"I COLLECT ART THAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND"
by Karl Green
Christian Boros sits in the office armchair at an angle, leaning against the corner of the backrest in a position of coiled relaxation, his hands illustrating the point he is making with precise, eloquent gestures. He is speaking about his bunker in Berlin, the future home to his contemporary art collection of circa 500 works by some of the most significant artists of our time.
Bunker? Since he began looking for a home for his collection, Boros had a clear vision that it would be a converted space, especially in a city such as Berlin. “It’s a city in constant transformation,” he says, “so it made absolutely no sense to construct something new. I looked for years before I found the bunker, but when I saw it, I was immediately convinced that it was the perfect place.”
A five-story high concrete behemoth, the bunker on Berlin’s Reinhardtstrasse was constructed in 1943 to protect civilians from Allied bombardments during the war. It served as a fruit warehouse (for a time it was known to locals as the “banana bunker”) and was home to an alternative hardcore party scene in the 90s, but it stood empty when Boros became its owner four years ago. Since then, renovation has proceeded at a snail’s pace, as diamond-bit drills attempt to make some headway through the two-meter-thick walls. Boros hopes that t will be ready next year.
“For me, it will be a place where I can finally see and enjoy works of art that I haven’t been able to look at for far too long,” Boros says. “I have works in storage that I have only seen once. But I hope that it will be somewhere where the collection can grow; where there will be a dialogue with other works, with other artists, other collections. I want to leave this open. If I already had a program as to what would be exhibited for the next twenty years, I think that would be really boring,” he laughs.
Remaining open as to what the future might bring is obviously very important to Christian Boros. Perhaps it’s because this very quality has shaped the outcome of his career, both professional and as a collector.
In 1990, as a young man in Wuppertal in Germany’s Ruhr valley, studying advertising and aesthetics under the celebrated professor Barzon Brock and the artist Martin Kippenberger, he needed money to pay for his studies. Instead of waiting tables, he decided to open his own advertising agency. His first two clients, CompuNet, a fledging IT company, and Viva, a German competitor of MTV, set Boros on the road to unexpected success. Today, Boros (still located in Wuppertal) employs over 30 people and counts among its clients Coca-Cola, 3M, and Toshiba.
When he opened his agency, explains Boros, “I made a deal with my professors. If I made money at advertising, I would give some of it back to art. Art gives me so much in my professional life – inspiration, power, energy – that I find it normal to give something back, by collecting art.”
Boros kept his end of the deal. He had in fact already begun collecting when he finished secondary school, using the money his parents gave him as a graduation present to buy his first work: Joseh Beuys’ Intuitionskiste. But his collecting began in earnest from 1990. He often traveled to London for long weekends, where he met and befriended young artists Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Wolfgang Tillmans. He bought their works because something about them disturbed him. “I’m attracted to works that I don’t understand,” he says.
“When I see something that makes me react like, ‘Oh, nice, beautiful,’ I tell myself, ‘Be careful – this is too easy.’ For me, a work of art should have something that displeases me; that irritates me. That’s what makes me wonder: what is it about this work that manages to irritate me? Why don’t I understand it? This for me is a sign of quality,” says Boros.
“I have, for example, a large number of works by Olafur Eliasson,” he continues. “Lately I saw a work by him that I didn’t like – I thought it was too romantic, too kitsch. I thought, ‘What is he getting up to?’ So I bought it,” he says. As he relates this process, Boros’ expression changes from disappointed to animated, like a child discovering a hidden pile of wrapped Christmas presents.
Christian Boros continually seeks new artworks, but it’s not his only criterion. “For me, it’s like the friendships one has,” he explains. “You have a few friends, and you cultivate those relationships, but it doesn’t exclude you from meeting new people, and maybe developing friendships with them. But I’m not constantly seeking ‘the new,’” he says with a frown. “That’s like checking names off a list.”
“I know most of the artists whose works I collect. I like to have some kind of contact, and when I enjoy the company of the artist I like the art even better,” he says. “Probably this affects the ‘objectivity of the work.’ But that doesn’t bother me at all – I love subjectivity. In fact, it’s happened that I saw a work I was interested in buying, but when I met the artist and realized that I didn’t like him, I didn’t buy the work! So naturally my objectivity is affected. But I don’t collect ‘dead’ art – I collect works by artists with whom I can talk about their work; that’s one of the things I like about it.”
The list of artists whose works Boros collected before they became high-priced is impressive: Tracey Emin, Elizabeth Peyton, and John Bock, to name just a few. Where does Boros go to find new art? “The best places to discover new artists are well-curated exhibitions,” he replies. “Then, I go to the galleries where these artists are shown. For me, good curators and gallery owners are the ‘developers’ of contemporary art.” But the key is to decide what one likes and then make the plunge. “The best thing about contemporary art is that nothing is certain. Ten years ago, no one was buying Elizabeth Peyton; a lot of people weren’t sure what her art would become. Today, you can buy works by her and know that she has a certain renown. But you have to pay the price.”
What advice does Christian Boros have for the budding collector of contemporary art? “Two things,” he says. “Quantity and quality. You have to see a lot. You can’t just go to one art fair and say, ‘Cool, I’ll buy that.’” It means seeing hundreds of exhibitions, museums, shows, events. That’s quantity. Quality means pursuing works that are inherently difficult for you to comprehend.
“When I first saw a work by John Bock, I just could not get a handle on it. Today, I love his work. It’s a good experience, when you say to yourself, ‘Here is my limit,’” (Boros holds his hand up at a certain distance from his face), “and then,” (Boros pushes his hand a bit further away with his other hand), “you realize that it’s moved a little bit.”
So should a beginner wait and learn before starting to collect? Boros smiles. “There’s a work by Kippenberger that bears he saying, ‘Selbstjustiz der Fehlereinkäufe’ (poor purchases inflict their own justice).” Mistakes have a way of making themselves known to you. But that’s part of the learning process; it’s a sort of therapy.”
“The difficult thing in buying contemporary art,” Boros continues, “is to be able tell the difference between works that are only contemporary, that reflect their time just like hip-hop music or fashion does, and those that will have a certain relevance in the future,” he says. “I was looking through a catalogue of Picasso’s late works recently, and although Picasso doesn’t interest me as a collector, I find these works so powerful, so relevant today, more than 30 years after he created them,” Boros continues. “A work of art that is made in 2006 should not only have relevance for 2006, it should have the potential to have relevance for 2016 and beyond,” he says. “And I think that one of the keys in making that distinction is to avoid works that are too slick, too easy.”
What about his own collection: in 20 or 30 years, will he make a review of his works, and weed out those that have not withstood the test of time?
“Fortunately, I don’t know,” replies Boros. “If I knew now that in 20 or 30 years’ time I would have to make a selection, to decide what has relevance and what doesn’t, it would be far too stressful,” he smiles. “But then I never dreamed 10 years ago that I would be in this position today, buying the bunker, taking all of these risks – if I had known, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. And today I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. And that’s what I like: the fact that I don’t know,” Christian Boros says.
“ I only know that I’m not finished; I never want to be finished.”