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The Art of Friendship

Heiner Bastian surrounds himself with work by artists he knows.

The old West Berlin was the land of possibility. Great and terrible ideas had risen and fallen there, and in their wake there flourished a strange and unregulated openness. The city was a bastion of nervous idealism where a vision of utopia rested on the unstable foundation of fear: fear of what a constructed world gone awry might be like, fear of the surrounding hostile territory, fear of the judgment of other nations, fear of the judgment of history. It was a place of misfits and geniuses, of too much memory too entirely annihilated and then too luridly reconstructed, and of artificial wealth guiltily granted to intellectuals of every stripe in celebration of their mystic cerebral exertions. Nowhere else on earth in the past four decades have the activities of the mind counted for so much.

Heiner Bastian is one of those active minds who have so far survived the transformations of a renegotiated Germany. He is a collector of contemporary art, but he is not simply a market force; he is a visionary who has adduced a personal notion of the function of the work of art, primarily in his collecting but also in writing, publishing, and exhibitions. (He is curating an exhibition of late works of Picasso which will open at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin next spring.) Reviewing his collection, you encounter more than a particular assortment of pictures and objects formed by a particular taste; you find a logical scheme for the way a work of art communicates. It is true that Bastian’s genius is not comparable to that of the four primary figures in his collection – Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Anselm Kiefer – but after you see his collection, you see each of these artists differently.

Bastian is handsome, self-assured, and suave, though he is also rather tense and sometimes a bit sharp. “You’ll be amazed,” several young Berlin artists said to me before I went to the house in Dahlem where Bastian lives with his wife, Celine, and his son, Aeneas. “He’s very attractive and very open and very democratic in his ideas, not snobbish at all.” Within a few minutes of my arrival, Bastian too had assured me that he was not a snob: “Many people think I am arrogant and distant, but only because my house is underfurnished and underheated.” It should be emphasized that no one ever suggested that Heiner Bastian might be a snob; it was the denial that sounded in every corridor.

I suppose the issue of snobbery might be expected to come up because Bastian is a wealthy and influential collector and a sometime critic and publisher, but there are other reasons as well. He has the manner of one well aware of his own importance, and in his lively offhand way he takes in and judges everything you say to him, every gesture you make, every detail of your person. He speaks well and considers the weight of each of his own remarks; there is always a reason behind his sentences. When I arrived at his house, he was supervising the installation of a new work by Kiefer. He wore a pale gray cashmere jacket, darker gray trousers, a white shirt of unimaginably soft cotton buttoned to the neck, and a pair of slippers of the richest dark blue velvet; his hair was impeccably combed, and his erect bearing placed him head and shoulders above the workmen, whom he guided with precise instructions. Though it is true that the power of Heiner Bastian’s intellect saves him from social pretensions, it helps if you are told in advance that he is not a snob.

A secretary took my coat and conducted me through several large rooms to the winter garden at the back of the house from which we could look at the fresh snow. A maid brought us a heavy silver pot of chamomile tea, which we drank from white teacups hand-painted at the rims in a deep blue. It is not quite accurate to say that the house is unfurnished, but it is a house about art, and the furniture, like the lighting, has been placed to allow you to appreciate the art in comfort. The works of art are not crowded together. As you walk through the galleries, each piece makes a separate impression, each has its own impact; you never feel that you are being rushed through an ostentatious display of ownership.

Bastian knows or has known the artists he collects, and he collects artists he knows or has known. In 1969 he was in the audience at a Joseph Beuys Fluxus performance that was overrun by student protesters. He was intrigued, and when the students finally left the hall, he went up to the podium to talk to the artist, then a controversial figure. Eventually the younger man became a sort of amanuensis to the older, negotiating the excruciatingly complex practical problems that Beuys’s concepts often entailed. Bastian speaks of his days with Beuys in dreamy tones. “What I learned elsewhere, I never learned,” he remarks. “He was a mentor, like a father.” In 1988, two years after Beuys’s death, Bastian organized a major retrospective for the city of Berlin as his farewell to the artist.

Bastian began to spend time with Cy Twombly in the early 1970s and collected Twombly’s work long before he achieved international acclaim. “For me, Twombly was the Apollonian complement to Beuys’s Dionysian activities,” he explains. At about the time he met Twombly, Bastian began to travel regularly to the United States. “I was in the generation that grew up hearing nothing of the war, skating over the issues it posed, and suddenly at this time, I and the people I knew began to understand what had happened in our country, and we were overwhelmed by guilt,” he says. “I went to San Francisco to escape my horror of Germany.” Bastian, who was then writing and publishing poetry, met various American poets and, through them, artists. Within a short time he fell, inevitably, into the circle around Andy Warhol and began to collect his work. When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum mounted a Beuys exhibition in 1979, Bastian introduced his mentor to Warhol, effecting one of recent art’s most significant meetings of minds.

Through the 1970s Bastian virtually commuted between New York and Berlin. He began to acquire paintings by Kiefer and is still one of the artist’s most important collectors. He has also taken up a number of less well known artists, and he buys work from young unknowns in Berlin. “I am at my happiest sitting with a group of students and listening to them,” he says, although he is in fact famous in the Berlin art world for scheduling is appointments more precisely and further in advance than anyone else in town.

When he shows you around his collection, he tells you the exact circumstances of each piece and what the artist said to him about it. If his collecting is a form of criticism, then it flies in the face of deconstructionist and Marxist and even historicist critique, because it accepts intentionality as one of the primary loci of meaning. “Of course your experience of a work of art is informed by knowing the artist’s professed intentions,” he asserts. “If you know and love and understand the artist as a man, you gain access to meaning in the work that cannot be reached in any other way, and the work becomes more profound for you.” Heiner Bastian cannot give you the pleasure of Beuys’s friendship – or Warhol’s or Twombly’s or Kiefer’s. But in his writing, his publishing (his editions of Twombly drawings are among the most beautifully produced art books I have ever seen), his conversation, and his collection, he gives you a glimpse of what it would be like to count these men among your intimates.