Art + Auction - April 2012
The Unstoppable Jean Pigozzi: Inside the World of an Art-Collecting Juggernaut:

One of Jean Pigozzis many web sites summarizes him as an Italian,  Harvard-educated venture capitalist. But that barely scratches the surface. The tall and imposing 60-year-old, heir to an automotive fortune, is a dynamo in the worlds of art, design, and fashion and a widely published photographer with four books to his credit, most recently the 400-page Catalogue Deraisonne, published by Steidldangin in 2010. Like its predecessors, the hefty black-and-white tome has a diaristic slant, with pictures of his glamorous and mostly ultrarich friends (Carla Bruni,  Keith Richards,  Jack Nicholson,  Diane von Furstenberg) cavorting at chic places around the world, including Pigozzis own Villa Dorane on Cap d Antibes. The publication occasioned a 2010 exhibition — bearing the mock-exasperated title  Jean Pigozzi: Johnny STOP! — at the Madison Avenue venue of his friend and dealer Larry Gagosian. One of the most compelling images captures art world royalty at leisure in 1991: Gagosian, Charles Saatchi, and Leo Castelli, all in beachwear, casually conferring in a handsome interior (on St. Barthelemy, the title informs us). Queried about their friendship, Saatchi playfully told Art+Auction, I love Johnny Pigozzi very deeply and wish he could become my next bride.

There are a lot of Johnny Pigozzis, says Daniel Wolf,  the New York–based collector and private photography dealer who has known Pigozzi for 30 years. Theres the collector, theres the businessman, theres the socially important person, all of those things, but way down deep, hes really an artist. Pigozzi the photographer, Wolf adds, is consciously documenting an extremely important aspect of the 1 percent, and its great that hes doing it because in a voyeuristic way you can see what its like.

Those pictures seem to crop up everywhere. In 2008 the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin staged Pigozzi and the Paparazzi, an exhibition conceived by June Newton, Helmuts widow, and curated by Matthias Harder, which drew a distinction between the celebrity-stalking immortalized in Fellinis La Dolce Vita and Pigozzis insider approach of snapping famous friends. Works by Erich Salomon, Weegee, Tazio Secchiaroli, and Ron Galella established the professional context. Last November another exhibition drawn from Catalogue Deraisonne — this one called Pigozzi, Stop! Youre Too Close — opened at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, prompting Pigozzi to enthuse, Im very honored, because this is not a private gallery or something, this is a serious state museum.

Perhaps the interest in Pigozzis photography can best be measured by the prices his work commands. Last year he donated a photograph capturing Mick Jagger in performance to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) charity auction conducted by Simon de Pury during the Cannes Film Festival. When I asked Johnny before the auction what price he’d be happy with, recalls de Pury, he said, Maybe €15,000.”  The picture sold for €300,000 ($428,000).

Filling a large easy chair in his sprawling, Ettore Sottsass-designed triplex in the Hotel des Artistes, just off New Yorks Central Park (Sottsass also designed or supervised the interiors of his Paris, London, Geneva, Panama, and Riviera residences as well as his boat, the Amazon Express), Pigozzi reflects on his near compulsion for collecting all sorts of things, including a great deal of contemporary African and Japanese art. I had a collection like a good dentist from Cincinnati, recalls Pigozzi of his early efforts as a collector of contemporary art. A little Clemente, a little Basquiat, a little Warhol, a little Sol LeWitt — but it wasnt interesting. Then I became friends with Charles Saatchi, and he said, This is stupid. What are you doing?

Asked if anything in his family background had contributed to his insatiable collecting, Pigozzi was dismissive: Zero. My parents had a typical collection of nouveau riche, bourgeois art — a couple of Renoirs, a couple of Sisleys — and they had their apartment in Paris, but it was a bad version of Versailles. I have no idea where this comes from, but its a disease, and I know I caught it when I was very young. As a kid I collected stamps, pebbles on the beach, anything. I liked to have at least 10 of something.

In 1989 Pigozzi viewed Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle at the Parc de la Villette in Paris. Organized by Jean-Hubert Martin, the controversial exhibition showcased 100 artists from around the globe and was conceived as an alternative to the prevailing colonialist view of non-Western art. Pigozzi saw a few African things that completely blew my mind. There were startling Expressionist paintings by Cheri Samba, delicate drawings by Frederic Bruly Bouabre, fantastic architectural models by Bodys Isek Kingelez — all so contemporary in feeling, says Pigozzi, that they could have been done in Brooklyn or Berlin. Wanting to buy them, he tracked down Andre Magnin, the French curator who had overseen the African art portion of the Paris exhibition. An intense collaboration between the collector and the expeditionary talent scout began and has continued for 23 years.

Art world interest has grown with the collection. In 2005 the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, staged African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, comprising 94 objects by some 33 artists from 15 sub-Saharan African nations. The exhibition traveled to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Today Pigozzis holdings of more than 6,000 objects, officially known as the Contemporary African Art Collection, is largely harbored in a storage facility in Geneva.

Ironically, he has never set foot in Africa. Im a spoiled and impatient traveler, he admits. Down there you can spend hours in customs, hotels are not so great, and you can get sick from the food. But this hasnt impeded his feel for talent from that continent. In 1991 he encountered two uncredited photographs from Bamako, Mali, in Africa Explores, an exhibition curated by Susan Vogel at the New York Center for African Art. Excited by the Irving Penn-like grace of the black-and-white studio portraits, Pigozzi faxed the images from the catalogue to Magnin in Paris and asked him to find the photographer. After three or four days searching, Magnin located an old man seated on a huge metal trunk in a tiny storefront in Bamako. It was Seydou Keita, and the trunk contained approximately 6,000 of his negatives, dating back to the late 1940s. For decades, Keitas portrait business was based on clients renting costumes and props, both Western and African, for formal shots. According to Pigozzi, Magnin persuaded Keita to release a hundred or so negatives (the New York Times reported a significantly higher figure in an article by Michael Rips published in January 2006). He took them back to Paris, where we cleaned them up and made some beautiful prints, Pigozzi says.

It was the beginning of Keitas ascent. In 1997 he was included in Amours, an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l art contemporain, in Paris, and had his New York debut at the Gagosian Gallery in SoHo, where the larger-format prints sold for up to $16,000. Six years later, works by Keita and fellow Bamako photographer Malick Sidibe, a talent Pigozzi had pursued at Keitas urging, were featured in the two-person exhibition You Look Beautiful Like That at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

But after Keitas death in Paris, in 2001, a nasty and lengthy legal dispute erupted between his heirs and Pigozzi and Magnin over possession of the photographers negatives and charges of fake signatures on the prints. Defending his actions, Pigozzi told Rips in 2006 that without his efforts, Keita would be totally forgotten. Today he remains steadfast in that claim: I am incredibly proud that I made this immense talent the most important photographer in Africa. I think hes on the same level as Irving Penn or Avedon.

Pigozzis acquisitive eye shifted to Japanese contemporary art in 2006, when he visited his friend Takashi Murakamis one-day Geisai art fair in Tokyo. Some of the fruit of that initial field trip was on view last year in JapanCongo, an exhibition selected from Pigozzis African and Japanese holdings by the Belgian artist Carsten Holler, which opened at Le Magasin, in Grenoble, and traveled to the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, in Moscow, and Milans Palazzo Reale.

I keep on collecting African art, explains Pigozzi, but Ive built a huge collection of very young artists from Japan, born mainly after 1980. Asked about his seemingly contrarian decision to pursue Japanese art while ignoring the skyrocketing values of Chinese works, Pigozzi concedes that financially, I should have focused on China because the market is 100 times bigger than Japans, and for some reason few galleries outside of Japan have been interested in showing contemporary Japanese art, apart from Murakami and Nara. So I dont think the Japanese art is an investment. Attraction is what drives him. I like what I see now in China, but I think the Japanese are a step ahead into craziness and weirdness. I go to galleries there that are the size of a New York elevator, and every time Im surprised by the amazing things I find. I really hope Ill be able to promote some of these artists, to show their work in the West.

As for other facets of his wide-ranging holdings, Pigozzi regrets he didnt collect more work by Basquiat when he knew him in the early 1980s. He has one painting from those years, for which he paid $2,000, and he says ruefully, I was an idiot because I didnt appreciate what a huge talent he was. Then again, this collector isnt into blue-chip. I feel when you walk into somebodys apartment on Fifth Avenue or house in Malibu and you see a Basquiat, a Warhol, a Richard Prince, you say to yourself, $700,000, $2.2 million, $350,000... To me that is completely uninteresting. Id rather go to a house where theres great art and I have no idea who the work is by. Pigozzi jokes that he could go to Larry Gagosian and a few other galleries with $20 million and decorate his apartment, but that doesnt excite me. Instead, he says, the paintings I buy for $1,000 or $2,000 could be famous in a hundred years. I dont think Im going to change my focus.

Queried about his plans for the thousands of artworks he owns, the collector says, Id love to open a private museum in Paris, London, or New York, but I dont have the money. If I were Bill Gates or Paul Allen, the first thing I would do is build a museum. Pigozzi pauses for a moment, then acknowledges, Its really another obsession: What can I do with all of this stuff?

- Judd Tully, Art & Auction


Art + Auction - April 2012 - Press Review

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