In the 13th Arrondissement, in Jean-Michel Basquiat Square, stands a building which, as it happens, houses artwork by the famous American artist. Intrigued by this new space dedicated to contemporary art and to the eye of a great art collector, people are flocking to the front door.
agnès b.’s artful touch reigns supreme: from the quirky Picabia photograph in the entrance to the scenography of the current exhibition, entitled La hardiesse, or Audacity. To the astonishment of her team, without a second thought agnès b. launched into arranging a spontaneous display, cherry-picking among a myriad of artworks, only a fraction of which could be exhibited at a time. The audacious fashion designer even painted the glass casing covering a Basquiat drawing.
It should be noted that this drawing was hanging unprotected in the designer’s home for years: its unassuming simplicity is what she finds so endearing in artists she collects and whom she often knew personally, like Basquiat. Over years of encounters, coincidences, and gifts, agnès b. has gradually amassed a treasure trove of no fewer than 5,000 works of art.
“Photography makes up 50% of the collection,” estimates Judith Wollner, who is in charge of communication and press relations, “but this does not mean that it has a privileged status over other art forms. Agnès has no favorites.” Indeed, photographic prints hang next to paintings, images are placed next to sculptures. In the section of the exhibition devoted to feminism, Nan Goldin’s photographs resonate with Louise Bourgeois’s contorted drawings.
Further on, it’s photography that sheds new light on the practice of painting: Walker Evans’s first color Polaroid shows a palette of pigments. A discreet web of connections is thus being spun between the arts. On the other hand, the artist Man Ray, best known as a photographer, was also a draughtsman, and one of his sketches is shown next to the Evans Polaroid.
In addition to these classics, photography in agnès b.’s collection is above all about affection. She seems to seek out sparks of her love of freedom, which translates into numerous portraits of young people—especially those living in the margins of society, independent and wild. These portraits include an oversize photograph by Massimo Vitali representing people dancing at a nightclub. An entire wall is filled with photographs of the giants of rock-’n’-roll: Bob Dylan, Joy Division, Alain Bashung… There is also an unsettling portrait of a young androgynous woman in a bathtub, taken by Nan Goldin. This is an ode to tormented souls.
This craving for youth also informs agnès b.’s interest in young creators. Already in the 1980s she founded an art gallery called La Galerie du Jour, which was the first to feature photographers who are now famous, like Martin Parr and, more recently, Dmitry Markov. Their works can now be seen side by side.
As the tour draws to a close, the visitor feels like they have spent a moment with the mistress of the place, so much is her collection imbued with her personality and singular tastes. This is a breath of fresh air among more traditional exhibitions presented by most institutions. Picabia’s wry sense of humor in the entrance hall seems to be mocking the commonsense: “In order for you to like something, you need to have seen and heard it for a long time, a bunch of idiots.”
By Coline Olsina & Jean-Baptiste Gauvin