bunch of reasons. My perception of the inner structure of the collection is that of an organic continuum, an inner system of relations between the works, like a building in a way. A building of thoughts and of passionate intensity.
You cannot take any piece and sell, because the building would break?
That is a very romantic and probably naive idea, but I am a believer (laughs).
Do you believe in love at first sight with an artwork?
Yes, not only with an artwork.
Do you have a story for me?
Well, I have told you one already. When I saw Schneefall for the first time, a work by Joseph Beuys, in Basel. I saw it when I was a boy. I had no idea who Beuys was, but I immediately fell in love with the work. And there are numerous stories like this one.
Last year. What was the work?
A few works. I bought a wonderful Paweł Althamer piece, which I never thought I would, because he wasn’t really on my agenda. Then there were pieces by Laura Owens, Thomas Schütte, Nino Sekhniashvili and so on.
What has changed over the years in your collecting habits, your collection, your relation towards art? Or maybe nothing has changed since you were thirteen years old: you knew you wanted to have that piece, you bought it and then you grew with the collection.
I grew with the collection?
Or the collection grew with you.
No, this is a very good remark. Of course I grew with the collection, not the other way around.
Talking about changes is very difficult: almost everything has changed but on the other hand nothing has changed. At least, when it comes to my affection towards art.
Well, prices have changed tremendously, even for young artists. I can hardly imagine acquiring a work by a student at the academy nowadays for the same relatively humble amount of money I paid for works of artists such as Paul McCarthy, Christopher Wool, Roni Horn or Isa Genzken back in the early 90s.
Do you use artworks as a source of creative inspiration?
It is very hard to tell. Music does not consciously play a role when I think of collecting or my interest in art. But on the other hand I have to say, when we talk about relations towards one’s collection, I think of polyphony. Each work in the collection is like a voice in a polyphonic piece of music. An independent voice, like in counterpoint, in a baroque fugue or a renaissance motet. Totally in its own right but corresponding with each other, as it were an infinite dialog. Music and art are both about intensity.
There is this wonderful interview where Agnes Martin talks about art and she says that the highest form of art is music, I disagree.
I think it is wonderful how she says it and how she deals with it, but I do not have to judge. We have art, music, literature, we have architecture and maybe this is one of the most important disciplines, because we are shaped by architecture and just cannot escape it, as the great Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky stated it. You can move a painting, get out of a concert and get rid of a poem instantly, but the building is there.
Should one perceive art like music, just by listening to it and enjoying it with one’s senses?
I think it is about the marriage of being alert with any possible senses and also being interested and eager to read and try to understand what it is all about. Both music and art have the inherent quality of immediacy in my ears and eyes but I am also pretty much interested in analyzing music and I know from my personal professional experience that if you see and understand the architecture of a musical piece then you listen to it in a totally different way. I love the immediacy, but I also like to go behind the scenes, and you can apply that to art as well as to music.
Let us talk about Vienna, what strikes you about Vienna?
I love the place. Vienna is a wonderful city to live in.
What has changed the most for you in Vienna?
Architecture has changed, unfortunately not for the better.
What is your favorite building in Vienna?
One of the most beautiful post-war buildings is the so-called Böhlerhaus by Roland Rainer at Schillerplatz. It is now part of the Le Meridien Hotel and a wonderful example of the architecture from the 50s, which can be very rarely seen in Vienna in that quality. I also love the former Roche building from the sixties by Georg Lippert, which is also now transformed into a Hotel, the Daniel. The clarity of its curtain-wall-structure is very beautiful, very non-Viennese. I also like the so-called Zacherl-Haus at Brandstätte by the great Slovenian architect and pupil of Otto Wagner, Jože Plečnik, and the Ruprechtskirche, which is the oldest church in town.
What is the sound of Vienna?
The ding-dong of the tramway.
What is the aroma of Vienna?
It’s very manyfold. Fat, I think. (laughs)
What is your favorite restaurant in Vienna?
I would say Gasthaus Quell in the 15th district, an interesting suburb but not that far from the city center. Quell is a fantastic, authentic Viennese Beisl. I go there because it is great and they serve simple but very good food. It is not fancy at all, which I like the most, but just wonderful.
Is there a café near Stephansplatz that you would suggest?
Kleines Café, because it is like a cave. It was built by Hermann Czech, and seems to be a tribute to Loos’s wonderful bar architecture. It is a beautiful place.
Is there an inner city hideout place that you would recommend?
Donaukanal. You have a glimpse of water, the shadow of the Danube, which is not really present in this city. You have this ugly, but intriguing architecture around, which is also typically Viennese. I like the strangeness of Donaukanal. It is nice to have a walk there in the sun, or to have a swim at Badeschiff.
Where can you get Vienna´s best coffee?
Well, I do not know where to get the best coffee, but Aida is a classic. I am not necessarily talking about the coffee quality, but I like Aida Stephansplatz very much or Aida in front of the Opera. This is typically Viennese: a hybrid mixture of an Italian bar Viennese style and pink colors, and the 1950th architecture.
Can you recommend a bar? What´s your favorite drink?