Just follow your intuition

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


An art collectors story

Mart Engelen: When exactly did you start collecting art and what
made you decide to do so?
Luc Clement: Well, I think it was around 1987. It just happened,
out of a feeling and intuition.
ME: What was your first purchase?
LC: The first art work was a picture. It was a photograph of Rene
Burri. You can see it over there. I bought a few other things before
but that was rather more decoration than art.
ME: What makes it interesting to collect photography?
LC: Probably because I didn’t have an art background,
photography became something very real to me, something
quite primitive and honest. Until the early 1900s photography
wasn’t even considered as art. The first thing that attracted me to
photography was “ le moment decisive”. Cartier Bresson, who was
famous for it, never considered his pictures as art. He just said that
he was reacting in a fraction of a second to moments in time. So,
collecting reportage photography was for me the easiest way to get
into it and understand photography. Due to maturity and time, you
develop also an interest in other forms of photography. I’ll give you
an example. It was about 15 years ago that I got the offer to buy
pictures of photographer Diane Arbus. The pictures were right
there in front of me, available to purchase, but I didn’t buy any
because at that time I didn’t like it too much. Nowadays I would
love to have a Diane Arbus.
ME: So you have always listened to your intuition and never
looked at the price?
LC: Of course I have looked at the price. You always have a budget.
ME: You started off with collecting reportage photography and
then you went on to conceptual photography?
LC: Reportage, fashion, nudes and landscapes are all beautiful
examples of how you can move forward in collecting photography.
After that I started to collect more abstract photography. One of
my last purchases is a Joseph Sudek: ‘a still life of a glass’. It is so
much different than when you look at a picture of Doisneau or
ME: Do you consider yourself as an authentic vintage collector?
LC: I think I am a very authentic art collector. Vintage? I definitely
go for vintage. I am not that much into contemporary photography
neither into contemporary art and I don’t think I will ever be, for
various reasons.
ME: How would you describe contemporary photography?
Where does it start and where does it end?
LC: It started in the early 1900s and it can end today. Even now in
the era of the digital camera.
Everything depends on the idea of the person who takes the picture. Look at your
photographs, they have never appeared to me as contemporary. Look at the
definition of contemporary. Most pictures are more or less 50 years old, so therefore
named as contemporary. But the definition, at least my definition of contemporary,
doesn’t appear in my collection at all. To me the definition of contemporary should
be changed. I would rather call it ‘actual art’.
ME: I don’t see a lot of color photography in your collection. Why?
LC: Color photography is too ‘definite’ for me. Maybe too ‘actual’? (laughs).
ME: Why did you start collecting primitive African art?
LC: I have always loved Africa and African primitive art. So it was just a matter of
time. My latest purchase of primitive African art are pieces that I really like a lot: a
Songey mask and a Songey statue from Congo ( XIX century).
ME: Is there also an interest for collecting contemporary African art?
LC: Never say never……
ME: What do you enjoy more, the hunt or the pleasure of owning the art works?
LC: It is definitely the search for the object and the kick of knowing that it can
be yours. That doesn’t mean that once you own it, your purchase becomes as
achieving a trophée. Not at all. I look at it, and when I buy it, I will enjoy watching
it every single day.
ME: What are you looking for when you want to buy a work of art?
LC: There is always a sense of belonging and definitely a sense of aesthetics.
This was like a leitmotiv when I collected my art pieces. Yesterday they came to
present an art piece to me. They wanted to put the right light on it, and then they
were looking for the perfect spot. I said: “I don’t care about the light or the perfect
spot! Let me have a look at the piece itself”. And if I like the piece I will buy the
piece. I don’t buy the piece because there is a nice light on it.
ME: What do you mean by ‘the sense of belonging’?
LC: You feel attracted to a work of art as if there is a connection between you
and the piece. Some pieces are amazing. But for some reason you don’t have any
connection with it. So you don’t buy it.
ME: Most collectors have a problem where to stock their art, how about you?
LC: I am not at that stage yet. I’m quite lucky to own a few places where I can
manage that. You know, actually that is another point which is not important to me.
Where do you keep the items? The most important thing is to know that you own
it and therefore it can be placed somewhere in a closet, in a drawer, in an office or
at any other place where you seldom come, as long as you know that it is there for
you. Whenever you feel for it you just go and get it.
ME: Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility towards the artists whose work
you collect and also towards art in general?
LC: Yes, to primitive art of course, because it is about looking after ‘heritage’. Day
by day pieces will disappear and every year pieces will get damaged. To answer your
first question; I always have a deep respect for the person who produces art. I am
not constantly thinking about the artist who made it but about the craftsmanship,
the knowledge, the eye, all the effort and the artistic skill.
ME: Who are your favorite photographers?
LC: I like your work a lot. Also Josef Sudek, Helmut Newton, Alberto Garcia
Alix, Andre Kertesz and Marc Trivier, a Belgium photographer. His work is very
consistent and there is a very clear message. You can recognize his pictures instantly.
Same goes for the other names I just mentioned before, except perhaps for Sudek
who one could confuse with other eastern European photographers.
ME: When you visited me in 1997 in New York you bought a photograph of Peter
Beard. I don’t see it anymore, how come?
LC: ‘The wastelands’… I had to sell that picture when I was building my own
waste-land. (laughs) It was an interesting move because collecting is a complete
other thing than selling. I think that any collector one day will have to sell or will
sell in order to improve his collection. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like the
piece anymore, it just means that he wants to move on to the next level. If you
would ask me if I still want to own ‘The wastelands’, definitely! And I would buy
another Peter Beard if the occasion arises, for sure. I have sold ‘Breasts’ by Robert
Mapplethorpe, who I think is an amazing photographer. I also sold a very small
still life from Thomas Ruff. Actually I needed some cash flow to accomplish the
rebuilding of my house. But I always have looked at it from the positive side. The
practical side was that I needed the money. The positive side was the confrontation
to sell. I have been collecting for all these years but was I capable to sell? And I
never thought about it and I still don’t think about it, but it is good to know that
you might have a return. I see it as a very good barometer, so to speak.
ME: Do you have any regrets with some pieces you have bought?
LC: No, but in a collection you will always have your favorites.
ME: Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now as an art collector?
LC: I think I will still collect art, but honestly….I don’t know.
ME: What advise do you have for new art collectors?
LC: Only buy what YOU really like. Do whatever you want, just follow your
ME: What do you think about the art world and art dealers in general? As an art
collector, do you look at it in a different perspective?
LC: Very much so. Someone once told me that the biggest art in the world is the art
of making money. That made me very suspicious towards the art world. Nowadays
contemporary art is too much related to money. I mean, we are all in business and
we all want to make a living, but sometimes I have my doubts about the honesty of
some people in this business.
ME: You just mentioned ‘suspicious about’, but in what way do you mean that?
LC: In the way that Art is run like a business.
ME: You mean artists like Damien Hirst, for example?
LC: I am not going to say any names here.
ME: Well, I like to hear some names.
LC: Ok then, lets talk about Damien Hirst. Because of the big financial crisis in
2008 he fired half of his staff. He felt he needed to produce less. Now, when I would
be an artist, I only want to produce art. So if you reduce your production because
of a financial crisis, then what are you? I mean, are you a fine businessman? Or are
you a great artist?
ME: I would like to go back with you to your affection for the primitive arts.
LC: Probably the reason why I adore primitive art in connection with photography
is because in those days art was completely unspoiled. The primitive art wasn’t
considered as an art until early 20th century. The same happened with photography.
Both expressions came out of craftsmanship and honesty, but definitely not because
of money which is today’s big thing.
ME: Is there still craftsmanship to be found in art and photography among the
new generation of young artists?
LC: Yes, you do find it, but it is true that people hide themselves behind
something more conceptual these days.
ME: Isabelle Maeght once told me, whether it is conceptual or not, you can see
when something is good or not.
LC: That’s what I was about to say. When Calder came with his first mobile how
was that conceived by the audience? As conceptual? As you said before, everything
has been basically done, so what are we going to re-invent? There are some great
artists who were not afraid to be inspired by other artists. Like for instance Robert
Mapplethorpe by a Man Ray picture. He even refers to Man Ray in his work.
Is that a problem? I miss nowadays that young artists refer to the history of art.
Maybe they miss culture.